Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Arithmophobia (Fear of Math): My Thoughts

I’ve been a high school math teacher for 11 years now, and I’ve also been tutoring students privately for even longer than that. Consequently I’ve seen the whole spectrum of math students. Everything from the freakishly gifted to the astonishingly weak, For the most part I think this is fine. Some people are wired for certain things and some are not. I am not wired to be a sprinter. I could train my butt off for years and still not qualify for a track team. I’ve made peace with that.

What I don’t think is fine however, is the growing number of math-phobic students I am seeing. Students whose deep fear of math is so intense that it is almost impossible to determine where their strengths and weaknesses in the subject are. To understand what I mean think of a person who suffers from stage fright so severely that every time they sing in front of even a small group of people their throat closes up and all they can manage is a pathetic croak. Anyone listening would conclude this person is a terrible singer. Yet it may not be true. The neurosis camouflages the talent and it’s impossible to know what the person’s singing ability really is. What makes it worse is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the cause of poor performance. After all, some people just can’t sing.

In math these students whose fear interferes with their performance very often conclude that they have no ability in the subject, which further feeds the phobia. A seriously vicious cycle that is difficult to break, even after it’s been recognized. So my question as of late has been, what’s causing the increase in math-phobic students?

I don’t have research to back my conclusions. It’s all purely anecdotal. However these observations have been made from the trenches. I see these students every day, in a classroom setting and one-on-one, for over 11 years. Here are my thoughts.

Poor Evaluation Criteria
More and more I am becoming convinced that this may be one of the single biggest causes of arithmophobia. I am talking about the alarming tendency for students’ grades to not reflect their ability, due to poor evaluation criteria. I’ll give you an example.

A simple linear equation to solve.

A simple linear equation to solve.

here is one student’s work, graded:
A flawed solution to the simple equation.

A flawed solution to the simple equation.

and here is another student’s work, also graded:

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The first student received a mark of 2/3, which rounds to 67%. What are we to take from this? Imagine the student coming home with a report card that says 67% in math. What would the parents conclude? What would an independent observer (like a university) conclude about a grade of 67% in math? The easiest and most likely answer is that this is a student who grasps roughly 67% of the concepts covered in math. With respect to this question and the topic it tests, it means the student grasps only 67% of the concept of solving linear equations. Now based on their work, do you believe that is a true assessment? What would we have this student believe? It’s disturbing to say the least.

But significantly more disturbing is the grade of 0/3 assigned to the second student. This student answered the question correctly, however the traditional approach is to assign one mark per step in the question, and since the student did not show any of the expected work, he lost all marks. Now he has 0%. What would that say to parents and universities? Most disturbingly, what does it say to the child?

Stop and ask yourself what it means to solve an equation. The above equation, translated to English, states that

“There is a number which is multiplied by 4 and then the product is reduced by 3, for a result of 29.”

The instruction “Solve for x” means

“Tell me what the number is.”

Student 2 has successfully done just that. Period. End of discussion. Not only has he correctly answered the question, but in doing so has demonstrated that he understands the question and has the higher level thinking skills to answer it without employing any traditional algorithms. And we work in an educational system which has evolved to tell this student that he is so bad at math he gets a zero. Shame on us. Shame on us all.

So what happens to this student? Well from my experience he either dismisses the subject as “a stupid bunch of rules” (and who can blame him? When the answer is so obvious what value is there in writing down a bunch of steps that do nothing more than add tedium?), or he “learns” that to be good at math you have to suppress your instincts and replace them with the all-important STEPS. And let me tell you something. By the time you get to senior math in high school, there are a lot of steps! There’s no way most of us – myself very much included – could memorize all those steps, know precisely when to apply them, and do so with complete accuracy and precision every time.

Enter fear.

Imagine for a second you are a dog. A puppy. You mean no harm to anyone and in fact are a bouncing bundle of happiness and joy. Unfortunately you have an owner who has anger issues. You’ve discovered that your owner hates it when there is pee on the carpet in the house. The reason you know this is because every time he discovers any he loses his temper and yells. So in order to help, you begin peeing in hiding places around the house. To a dog this makes a lot of sense and is very considerate. Unfortunately all this does is make your owner even more angry, to the point where he smacks you every time he discovers the hidden pee. Result? You are now afraid of the owner, and afraid of peeing. Nothing productive comes of this because despite your best efforts, and despite the fact that you are doing what you think is right, you are still getting in trouble. That is a recipe for fear. And that is what happens to students who do what they think/know is right, but get rewarded with marks like 0/3 for their efforts. How can a person continue with a positive attitude under those kinds of circumstances?

What also happens to a large number of students is that over the years, as they fail more and more to memorize the right “rules”, they become more and more disillusioned with themselves. The mathematics becomes totally obscured by the algorithms, to the point where students believe that the algorithms are the mathematics, and can hardly be convinced otherwise.

I tutor a student named Randy and she is in grade 7. Here is a question from a test she wrote recently.

Sam has answered the question “7 – 3 ½” with “4 ½”. Sam says this is because seven minus three is four, and then there’s an extra half to make four and a half. Is Sam correct? Explain.

Here is what Randy wrote:

Sam is not correct. To answer the question you have to convert 7 and 3 ½ to improper fractions, then subtract the numerators, then convert your answer back to a mixed number. This is what Sam should have done:
7 – 3 ½ = 14/2 – 7/2
= 7/2
= 3 ½
So the correct answer is 3 ½

For this answer Randy received a “2+” which is a mark out of 4, with these comments from the teacher: “What was wrong with Sam’s thinking? How could he modify his strategy so that it would work? Expand on your answer.”

Hmmmmmmm. My thoughts as a teacher were immediately “Those comments would have made good questions for students to answer on the test instead of criticisms of Randy’s answer”. In any case let’s have a look at how this result impacted Randy.

So marks out of 4 like this one can be roughly converted to percentages, which they ultimately will be for reporting purposes. A mark of “2+” converts to around 65%-70%. I implore you, dear reader, to tell me just exactly how Randy has shown her capabilities in subtracting mixed numbers from whole numbers to be 30% less than perfect. The message to Randy?

Because you were unable to extrapolate from the word “explain” that I, your teacher, was expecting you to delve into the mind of a person who, unlike yourself, can not subtract mixed numbers from whole numbers, I conclude that you, Randy are a mediocre math student, at best. Despite the fact that the question was in two parts (“Is Sam correct?” and “Explain”), and that you addressed both correctly, you should have known that what I was really looking for was for you to help Sam understand why his thinking was wrong, despite the fact that it did not say this anywhere in the question and despite the fact that Sam is a fictitious person. Please work harder from now on so that you may become a better math student.

Randy was in tears over her results. She said she was sure she understood the material going into the test but she’s just bad at math and she hates it and she is never going to be good at it. It took quite an effort on my part to show Randy that she completely and perfectly understands subtraction of mixed numbers from whole numbers and that the real flaw is the question. I’m not sure she is totally convinced and her grade in math will certainly not reflect what I know to be true so it will be a difficult pill for her to swallow. Randy is developing a serious case of arithmophobia based on experiences like this. She is not wired to “know what the teacher means”. She reads instructions and takes them literally, and then answers them as best she can, usually correctly. But since there is more wrapped up in the evaluation criteria than is revealed in the question itself, Randy is rewarded for her efforts with marks like “2+”. To her this makes math incomprehensible, and who can blame her? To her math is now a mysterious subject with weird expectations that you have to “just know”, and what hope does she have of being able to do that?

So what can we do? The answer is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement in today’s education environment:

Let’s start teaching MATH again. And when we grade a student’s work let’s stop comparing what they did to some sort of “template of perfection” and instead evaluate what the work we see says about the student’s fundamental understanding of the mathematical concepts. Solving an equation means finding the values of the variable that make the equation true. The fact that we have algorithms for solving equations is wonderful and essential for very difficult equations, but let’s not punish students who are able to understand and solve without the algorithm! Let’s celebrate those students because they are the ones who really get it. The algorithms can be introduced and reinforced later when the equations get harder, but it serves no purpose to tell a student like that they are bad at math, for they are truly not. And for students like Randy? Let’s throw away the rubrics and fancy words and assess what their work tells us about their abilities. If we want Randy to extend her knowledge to be able to help Sam modify his strategy so that it will work let’s help her with that, but there is very little value in tying her grade in math to that ability, unless that ability is very specifically what we are trying to teach and assess, in which case we need to ask ultimately how much is that worth and how should it be reflected in the grade that she will use to determine her performance?

Arithmophobia is real and it is getting worse each year. We must change what we are doing if we want to reverse the trend.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

What the Gym Has Done For Me

Growing up I had a lot of strengths for sure. I did pretty well in school, had a good sense of humour, a loving family and was always blessed with good close friends. But one thing was definitely not a strength: athletics. There was never a team sport where I didn’t get picked last and I certainly never cut that dashing athletic figure that some kids seemed to me to have been born with.

(BIG side note here – the large majority of adults you see that have that dashing athletic physique were NOT born with it … but I learned that little tidbit much later)

As a young child I was sick with asthma, and so I was always very thin. When I hit puberty and my body started demanding more food I began to fill out, but not in any good way. I just got fat. And as I got older it got worse. When my son was a baby in the late 90′s I couldn’t carry him upstairs to his change table to change his diaper without stopping to catch my breath. I have a vivid picture embedded in my mind of him lying on the change table in a dirty diaper and me standing over him huffing and waiting to catch my breath before I could change his diaper. All from carrying a 15 lb baby up a flight of stairs.

I won’t bore you with too many more details. I just wanted to paint a picture of who I was – a smart, funny, happy, fat guy. I experimented with different diets with varying degrees of success. One which I did fairly well with was The Zone diet, which took me from a size 40 waist to a size 32. And that was the beginning of my interest in the gym.

At first, my goals were all about looks. After losing all the weight on The Zone I found I was just skinny. I wanted pecs, shoulders, and abs. I joined a little gym near my house and applied the same dedication to working out that I had applied to adhering to the diet. The owner was a former competitive bodybuilder and a bodybuilding judge at the time. I knew nothing about working out and I was happy to let him design workouts for me. With his background he naturally designed workouts with bodybuilding in mind. Being a tech nerd I typed them into excel and shrank it down so I could tape it to the inside of my logbook. It’s still there though I’ve long since moved on to other plans.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I'd know what to do.

These are the workouts the owner designed for me. I taped them to the inside of my journal so I’d know what to do.

I remember asking him how long it would take for me to actually see results. He said about 3-4 months. Great! I put my nose to the grindstone and did everything he said, and marked it on the calendar. I still have the log book I used when I started.

I did not see results after 3-4 months.

Now that’s not because the gym owner was lying. Most people should see results after that length of time. But I learned that my body is not “most people”. And that revelation may be the single most important thing the gym has done for me. I did not give up. I knew I was working hard and although maybe the mirror didn’t show much of anything, I was enjoying the workouts and loving the feeling of pushing myself past limits. Here are some entries from the very front of my logbook:

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar - I didn't know how much it weighed. Seriously!

Here are some log entries from my first workouts. Back then I did not include the weight of the bar – I didn’t know how much it weighed. Seriously!

If you’re having trouble deciphering my handwriting join the club. My students love it. Here’s what it says (I’ll add the weight of the bar in, now that I have that capability)

Deadlift: 95 X 5, 115 X 5, 135 X 5
Leg Press: 90 X 8, 180 X 8, 270 X 8, 320 X 6
Close Grip Bench Press: 65 X 8, 95 X 8, 95 X 7, 95 X 6
Squats: 115 X 12
Bench Press: 95 X 8, 115 X 6, 155 X 8
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 40 X 5, 40 X 5, 45 X 5

These were big lifts for me, although looking at other lifters I knew they weren’t big lifts. I had to make a choice pretty quickly: keep comparing myself to others, let the depression set in and give up, or compete with myself and celebrate my victories. It wasn’t an obvious choice, despite what all the self-help and life coaches will tell you. I had gotten through life to that point without being a lifter and I could certainly rejoin the masses and be happy and healthy. Maybe take up running.

But that was not the choice I made. I wanted to get better. I had to get better. Better and best are two very different words. Better is a journey. Best is a destination. And since living is a journey, I’ve always chosen better. I don’t need to be the best, though I can’t say I mind when it happens. But I always need to be better. I despise stagnation. So I accepted that my body is mine, and I kept at it. I also took lots of progress pics, for which I am very grateful. Here is a comparison of just before I started lifting to how I looked 3 years later:

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

The difference 3 years of dedicated lifting and good eating made to my physique.

There are changes, but they’re not drastic. If we are being honest most of the difference between the two pictures is how I’m standing and the fact that I shaved my little patch of fur. However there is some delt and tricep development noticeable, although it’s very slight.

I’ve been immersed in the lifting culture for 13 years now. I know that some the people reading this are thinking Dude, if that’s all 3 years got you then you were not doing it right. But here’s the thing, and you can take it or leave it. I was “doing it right”. I was lifting consistently 5 days a week, improving my lifts constantly, eating 5-7 meals a day, making sure to eat 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and all those other things one is “supposed” to do. And that’s what I got. Because that is my body. It resists change. But it changes.

Fast forward to today. I’ve had lots of victories and lots of defeats. I’ve been injured a few times, had my motivation ebb and flow, and of course I’m 13 years older. I’ve changed careers, pursued passions and experienced lots of joys and sadness. But this whole time I have been a lifter. And here are some lessons I’ve learned. I like lists so I’ll give you my thoughts in list form.

  • Compete with yourself
    In all areas of my life, I never compete with others anymore. I always compete with myself. When I do something I’ve done before, I always work my hardest to make sure I do it better. Whether it’s academics (I just completed a Masters degree), my career (every time I teach a lesson I use what I learned from previous ones to make it better), my singing, or pretty much anything. I don’t always beat the old me, but I always try to. And when I fail, I learn.
  • Think long term
    It’s very easy to get bogged down in daily routine and get stuck in status quo. But each day should be about advancing yourself in some small way. Make a plan. Stick to the plan. You may not see changes or progress from one day to the next but if your plan is solid you will see progress in the long run. Never forget your plan. When you suffer setbacks acknowledge them as setbacks. There are peaks and valleys but if you zoom out you will see the steady rise.
  • Don’t set artificial boundaries
    You can always decide that you are fated to remain a certain way. But what a shame that is. Always aim high. If you set boundaries on what you can do you’ll live within them. It’s not necessary.

All of these things are things I learned in the gym, and apply to my life. They are not the result of a seminar I went to (or a blog I read…), they are the result of my results in the gym, so I don’t have to convince myself to believe them because I live them. I am so grateful for this.

So now, although I certainly don’t complain about changes to my physique and I do want them, I don’t lift for looks. I stopped lifting for looks a very, very long time ago. I lift because of what it teaches me and how it affects my mindset in life.

Oh, I almost forgot (no I didn’t! ;)). Planning long-term and acting on that plan works. It’s the zoom-out that proves it. After 13 years of lifting, I can zoom out a bit. I have gotten results in my lifts and my physique! Incremental at the time, they sure do add up.

Here are some updated lifts from workouts over the last few months. For most I chose lifts I have video of:

Deadlift: 405 X 4 (here’s video)
Leg Press: 900 X 10 (I don’t have video of this)
Close Grip Bench Press: 265 X 5 (here’s video)
Squats: 365 X 4 (here’s video)
Bench Press: 295 X 4, 315 X 1 (here’s video of the 315 X 1, it’s a personal best)
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 140 X 5 (here’s video)

And here’s a progress comparison picture after 10 years of lifting:

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

What 10 years of lifting has done for my body.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Death of the Mistake

(Disclaimer: NOT ALL PARENTS are guilty of what I describe in this blog, so please don’t take it personally. But many are. Far too many.)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I imagine you have too. Some of mine are pretty indelible for me.

Like the time my friend and I were playing with fire (literally) and almost burned down a hotel. We were scared to death and actually grateful we got caught.

Like the time I decided I could get through that intersection before the car coming from the left got there. Result? One totaled car that wasn’t even mine. It was my girlfriend’s car.

Like the time I thought I could get away without studying for my final exam in STAT 331 and still scrape a credit in the course. I earned a 42. I asked the prof to remark the exam which he did. The mark went down.

I didn’t like any of these or the countless others when they happened. Actually they felt pretty miserable. Yet each one has had an impact on decisions I made later in life and each one of those failures thus resulted in bigger successes. This is not a revolutionary concept. The phrase “we learn from our mistakes” is not new. But have you ever considered exactly how true it is? We aren’t born with an abundance of knowledge. In fact we are born with almost none. We know how to do things like breathe and cry and fill diapers, but we can’t even control those actions much. At first, all the knowledge we accrue comes from our innate curiosity and willingness to take risks. What’s funny is that as babies we don’t even know we are risking anything. We’re just really curious. Watch all the stuff a baby is willing to put in his mouth. You’ll know exactly what I mean. So babies try things and sometimes the result is pleasant or satisfying and other times its not. Each experience whether success or failure goes into the data bank and both guides subsequent experiments and imbues us with confidence regarding our ability to reproduce successes. In this way it is completely correct to categorize both “success” and “failure” as positive outcomes. And yet we have attached so much negativity to the word failure that it has become a thing to be reviled and feared … avoided at all costs. Which is a true tragedy, because success in the absence of failure is yin without yang.

As time passes the culture we grow up in imposes a formalized education, mainly because there is value placed on certain nuggets of knowledge. This happens in the form of school. And that’s where I come in.

Sort of. I teach high school so I guess I come in about 10 years later. After 10 years of a system which has sadly killed the mistake. Kids are no longer encouraged or allowed to experiment. They have to “get it right” the first time. Many parents spend insane amounts of energy making sure their children never experience failure, defeat or mistakes. A friend of mine calls this phenomenon “the snowplow parenting” model. The parents walk ahead of the child, plowing all obstacles out of the way, frantically making sure that no failure is ever experienced. As the child grows and the potential obstacles increase, parents run themselves ragged continuing to pave a smooth way. The effect this has on the kids is incredibly frightening. The child grows up not ever really experiencing a failure, but watching parents become more and more neurotic making sure this “failure monster” never has a chance to get near their kid. It’s a doubly-bad edged sword. First, no failure is ever experienced so there is no chance for the best kind of learning and second, the children pick up on this deep fear of failure and when they find themselves faced with the potential for a mistake they freeze in terror at the possibility. In short, they are simply not equipped to deal with anything but a smooth road, and lack the understanding and confidence that comes from having failed.

So what I see in my math class is kids who are petrified of assessment. I have seen kids cry when they earn a mark in the 90′s on a test. Worse, I’ve seen kids with marks in the 90′s crying when they come in to write a test because of how afraid they are that they might make a mistake. And I’ve had to defend marks to parents who insist to me not that their child earned a higher mark, but that their child needs the higher mark. In grade 9. A grade that no university or college even remotely cares about. A grade for which no scholarships are awarded. Yet the child needs the higher mark. Lest they experience failure.

This phenomenon may actually be the single biggest threat to our culture. Thanks to Snowplow Parents we are raising a generation of kids who have never had a chance to experiment and fail. Never a chance to pursue curiosity, which is the spark for innovation. So what we get is anxiety-ridden underperformers with huge self-esteem issues, fostered by parents who have made it clear that the child is not capable of fending for themselves and thus needs the parents’ involvement every step of the way.

Parents, please. Take a step back. Watch them do it themselves. Watch them fail and celebrate the failure. Mistakes are critical for evolution. Let’s bring them back. Let’s start the Mistake Revival.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Cell Phones and Independence

The other day my wife and I were doing some grocery shopping when her phone rang.

Side note: Before I continue with my post, I had to stop and read that first sentence over again. Read it again yourself. Now if you’re old enough, imagine it was 1988 and read it again. In 1988 language that sentence is pretty much a total non-sequitur. Today it is perfectly sensible. Funny how time-dependent the reasonableness of some assertions are.

Ok. So I was talking about my wife’s phone. She picked it up and saw that the call was coming from home. Conclusion – it’s one of the kids. She answered it of course. You don’t ignore calls from your kids who are home alone. Right? It was our 11-year old daughter on the phone. She was calling because our 15-year old son was on his computer Skyping (a verb that didn’t exist in 1988) with a friend and was unwilling to help her get something down from a tall shelf. He’s 6 feet tall, she’s 5’4 or so. In our house things on tall shelves are retrieved using my son or myself (I’m 5’11). In her mind, he was failing to uphold a sacred duty and as such, she was unable to continue with whatever plan she had that required the thing on the tall shelf. Crisis.

While my wife was dealing with the situation, I pulled out my phone to check Facebook. Naturally. I mean, you don’t just check Facebook while you’re on a grocery date with your wife but if she’s otherwise occupied go ahead, right? Of course. Everyone knows this. It’s smartphone etiquette 101 (try that one in 1988). So I pull out my phone and lo and behold, 2 missed calls from home. Guess I didn’t feel it vibrating over the hum of the freezer section while I was selecting a bag of frozen perogies (ok, that one works in 1988, but back up to 1903! Hmmm …). After my wife hung up, she noted 2 missed calls from home on her phone as well.

In case you’re wondering, the solution she offered was for my daughter to climb up on the counter and get the thing on the tall shelf, which is precisely what happened and everyone survived.

So my first instinct was to be mildly irritated that my daughter would need to bother us in the middle of a romantic stroll through the produce section with this issue. There was a simple solution and there’s really no reason why she should not have just done it without 5 phone calls. I had a plan to go home and have a chat with her about independence. She’s 11 and old enough to know better. I was laying the blame for this admittedly minor situation completely at my daughter’s feet. Then I realized what you may realize already. It’s not her fault. It’s ours. But maybe not in the way that you would think.

See, my kids have grown up with cell phones as a thing. When my wife and I go out we are always reachable. Now if we were home and some similar crisis were to arise, one of us would resolve it as parents tend to do. We resolve a million little things every day without really thinking about it: “I can’t find my shirt”, “There’s a spider on the wall in the bathroom”, “The dog threw up on the carpet”,  … the list goes on. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction for a kid to notify/defer to a parent with these things. Then at some point we either realize the kid is old enough to handle it on their own and let them know, or preferably the kid realizes that on their own and we never even find out the crisis arose and was subsequently averted.

And you know what occurred to me? That as I was growing up, I most often realized it on my own. And you know what kind of situations made me realize it? Situations when there was no adult around. Situations that needed to be dealt with and my only option was to deal with them on my own. I didn’t always deal with them the same way my parents might have, and I didn’t always deal with them very well the first time around, but deal with them I did. Because if my parents were out of reach I had no other choice.

And that’s it right there. With cell phones we are a generation of parents that are never out of reach. Like never. So that same instinctive reaction to turn to a parent for help is easily satisfied even when the parent is not present. And as parents we don’t always think about it. It takes a second to say “climb up and get it yourself”. It seems like no crime has occurred. But it has. The child has been robbed of the opportunity to solve a problem independently. And those opportunities are critical. Critical.

I have lots of stories but I’ll tell you only one more. It happened a year ago during a parent-teacher interview. At the time the student was in the tenth grade. 15 years old. She was going downtown to meet someone to job shadow for the day since there was no school for her. During the interview with her parents she called twice. They took the call of course. How do you not take a call from your 15-year old daughter when you know she’s downtown alone? So what did she want? Well both times she wasn’t sure which direction to go. The first time was when she got off the subway and didn’t know which street exit to take. The second was when she got to the street and didn’t know which direction she wanted to go so she didn’t know which bus to wait for. She’s a very bright girl. I’ve taught her for two years in a row now. She could have figured it out. What’s more, if her dad had not answered the phone she would have figured it out. Because her only other choice would be to curl up in a fetal position on the subway platform and wait for doom. And I have to tell you, she would not have made that choice. The smart money is on her asking someone in the subway. Like someone who works there. Imagine such a thing.

So what am I saying? Throw away the cell phone? Stop taking calls from the kids? Buy a step-stool?

Actually, none of those things. Cell phones are good for a lot of things (and step-stools around my house just end up being something for me to bark my shin on). But like any tool they can be used for evil too. So here’s my proposition, and we’ve already told our kids about it. I don’t expect them (especially my daughter) to know right away which things they need to consult us on and which they don’t. Some are obvious. If a Mongolian horde is descending on the house then yeah, give us a call. If there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom then maybe that’s one they can field on their own. Somewhere between running to the laundry room (where we store the big Costco package of toilet paper) with your pants around your ankles and positioning soldiers on the parapets with cauldrons of hot oil lies a range of solutions, some of which need a consult and most of which do not. So I’ve told them to think before they call. If they’re not sure, call. But if my wife or I know they can handle it on their own our only response will be “Handle it on your own. Love you. See you later. The oil is under the sink.”

In this way I hope to speed up the independence-gaining process which really seems to have been delayed by years in the younger generations.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Les Miserables Movie … My Thoughts

First off, I must tell you I am a Les Mis purist, though not necessarily a fanatic. I’ve read the book. I’ve seen the play on stage three times and performed in it for two separate productions (though neither time a lead … curse you, more talented people!). I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since the late 1980′s, and can literally sing every word from beginning to end, thanks to the release of the Complete Symphonic Recording album in 1989. I am a fan of live theatre, a bigger fan of musical theatre and to me Les Mis is the pinnacle. It’s hard to imagine a musical production that could even come close.

What drew me in at first was the score, shortly followed by the story. I know I’m not alone. So when the movie was announced I was extremely excited about it, but also a little reserved – what if they blew it? It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood let me down. Clan of the Cave Bear comes to mind. Then the cast was announced, and I was pretty happy. I asked the same question everyone asks:

“Can Russell Crowe sing?” And received the answer everyone seems to give:

“Well, he has a band.”

As if being in a band automatically qualifies a person to sing. Perhaps these folks never heard Keith Richards croon?

In any event, I wasn’t really worried about Russell Crowe. I’m a big fan and could easily imagine Maximus as Javert. As for Wolverine … I mean Hugh Jackman, I was quite pleased. He’s one of those actors you just love to watch in different roles. From X-Men to hosting the Oscars, I figured he’d do just fine. No, for me the only person I was legitimately worried about was Sacha Baron Cohen, who I can only see as Borat, a movie I despised from about 10 minutes in, owing largely to the gigantically unfunny ego of Cohen. People told me not to worry though, and assured me that if I had seen Hugo (I have not) I would reconsider.

All in all though, I couldn’t wait. And when the trailers were released I watched and rewatched them, getting chills each time. When the long trailer with the actors talking about how it was to do a movie that was sung live was released I watched it and I got chills again, and when the 5 clips were released it was Chillzville once more.

Because all my friends know I am such a fan, they all kept asking me if I’d seen the movie yet. Today was finally the day. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I won’t comment at all on the story. It needs no comment since the story and the score are the reasons for the huge success of the play.

To begin, I call it a success. The 2.5 hours or so seemed to fly by and if it weren’t for the old dude hacking up a lung next to me I would for the most part not have known I was in a theatre full of people. I was completely absorbed. It is well worth the watch and I will be seeing it again for sure. It had all the things I thought it would have, and more. When you consider that I know the story and the score so well, it was not like watching a normal movie for me. It was more like watching a best friend trying something new and exciting and rooting them on. And them kicking ass. But was it perfect? Not really. Then again, perfection is an ideal impossible to achieve by definition. Here are some detailed observations.

First off, if you’re a Les Mis purist like me, I advise you to do what I realized I had to do about 15 minutes in. Don’t expect a recycled version of the play. This is not Les Miserables, the play. It’s a movie. So forgive the inverted lyrics, the parts they removed, and the added songs. And don’t expect big belting Broadway voices in every song. You won’t get them. That’s not a bad thing, because you can still get those by watching the play, or the concert DVD’s or by listening to the soundtrack. It is what it is. A new movie about an old story. It does what movies can do that stage can’t. Like close-ups for example. Lots and lots of close-ups.

The director clearly made a decision that we should become deeply familiar with the complexion of each of the actors. There were so many close close-ups I think they must have saved money on sets in a lot of scenes because all they needed was about 25% of the screen since the rest was taken up by face. We get lots of great shots of Valjean’s drool and Marius’ freckles, not to mention lots and lots of yellow teeth. Except for the leads that is – they all had nice white teeth. Which leads to my next observation:

Beyond yellowed teeth, if there was makeup used I couldn’t see it. Well that’s not exactly true. There was lots of makeup used to make people look in character, dirty or bloody (or shitty – literally), but none to make people look better. And with all those close-ups this was clearly a choice made to lend realism and honesty to the film, which it did. It added to the emotion and also was refreshing.

Then there were the sets and backdrops. They were, to use a seriously overused word these days, Epic. I mean, the movie starts with the convicts hauling a freaking ship into drydock. Are you kidding me! Extremely powerful and sweeping. I did notice that the director has a slight love affair with the Dutch Angle, which to me is unnecessary and injects a bit of cheese into an otherwise visual home run — when Valjean confesses who he is to Marius the Dutch Angle is so severe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in My Cousin Vinny when Ralph Macchio is being interrogated by the sheriff. That aside though the choices for setting were amazing. Javert’s suicide is actually breathtaking. Both majestic and violent. As it should be.

The big scenes were almost all beyond what I expected. Special nod goes to Lovely Ladies and Do You Hear the People Sing, as well as to One Day More (although One Day More kind of makes itself good). I was not as happy with Master of the House as I hoped I would be. I actually thought the best part of that scene was the young Eponine, who is very cute and funny in all the right places.

All in all from a production standpoint it is almost perfect. Take away the Dutch Angles and you’re there, in my opinion. Not that anyone asked me! Nor are they likely to any time soon …

So how about the performances? Well, I’ll take a look one by one, starting with the strongest, and then in no particular order because I can’t really rank them after that. Everyone is so good.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine. My goodness she is brilliant. Her voice, her acting, her presence. I could find no flaw. I’ve heard better versions of I Dreamed a Dream maybe (Idina Menzel comes to mind), but I can’t imagine seeing a better version. She doesn’t just sing it, she becomes it. It is riveting. I would watch it again and again, if only just to take notes on how to take an audience in using more than just your voice in a song.

Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne. He’s Colm Wilkinson for heaven’s sake! He’s perfect just by being him. I smiled all the way through his performance and when he showed up at the end for the harmonies after Valjean dies (nice touch by the way), I was struck through with chills. Colm is my homie. If he ever met me, I’m sure he’d agree. Maybe he’d recognize me from the 4 times I’ve seen him in concert? Or maybe not …

Hugh Jackman as Valjean. I totally love Hugh. He’s like the perfect dude (and there was only one time when I thought I saw some adamantium poking out). That said, he is not perfect. He is really, really good, but there are parts where I was disappointed. Only a few, and maybe they are minor, but they are there. For example, he has a habit of throwing words away while singing as though he can’t bear to say them. It works once or twice, but he does it way too often. As for his singing, it is very good, but he makes some choices, especially in Bring Him Home, which don’t need to be made. I get that he is acting first, singing second, but honestly some of those songs are the acting, and Bring Him Home is one of them. I would have loved to hear a more pure falsetto, which I began to suspect maybe he didn’t have, until I did hear him use it at the end of the movie when Valjean is dying.

Russell Crowe as Javert. Poor Russell. He had a lot to live up to. Javert is my favourite role and the one I would most like to play (damn you, more talented people!). Did he live all the way up? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that he definitely commands attention, as Javert should. Maximus didn’t win the hearts of Rome by accident. No, in that while he does have a pretty pleasant voice, and most certainly can carry a tune, he either lacks the power or someone told him not to use it. Javert is not supposed to be tender. I actually laughed a bit because at the end of Stars and again at the end of Soliloquiy (Javert’s Suicide) when he’s meant to hit the most powerful notes, the camera pulls up and away at dramatic speed so that his voice trails off when it is supposed to crescendo. It’s like the director thought he could trick us into thinking that since we could still hear him from far away that he must have been singing pretty powerfully. Still, I rank the performance very high. It just would have been nice if Crowe sounded a bit more Javerty (which is officially a new adjective).

Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier. Okay. I’m sure many will disagree with me (my wife and son, to name two), but I was really let down with this one. Perhaps it is my prejudice, but I really think that while he has his moments, he is far too egotistical for the role. Thenardier is supposed to be over the top it’s true. But he’s supposed to be part of the story, not above it. There are times when I definitely feel like Cohen is grinning at the camera, if only with his eyes. I also wonder why, in a movie set in France, Thenardier is the only one with a French accent? We all know that in the play everyone strangely has British accents, and so it is in the movie (a Scot or two for good measure) … except for Thenardier. What’s up with that? It’s weird.

Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier. So, as much as Cohen let me down Carter delivered. Holy smokes is she good! She is subtle when needed, and crass when she should be. My only small criticism is that there are times I find her too pretty to be a Thenardier. They do what they can with the makeup for her to make her look bad, but it is hopeless. Every Mme Thenardier I’ve seen on stage (except my good friend Deena! Who also suffers from being too pretty …) has been made out to be awful. Carter is amazing but not awful. If that makes sense?

Eddie Redmayne as Marius. My wife said he sounds like Kermit the Frog when he sings. I hear what she means but I don’t mind. He does have a tendency to get a bit nasal but he can sing the hell out of me so who am I to criticize? He is very well cast and there are two moments where he is exceptional. One is Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, which to me is almost as gripping as I Dreamed a Dream. The other is when he says/sings “I’m doing everything all wrong” in A Heart Full of Love, which, although brief, to me fully captures Marius and Cosette.

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Not many people can play the role. The vocals are ridiculous. She handles them with perfect grace and on top of that delivers a great performance. One standout moment is when Marius tells her that Valjean is the one who saved Marius at the barricade. Her reaction mid song, especially on her face, is one of many “chills” moments.

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras. Again I refer you to my wife, who said “That Enjolras is very pretty.” It’s true. He is. But don’t hold that against him. He is a very effective Enjolras. Perhaps his voice could use more power, but really many songs are undersung in the movie so that may be a directive not of his choosing.

Samantha Barks as Eponine. This woman is unbelievable. She is the Eponine in the 25th anniversary Les Mis concert (opposite Nick Jonas’ Marius and she still is willing to associate herself with Les Mis so that says a lot), and she is possibly my favourite Eponine, though it’s an admittedly tough pack to choose from! She’s beautiful and tortured, as she should be. Her voice is perfect and she made the transition to the screen perfectly, holding her own with seasoned screen vets like Jackman and Crowe. She also has an impossibly narrow waist. In one scene I was sure I could touch my thumb and forefinger around her belt. Her On My Own is probably the most true to Broadway piece in the movie, but does not suffer at all in it’s being well acted for all that. And when she gets shot and dies in Little Fall of Rain … I may have teared up. But only a little.

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Oh my god how cute is this kid! I loved him. He is the best Gavroche I’ve seen (apologies to my friends Michelle and Lisa). I only wish they’d let him sing Little People – even the reduced version. But alas that probably lies somewhere on the cutting floor. Too bad. He’d have killed it.

As for the rest of the cast, they are fantastic. Special nod to the foreman, who is deliciously slimy, and to the lady in the factory who ratted Fantine out, who is spectacularly vile.

So to sum it up I’ll say that it’s going to be a classic. Multiple nods at the Oscars no doubt, and a win for Anne Hathaway for sure. If you love the play, have no fear. If you’ve never seen the play, enjoy, and bring kleenex!

I welcome your comments. I am sure people disagree with some of my thoughts.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Parenting From the Bow

I have two kids, and it is definitely true that along with my wife, there is nothing in this world more important to me than them. At the time of writing, my son is 15 and my daughter is 11. So between my wife and I we have a total of 26 child-years of parenting experience (plus 4 dog-years and 9 budgie-years). This hardly qualifies me as an authority on the subject, but I do think about the responsibilities of parenthood in general and fatherhood specifically quite often, and I thought I’d put some of my thoughts into pixels today. I will borrow a little from the speech I made at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and I will also use some quotes from an early twentieth-century philosopher named Kahlil Gibran as the springboard for my take on things. As it turns out, Gibran and I agree on very many things when it comes to kids.

Children are the mirror to your soul.
~ Kahlil Gibran

That sentiment is the simplest way I can express what my children mean to me. When I look in a mirror, I see my face. When I look at my children, I see my soul.

When my wife Marla and I discovered we were going to have our first child, we started doing what I imagine just about every couple does at that time. We started planning how we were going to make our child into the most perfect human the world has seen. We were going to make sure he was the smartest, most charismatic, most athletic, and most well-rounded person imaginable. We were going to mold him into a superstar. We read all the books, watched all the videos, and attended all the seminars. We bought all the best stuff. We were ready.

Then he was born. And then we learned how it really works.

The truth is, you don’t get to tell your children who they are going to be. That’s not at all what raising a child is. It turns out that what raising a child is really about is paying attention as they tell you who they already are. And if you’re wise, and lucky, you find out that who they are is the exact kind of person you love to know, and to be around. And that’s exactly who my children are. They are the best parts of myself, and of Marla, and a good dose of all those who came before us in the ancestral tree. They are the soul of all of us.

Before our son was born, Marla and I thought we could make him into the perfect person, but we were wrong. He’s not the perfect person. He’s better than that. He is the perfect him. And our daughter, who could not be more different than our son? You guessed it — she is the perfect her.

As a teacher I am fortunate to work with kids all the time. I spend a large part of my days with other people’s children, and it is absolutely the best part of my job. When people find out I teach high school they always ask me what I teach, and my response is always “kids”. They laugh as though it’s a joke but it’s really not. Because while I love math, and that is my subject area, teaching any subject in high school is really about helping kids grow into adults. So I really pay attention to my students, because I find I have so much to learn from them about who they are, and then I in turn can help them grow into the best version of themselves possible.

Of course I know that it is their parents who are primarily responsible for that, and a lot of what I have learned about parenting comes from looking at my students and then looking at their parents. And I can tell you this with 100% certainty: The students I have taught with the highest self-esteem and who are the most comfortable with who they are are the ones whose parents allow them to be who they are. Conversely the ones with the most issues regarding self-worth and academic performance are the ones whose parents are working extremely hard to turn them into something they are not. Imagine growing up in an environment where your most loved and trusted people — your parents — are constantly working to steer you away from who you are and what you want. As a math teacher, I see it most commonly in kids who are being forced to stay in the maths and sciences because their parents have decided that there is no future in the arts. However it goes beyond that. There are parents who seem determined to shape their kids into something different than what they are. It’s sad. As parents we need to see our children the way sculptors see their sculptures — as something that already exists in the rough, and our job is to help reveal that magic to the world.

Here’s another Gibran quote that I love:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Even if you are not religious the quote is wise. What Gibran is saying is that once a child is born, they are their own person. Children do not belong to anyone but themselves, and the future is theirs to make. Parents are the stable bow. We are the home base and the place our children come from, but the journey they are on, where they go in life, belongs entirely to them. We can guide and encourage, but we can not, nor should we, change the flight of the arrow once it is loosed from the bow.

When it comes to my children, Gibran was right. I don’t seek to make them like me. I strive to be like them.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

My Champagne Anniversary

So today is my 19th anniversary. December 19th. I never knew this was called the Champagne Anniversary but my wife told me the other day. Pretty cool. I’ve been married to my best friend for 19 years and we’ve been together for 26. I am so blessed I can’t even begin to express it. But I thought in honour of my wife and our anniversary I’d do a blog about marriage. Here it is.

A lot of people these days ask me how we’ve stayed married for so long. I usually tell them they should ask someone who’s been married for 40-50 years, since we are just babies in the marriage department really, but the other day someone asked and I took the question seriously. I think it boils down to three things really, Compatibility, Commitment and Communication.

(Side note: I actually just this moment thought of a way to say it using three things that start with the same letter — gosh darn I’m clever. Of course now I’ll Google it and find out it’s the oldest thing ever and feel suitably humbled again. Then again, maybe I won’t Google it just yet, and live under the impression I’m all that for a just a little while longer …)

So where were we? Oh yeah, “The Three C’s of Success” … wait … success actually only has to c’s … ah crap. This needs work … oh but wait, I was talking about my marriage. Allow me to continue then.

My wife Marla and I met in high school. She was my first real girlfriend and so she is the only girlfriend I’ve ever had. I therefore don’t have a ton of experience with women or with relationships. For this reason I generally feel unqualified to give relationship advice or judge the relationships of others, and that’s probably why I usually have a hard time talking about what makes a relationship or marriage successful. But then again, maybe that makes me uniquely qualified. I’ll let you be the judge.

First, let me tell you about why I fell in love with Marla. It’s simple. She saved me. I was an awkward, quiet, socially invisible teen. Marla didn’t care. She saw something in me and she wanted to be my friend. We spent hours and days talking about anything and everything, getting to know each other and she was never put off by my nerdy awkwardness. To this day I am not entirely sure why she was interested in me or why she still is, but I am eternally grateful. We learned through that early friendship that we are compatible (check it out – that’s the first “C”!) and the friendship grew into love. I was 17 and she was 16.

Laugh now, because what couple that age can have any clue about compatibility? And yet we were never presented with any reason to think we weren’t right for each other. It never occurred to either of us that there might be something better out there, or that we needed to play the field, even though I will say many of my friends believed their adolescence and early twenties were designed for nothing else, and never entered into any relationship believing it would last. I never understood that. What’s the point of starting a relationship you are convinced will end? Never got it, never will. So Marla and I were always committed to our relationship (the second “C” — are you keeping count?). Another thing that Marla taught me was that things need to be discussed. I grew up keeping quiet about feelings. I learned to deal with my emotions internally, and developed very strong rationalization skills. I wouldn’t say I swallowed my feelings, just that I always found ways to resolve issues by myself without really talking too much about it. Marla taught me to talk. It was like she opened a floodgate. I couldn’t believe there would be someone interested and caring enough to listen and absorb and respond. We talked about everything, and still do. Communication. The third “C”.

But so far all I’ve talked about is the beginning of our relationship, and that was 26 years ago. A lot has happened since then (2 kids and a mortgage to name a couple) and we are still together. How is that? Well … it’s the three “C”‘s. We never forget them.

Compatibility. We are immensely compatible. It doesn’t mean we like all the same things, or have similar personalities. In fact we are very different. But we fill the spaces for each other. I’m a big picture thinker – she’s a detail specialist. I am introverted – she loves to socialize at parties. When I go to the fridge to get milk for my cereal, I open the door and then forget why I’m standing there – she remembers every single person’s birthday. I love to make speeches in front of a large group – she hates presenting to more than one person at a time. The list goes on. At our core though, we share the same values about family, friendship and finances (Hey! The three “F”‘s … and don’t you go telling me there’s a fourth “F” … this is a family blog). Some people believe that there is one special person out there for you. Marla and I have never thought so. For me, the mathematics just don’t pan out. If there is only one right person out there, what are the chances you would meet them? What if the right person for you is a Nepalese goat herder? Nah. What I DO believe is that you have to be the right person. Find someone you are compatible with, someone you fall in love with, and then make yourself right — not by changing who you are but by being committed to the relationship. And there it is, the second “C”.

Commitment. Be committed to the relationship. There will be hard times. Some extremely so. Marla and I have had some fights let me tell you. But never … never during any one of those fights, has either of us considered that the fight wouldn’t end. We always know that we will work it out. It’s very hard sometimes to get there, and I won’t lie and say we always make up before the day is done, but I will say that we always make up. We know that we will even when the fight is at its worst. We are committed. And we know that even though it’s not always the best, as long as we are arguing we are communicating. See how I did that? The third “C”, and maybe the most important one.

Communication. Communicate always. I have learned that when one of us is feeling that there is something to keep to ourselves then that is probably the most important thing to talk about. Sometimes the reason you don’t want to bring something up is because you know there will be huge backlash. But I feel as though there is already backlash when you swallow what you want to say, because resentment builds. And then what happens is your partner senses the resentment but can’t pinpoint the cause, and the resentment is returned in a spiral of unproductive silence. So we always talk, even when it seems hard, and even when we know it will lead to an argument, because the argument can be resolved but only when both sides know there is an issue. Now of course communicating problems is not the only kind of communication, nor is it the most common. Not by a long shot. Marla and I spend a lot of time just talking. She tells me about her day and I tell her about mine. We listen actively — not just waiting until the other finishes talking so you can have a turn but respecting them by listening to what they are saying and digesting it. At any given moment Marla is the person I most want to be around, and she feels the same way. So we spend a lot of time just being together, enjoying each other’s company. And we communicate our love too. I tell her at least 70 times a day (OK, maybe less than 70 … but not much!) and so does she. I know some people feel they don’t have to say it because they show it, but it’s not true. You have to say it and show it. Say it when it occurs to you. I often just look at her, get happy because she exists, and then tell her that just happened. Communication. It’s the key “C”.

So that’s it. A blog dedicated to my wife, the love of my life, on our 19th anniversary. She is my best friend, she is my love, and she is my partner. I love her.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

A Short Lesson on Credit Cards

Many people who use credit cards understand how they work, but many don’t. I was teaching a class on this the other day and a student of mine pointed out that she thinks her parents don’t know about what I was teaching, and suggested I write an article. So I thought, why not? The math can get a little confusing, so I’ll avoid most of it and just give the answers. Keep in mind this is a lesson I do with high school students, so I ask your forgiveness in advance if you read the whole article and never encounter anything you didn’t already know.

First things first. If you pay your credit card balance in full before the due date each month, you win. You are not paying any interest at all. So for example if you bought something at the beginning of your credit card cycle for $1000, the bank actually lent you the money to buy it without charging any interest, meaning you have owned something for a month before you had to pay for it, and it was at the complete and total expense of the bank. Not bad. In fact, if you really want to be clever, you can buy a $5000 television, charge it to your credit card, go from the store to the bank and deposit $5000 into a one-month GIC, and when the credit card statement comes withdraw the $5000 from the GIC to pay the bill. The GIC will have earned interest for a month so in effect that bank will have paid you to watch their television for a month. Nobody does this really, but in theory there’s no reason why you could not. Pretty cool.

So for people paying their balance in full each month, more power to you! Especially if you have some sort of points earning system on your card, which I’ll get to shortly.

Now for those who do not pay the balance in full, a short lesson on what happens. First, I’ll explain what the banks do about the interest.

As I said before, when people pay the balance in full, interest is never charged. But that doesn’t mean it’s not calculated — it really means it’s forgiven. So a purchase made 20 days before the statement date does accrue 20 days of interest (accrue means interest is added on), but it’s forgiven if the balance is paid in full. On the other hand, if the balance is not paid, that 20 days of interest kicks in.

I’ll use an example showing a just a few purchases. Here goes.

Assumptions:

  • No balance at beginning of cycle
  • Credit card interest rate is 20% (most are slightly below this as I type, but not significantly so — contrast that with current prime lending rate in Canada which is 1%!)
  • Cycle runs from January 1st to February 1st
  • Minimum payment due to credit card company is 3% of the outstanding balance (this is normal).

Purchases:

  • January 1: $2500 on a 54-inch LCD 3D TV. Great deal post holiday.
  • January 5: $400 on 3D DVD’s. Turns out watching regular TV on a 3D TV is a tad boring.
  • January 7: $200 in snacks from Costco for the Avatar party you’re hosting at your place.
  • January 10: $50 for a new pair of 3D glasses — turns out you can’t drop them in a punch bowl and expect them to still work.
  • January 18: $300 for a new XBox 360 gaming system because you ran out of 3D movies to watch.
  • January 25: $200 for new games because it turns out the one your XBox came with kind of sucks.
  • January 31: $150 for cool Halo controller, with helmet.

For the record, you spent $3800 using your credit card. Now suppose the minimum payment is $114, which is 3% of your outstanding balance (this is normal), and that’s all you pay. The credit card company requires that you make this minimum payment to avoid penalties, but they don’t really explain about how you’ll be penalized anyway with interest.

Here’s what happens. Your balance the moment the $114 is received by the bank will not be reduced to $3800 — $114 = $3686 as you might expect. In fact what will happen is your balance will immediately have $66.49 in interest added to it.

So your actual new balance will be $3752.49.

But it gets worse. You see what happens is that all your purchases starting with the very first one were interest-forgiven until the moment you didn’t pay the full amount. At that point what the bank does is they subtract your payment from the earliest purchases (in this case from the $2500 TV purchase), then they convert the 20% interest to a daily rate, which works out to about 0.07% per day, and calculate interest on each purchase using the number of days since the purchase was made. And the clock keeps ticking, so that by the end of the next statement period, which would be March 1, another 28 days of interest accrues on the balances. That would be another $71.03 bringing your balance up to $3823.51, not including any purchases you make in February. And in case you didn’t notice, your $114 payment has been completely eaten up by interest after only 28 days, plus you now owe $23.51 more than you spent. That’s after only 1 month and having made a payment of $114!

It gets even worse, if you can believe it. The purchases you make in February will be interest forgiven until March 1, however because you have old purchases from January on your account now, any payments you make on March 1 are applied to those purchases first, starting with the oldest, and that means that your February purchases are that much harder to repay in full, which in turn means that they will start accruing interest the same way your January purchases did the moment they are not paid in full.

When you consider that on March 1 you have to pay for all your January purchases, plus an extra $23.51 before you even have a chance at paying for your February purchases, you can see how difficult this gets, and how quickly it can spiral out of control.

OK. So lesson number one is always pay your balance in full. It’s the most important lesson about credit cards. So important that if you can’t do it, you should not be using your credit card at all. You will quickly max out your credit limit and then lose the ability to use it for purchases, and simultaneously be saddled with huge interest charges that you’ll have to manage.

At this point many people say that credit cards are evil and they should not be used. “If you don’t have the money to pay for something don’t buy it” they say. “Always use cash” is the motto for these people. They make a lot of sense, but they are wrong. Further, not only are they wrong, they are for the most part overpaying for their purchases!

You’ll have to allow me to explain that part. It seems to make no sense at all.

So here’s the deal. When a merchant decides they want to accept credit cards as a form of payment, they need to get a merchant account. They’ll generally rent a terminal from the bank to process the transactions. They also pay a merchant fee to the bank for every transaction, generally 2%-4% of the sale price, which means that they earn less on purchases paid for by credit card than they do on purchases paid for in cash. At the end of a day of business the bank will deposit the total for the credit card transactions less the merchant fees into the account of the merchant. So it costs the merchant money to accept your credit card, which is money they will do their best to build in to the price of the goods and services they provide, to the extent that they can without overpricing.

For most merchants this is a cost of doing business and though they may not like it they accept it for what it is because many customers will shop elsewhere if they can’t pay by credit card. It’s also part of the reason why some stores offer a discount if you pay in cash. Sure cash is harder to trace, but beyond that a merchant can afford to sell a product for cash at a lower price and still make the same profit or even slightly more if the offered discount is less than the merchant fee. So there’s a slight over-payment when you pay full price in cash for something that you could have used a credit card for, but it’s not really fair to categorize it that way since if you pay with a credit card that over-payment disappears and in either case you have received a good or service for the same price. So that’s actually not what I mean when I say people who pay in cash are overpaying.

The over-payment I’m referring to actually has nothing to do with the merchant. It’s really the points on the credit card that you miss out on when you pay in cash. Most credit cards today have some sort of points system attached to them whereby you accumulate points through purchases and then redeem them for merchandise or travel. For example earlier this year I paid for a return flight to Kelowna, BC and 4 nights in a hotel all with points.

Stop and think about that. The airline didn’t give the trip away. They can’t afford to. The hotel didn’t rent the room for free for the same reason. Both the airline and the hotel were paid by Visa. But where did Visa get the money? Not from me — I pay my statement in full so I never pay interest, which means Visa pays for my stuff then I give them the money back at the end of the month so they break even. Aside from my annual fee of $60, Visa is not making profit directly from me. The answer to where they get the money is the interest of other credit card holders mostly, merchant fees and annual cardholder fees. That’s $60 annually from me.

So what? Well let’s say in a year I spend $100,000 on Visa on some list of goods and services, and someone else spends $100,000 in cash on the same list. At the end of the year my wife and I go to Vegas and stay at The Venetian, all on points, a trip which would cost around $3000 in airfare and hotel. Mr. Cash does the same, but pays cash. They have now spent about $103,000 or so, but I’m at $100,060 (remember to add my annual fee) and we’ve gotten the exact same stuff. If you think a little more about it, if I spent $100,000 on Visa then the merchants where I shopped paid 3%, or $3000 of that in merchant fees. There’s the money for the trip. But the important part is Mr. Cash spent $103,000, and I spent $100,060

See? The cash payer overpaid.

Of course, if you don’t pay your balance in full each month all bets are off. In that case you would be paying for my trip to Vegas. And nice as that is, I don’t expect you to do it.

The moral is, put everything you possibly can on a credit card with a points system. Pay all your bills with it. Buy a car with it! But always always always pay your balance in full (if you can’t pay your balance don’t buy the stuff). You’ll be surprised at the “free” things you get and none of those things would come to you if you pay in cash.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall

Today my blog is about one of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher, and specifically as a teacher of math. I’m going to start with a story about a kid I tutored for a while, many years ago.

When I was younger and just starting to realize I had a passion for math and for teaching, I firmly believed that anyone could understand math and be good at it. Some people took to it more readily than others, but I was certain that given enough time and effort, every single person could excel.

Then I met Lief (not his real name).

Lief came to me when he was in grade 6, and our first tutoring session was about math questions involving time. The question we worked on was something like “Harry leaves home at 12:05 pm and arrives at his destination at 1:30 pm the same day. How long did the trip take?”. Lief was really struggling with the question, but I knew that I could explain it in such a way that he would not only be able to determine the correct answer he would fully understand how we did it and be able to answer many more similar questions. As my students would say, I have mad skillz when it comes to explaining math.

Boy was I wrong. I spent an hour with Lief and I used all my powers of teaching and explaining to no avail. Strewn about us were diagrams, pictures of clocks, number lines, a watch and even part of a model Volkswagen Beetle (don’t ask me why, I don’t remember). Lief just could not understand what the question was asking and why the answer was 1 hour 25 minutes (see how I threw that in there so you’d know if you got it right? ;) ). I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Some people just aren’t wired for math. And that’s totally OK of course. Contrary to popular opinion, math is not a critical life skill. Aside from people like me I can’t think of a single person that needs to be able to complete the square of a quadratic function given in standard form in order to determine the coordinates of the vertex of the parabola. Proof? You most likely have no idea what in the world I was talking about there and I bet you do just fine. I know at least that you own some sort of electronic device capable of connecting you to the internet. That says something.

So why is this blog titled “Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall”? What am I talking about, you ask? Well you wouldn’t be the first to ask that. Allow me to explain.

Where I live in Ontario, Canada, students attend high school for four years — grades 9 through 12. During that time, in order to be awarded their high school diploma, they must successfully earn three credits in math. For most students, that means a grade 9, grade 10 and grade 11 credit, though some do grade 9, grade 10 and grade 12. It means that math is optional in grade 12, if all you want is a high school diploma. If you want a post-secondary education however, like college or university, you will most often need to take math in all four years of high school, and also be sure to choose the right math courses for your intended post-secondary program.

At each grade, there are choices of which math course to take. There are different paths and they don’t all lead to the same place. For example, a student who intends to study math or science at university will take what’s called “Academic” math in grades 9 and 10, then “University prep” math in grades 11 and 12. Conversely a student who intends to go to college to learn a trade will likely take “Applied” math in grades 9 and 10, then “College prep” math in grade 11 and maybe also in grade 12, depending on the requirements of the college program. Some students take what’s called “Essentials” math in grades 9 and 10, then “Workplace” math in either grade 11 or grade 12. These students are either not planning to attend a post-secondary institution or else are planning to go into a field that has nothing at all to do with math.

Phew! So that was kind of boring to read, right? But if you read it you may have noticed the glaring flaw in the system. A student must decide on a career path in grade 9. When they are 14 years old. Actually they have to pick their grade 9 courses when they are still in grade 8, so they and their parents have to make the call when the student is 13 years old. Who the heck knows what they want to do with their lives at the age of 13? When I was 13 I wanted to look at girls, play video games, eat steak as an afternoon snack and look at girls. And then look at girls. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As a matter of fact now, at 43, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life (except for the looking at women part — I still do that and am lucky to have a wife that is exceptionally fun to look at). But I do know that I am happy with what I’m doing right now. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But the key to my happiness is that I am doing something I am good at and that in turn makes me good at it. Read that last sentence a few times. It seems confusing but it isn’t. Try doing something you suck at for a long time. Keep telling yourself that you’ll get better if that makes it seem worthwhile. But I think you’ll find out that when you’re not good at something you are miserable doing it and then you are not good at it.

So how does this manifest in high school? Well it may seem obvious that since very few 13 year old kids have any clear idea about what they want to do when they finish high school — let alone as a career — that they choose the option that keeps all the doors open. In Ontario, that means that they will usually choose grade 9 academic math, because if they don’t they are closing the door to a post-secondary program that requires math. They do it again in grade 10, 11 and even in grade 12. I can not begin to count the number of students I have taught who have struggled mightily in math who then sign up for the hardest math course the following year because they don’t want to close doors. I’ll illustrate with an example. Good ol’ Hanz.

You might remember Hanz from “Steer With the Skid”. Hanz is a hard-working kid who does not have a lot of natural ability in math. By not a lot I mean he’s terrible at it. And please, before you object and say nobody who works hard can be terrible at something, look around. Some people are wired to be awesome at certain things and terrible at others. Some kids are born athletes, some are born artists, some are born mathematicians and some are born poets. You can improve your abilities in almost anything but that doesn’t mean you can excel in almost anything. Personally, as hard as I might have trained, I would never have been an Olympic sprinter. My legs are too short and I don’t have the reflexes. I’ve made peace with it.

So back to Hanz. Hanz doesn’t want to close doors, so he takes Calculus in grade 12. Currently in Ontario the course is actually called Calculus and Vectors. It’s the two hardest math topics in high school grouped together in one spectacular ride. Hanz has been miserable in math class ever since grade 9. He works hard, and puts in the time, but the most he can muster are grades in the 60′s, and it eats him up. His hard work is constantly rewarded with what he considers to be mediocre grades. He’s miserable because he’s convinced that he can’t be successful in life unless he’s successful in math and his definition of successful in math is marks in the 90′s, something he’s never been able to do. In trying so hard to keep a door open, Hanz has missed the fact that for him, there is no door marked “math”. He can’t see that if a program requires Calculus and he takes it and earns a 51% he won’t get in anyway. It’s a fruitless exercise. Yet every time I talk about this with Hanz or his dad Franz, they both insist that Hanz has to stay in Calculus so that he can keep his doors open. That’s when I shake my head and say “Sometimes, there is no door. Walk down the hall.”

See, if Hanz could recognize that there is no “math” door for him, he would be compelled to walk down the hall and see what other doors there are. If Hanz would spend more time in situations where he has natural strength, he’d know what those doors are and what lies beyond them, and he’d be so much happier. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to convince Hanz of this, and he spends all his energy working at something he was not wired for, spiraling further and further into self-loathing and often depression. I’ve seen it many times. I’m not exaggerating.

Now please, before you go off wondering how I can call myself a math teacher and be so willing to write kids off, understand that’s not what I am saying. I teach all levels of math. I am just as happy teaching someone like Hanz how to plan a family budget and the evils of credit card interest as I am teaching him how to take the derivative of a sinusoidal function that has been composed with the square of a logarithmic function in order to determine the instantaneous rate of change on the curve at the place where it intersects with a given exponential function. I work just as hard either way, and my reward is always Hanz’s success. It just pains me to see kids like Hanz convinced that they will end up “homeless under a bridge” (this is a saying my students have when they decide they are going nowhere in life) if they can’t do the derivative question. Honestly though, how many people can? And why on earth would most people need to? The derivative question is an exercise in abstract thought that is beautiful in its way, and critical for people going into a field where they have to solve high level math or science problems all the time, but it’s not the definition of intelligence or success.

Students like Hanz often ask me what courses they should choose when they are picking for the following year. I always say the same thing.

Me: “What are you good at?”

Student: “Well I’m good at <insert non-math or science discipline here> but that doesn’t get you anywhere so I need to take <insert completely inappropriate math or science course here>.”

Me: “Why would you take something that makes you so miserable?”

Student: “Because I need it to be successful. I need to keep my doors open.”

At that point I generally ask them how they intend to become successful in a field that requires them to be good at something that makes them miserable. They really never have an answer for that. Except for the door thing. My advice then is for them to take courses they enjoy, and that they excel in. Happy people who excel at what they do are always successful. Find one and ask them. You’ll see what I mean.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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