Things weren’t going well with my math placement test—things have never gone well for me on any math test. As I tried to solve 13 – 5, I lost track while counting on my fingers, and as I calculated 3,869 x 6, I couldn’t remember the rules for carrying numbers. I decided to enroll in a math prep course when I realized I was unable to help my then fourth-grade daughter with her math homework. For this Human Guinea Pig—a column that requires a willingness to debase myself—I planned to go back to where numbers and I parted ways, to see if I could learn enough math to keep ahead of my daughter for a few more years.
The placement test was to determine at what grade level my education would start. I took it at the Kumon Math and Reading Center in Bethesda, Md.—one of 26,000 such centers around the world at which more than 4 million children get after-school instruction. As this New York Times story makes clear, many American parents are sending their kids to Kumon because they are afraid the current math curriculum will produce idiots like me. My instructor, Lopa Shah, sat down next to me with my results. The red pencil marks that covered it, indicating wrong answers, were a remembrance of things not passed. Flunking math tests was such a regular part of my childhood that I have lived the rest of my life trying to avoid anything numerical. (I wouldn’t dream of doing my own taxes. I’ve never tried to balance my checkbook. I can barely make change.) There were 60 questions on this test, and I got 15 of them wrong, placing me at the 2A level. What grade was that? I asked Shah.
“That would be first grade,” she said in a neutral tone. I was in first grade during the Kennedy administration. I admired Shah’s restraint in not laughing at someone who had made no mathematical progress since then.
I have long nurtured a list of excuses for why I am so bad at math: I wasn’t breast-fed; my hometown’s water supply was full of lead; I was a victim of sexism. But these results forced me to consider that the real reason for my abysmal math skills might be that I was profoundly stupid. Yet even the stupid are supposed to be helped by the Kumon method. Founded 50 years ago by Toru Kumon, a Japanese math teacher, Kumon is not one-on-one tutoring, but a highly regimented system in which students progress by moving incrementally through increasingly advanced drills.
I was intrigued by trying mathematics Japanese-style. I found encouraging a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that pointed out that while more men score very high on math in the United States, in Japan the sexes do equally well. Then there was the Brookings Institution study of international math achievement, which found that the U.S. ethic of trying to make math relevant, as opposed to the Japanese ethic of just getting math right, meant the Japanese swamped us in world rankings.
As Shah explained, Kumon was no quick fix. I originally hoped that if I took a crash course in math instruction, I might get to high-school level in a few months. But since I was starting at first grade, the actuarial tables were against my ever reaching this goal. My new plan was simply to know more math than my daughter. I agreed to make a commitment to spend five months doing Kumon, at a cost of $100 a month. By then my daughter would have started fifth grade, and I should have reached the sixth-grade level.
To get there I needed to do daily drills. I would start by doing 400 Level A problems a day. Level A covered addition and subtraction for numbers up to 200. All the repetition should get me quickly past first grade. “When you see the numbers again and again, that should help you stop using your fingers, although I can’t guarantee that at your age,” Shah said.
I left with a pile of homework and an answer booklet so I could correct it myself. For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps I had an undiagnosed learning disability. Searching on the Internet, I discovered that if I do, there’s even a name for it: dyscalculia. Maybe instead of another heartwarming movie in which a middle-aged illiterate learns to read, Hollywood needs to make a movie in which a middle-aged dyscalculiac learns how to leave a tip.
There had to be something wrong with me because here I was, literally back at 2 + 2. As I came up with the answer—yes, I got 4—I had a vivid memory of tormenting my first-grade teacher when she wrote this calculation on the blackboard. I insisted she explain to me where the second 2 came from (this makes no more sense now than it did then). The Kumon homework quickly moved into two-digit territory, and down came the curtain that descends in my mind whenever numbers come up. Amazingly, I really didn’t know addition and subtraction of sevens and eights. I forced myself to keep my fingers still as I figured out 8 + 3. My daughter looked over my shoulder when I got that, then watched as I hesitated at 8 + 4. “Mom, just add 1 to 11!” she said, adding, “Mom, you’re hopeless.”
Shah assured me that the constant repetition that is the Kumon system would nail the facts into my brain. I was worried the scaffolding was so rotten that the nail wouldn’t hold. But slowly, I started to learn how to add. I was excited to realize I could apply my knowledge to real life. For one thing, I could play blackjack without embarrassing myself. I always marveled at people—normal people—who could instantly tell what their cards added up to.
My biggest challenge was to stop counting on my fingers, a lifelong habit. I forced myself to keep my fingers still, thinking of Kumon as a sort of mental methadone. Just how far I had to go was apparent every Monday and Thursday afternoon, when I went to the Kumon center to do on-site drills. There were usually several dozen children there, who looked like they ranged in age from about 5 to 12, seated at two-person desks in neat rows. We either completed work packets checked by a group of young adults who sat in a bullpen in the middle of the room, or took tests that determined if we could move to the next level. One day, I got 100 percent on my subtraction drill, but my pride was tempered when I glanced over at the 10-year-old next to me to see she was dividing fractions. Another day I sat next to one of my daughter’s classmates. “You’re here, too?” he exclaimed, then burst out laughing, as if finding himself a character in one of those child-and-adult body-switching movies.
I usually parked my daughter in a small waiting area filled with parents at the front of the center while I did my drills. Often Shah went there to talk to the parents about their children’s progress. About a month after I started Kumon, my daughter reported that she and Shah had a discussion about how I was doing. They agreed I was working hard, but that multiplication would be a big hurdle.
That was true because I had only the sketchiest relationship with the multiplication tables. Now that I had it memorized through 10, it was liberating to know how much 8 x 7 was. But my homework, which I used to toss off in 10 minutes, was taking me an hour to complete. And because the computations were so much more complicated, I kept making stupid arithmetical errors (I multiplied 638 x 6 and got 3,548 instead of 3,828) and I regularly made 10 or more mistakes in a packet of 200 questions.
One night, my husband asked to see the packet I was working on.
He flipped the pages and asked, “This is hard for you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Seriously?” he said, eyes widening. When I assured him it was, I realized I was looking at the face of a man staring into the evolutionary abyss. I could see he was regretting that he had allowed his DNA to be carried into the future merged with mine. Luckily, our daughter is good at math.
I finally graduated to Level D, multiplication of multiple-digit numbers and introduction of long division. Because of the laboriousness of the huge numbers one must calculate, Level D is known as Kumon’s dropout level. Early on, I could see there would be trouble. I was supposed to be able to divide a single digit into a three-digit number—for example 777 ÷ 4—in my head. I simply couldn’t do it, so I “cheated” by using a scratch pad.
A little while after that, I had my one brilliant math idea. Coming back to Washington from New York after a Slate meeting, I rode the train sitting next to my editor, David Plotz. At the beginning of this project, I established that David was a math whiz when I got him to tell me his SAT math score: a perfect 800. On the train, as I struggled over my homework, I suddenly realized I should make David do it. I handed him a packet, and within minutes, he was making the same groaning noises that emanated from my Kumon seatmates. “This is awful,” he said as he tossed his finished packet back at me. But his agony was my ecstasy as I corrected his work and found he had gotten five wrong out of 200. That I was getting two to three times the error rate of a math genius made me feel wonderfully average.
David was right, Level D was awful. Since it took me several minutes to figure out a single problem, I was now spending two hours a night on each packet. The true misery in the Kumon method is that once I finished a packet, I was given it to do again.
With the new school year looming, I was increasingly worried I would never reach my goal. My daughter had already started on fractions and decimals, which were still as incomprehensible to me as Poincaré’s conjecture. I discussed my distress with Shah, but she said doing the same problem multiple times was essential to mastering the material. I accept that this unshakable attachment to drills and repetition may be why the Japanese are better at math than Americans. But it may also be why the Japanese invented ritual seppuku.
Desperate, I tried to farm out my homework. I gave my daughter a packet, explaining it was good for her to practice her math over the summer. She did 20 problems, then handed it back to me, saying, “Mom, this is your responsibility!”
So, I started cheating. Sometimes I would use my calculator to help me figure out the interim steps in a division problem. Sometimes I would do half a packet, and if I got it 90 percent right, I would copy down the answers for the rest. I felt no guilt. Without this aid, I would be finishing Level D about the same time the last Enron executive gets released from jail.
Then, at the end of July, Shah told me it was time for me to take the placement exam again to see how far I’d progressed. With the test in front of me, I started sweating, and my brain began buzzing, but I forced myself to calm down and keep my fingers still. Most of the problems seemed easy now, although I realized all my “shortcuts” had left me weak in long division. There were no red marks this time—I had gotten 100 percent right! This triumph was tempered by the fact that the test was so simple it only showed that I was capable of doing third-grade math.
And now I was finally moving into fractions. When I looked at 32/56 I could see instantly it could be reduced to 4/7—something I didn’t know before I started Kumon. But since I quickly got the concept of reducing fractions and changing mixed numbers into improper fractions, I rebelled at the idea that I would spend weeks doing drills on this. Then Shah left Kumon, and I appealed to the new instructor, Brian Rottkamp, for relief. He reluctantly agreed that since I wasn’t the typical Kumon student, once I understood a concept, I could move forward without repeating packets.
I raced through Level E, which involves adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions and introduces decimals. Now I was doing problems, such as 1 3/8 - 0.375, that I don’t remember ever being able to do in my life. But I barely passed the Level E test: While I understood how to solve the problems, my mathematical skills were so weak that I made numerous sloppy errors. Then I had a setback. My daughter’s school notified me that they were going to move her up a math level when school began. Although she would be in fifth grade, she would be doing sixth-grade math. Sure, I was proud of her, but she was ruining my plan. Kumon’s Level F was sixth grade, and I had only a month to pass it—and even if I did, I wouldn’t be ahead of her.
Level F required doing strings of calculations with fractions and decimals, for example: (3 1/6 - 1 19/24) ÷ (4 3/4 - 0.9). Having to solve such problems made me rethink my whole desire to be able to help my daughter with her homework. Phrases such as, “Hey, kiddo, do it yourself!” and, “If you don’t understand something, ask your teacher,” formed in my mind.
With only weeks left, I browbeat Rottkamp into letting me take the Level F test even before I had worked my way through the homework. I flunked. So, I went back and did some more packets, then took it again. I flunked. Again I went home to do more drills. Finally, it was my last day at Kumon, and my last chance to pass sixth-grade math. The test consisted of 50 problems that had to be completed in 25 minutes. With all my drilling, I now knew how to solve the problems, which was itself a sort of miracle. But as I watched the clock, I realized there was no way I could do them all in the allotted time. I put my pencil down exactly 25 minutes later. I had answered only 22 questions, which meant I had flunked again. Rottkamp decided to correct my test, just to see how I did on the questions I was able to answer. I got 18 right, which wasn’t terrible.
Rottkamp tried to buck me up, telling me that moving through five levels in five months was impressive. And it would have been impressive if my age were a single digit number. As I gathered up my belongings, he offered one last consolation. “Given that you only spent 15 minutes on the test, you didn’t do too badly,” he said.
“What do you mean I only spent 15 minutes?” I asked.
He said I marked my start time as 5:19 and my end time at 5:34—15 minutes.
I knew I started at 5:19 and ended at 5:34. But I had calculated that to be 25 minutes. I sat there, stunned. Maybe I had a tumor, maybe I had a genetic mutation, maybe my daughter was right—I was hopeless.