View RSS Feed


HARD TIMES and the Kitchen Counter

Rate this Entry
I'm nearly finished with Charles' Dickens' Hard Times -- quite an accomplishment for me. I hate Dickens. But I try to read him every year because, somehow, I feel that by not liking him (at least a little), then he wins. And I like to win. A very much lot, I do.

And here's the thing: I love Hard Times. If only I had tried to read this before Little Dorritt or A Tale of Two Cities then maybe I could have defeated my anti-Dickensian-ness much earlier. And I would have spared me from Little Dorritt all together.

But to get back on track. I think that the real reason why I like this novel is because it punched me right in the guts. . . .

You see, everyday this summer, I've been working with my oldest daughter (let's call her Sissy, to keep with my analogy), helping her to learn her math facts. Reality is last year she was next to last in her class in math. She's bad at it. Why? Because she's flaky: she thinks about clouds, bunnies, her friends, her shoes, a dragonfly outside her window. Oh, and she's not competitive, not at all: she doesn't care if she gets her math facts right or wrong, doesn't care if she's next to last in her class. None of that stuff matters to her. But she worries like hell about her math, not because she's afraid of getting the facts wrong. She worries because she doesn't want to upset us when she does get her facts wrong. And she does, and we do, often.

She loves to read, she's great at understanding people, she has tremendous empathy for others. She's all humanities, all the time: what she learns has to "matter" either spiritually, emotionally, or socially. If the facts can't align with these unmeasurable human qualities, then for her, it's just hard to get that into.

. . . . . . . .

The opening chapter of Hard Times hit me as though I'd dropped a brick on my bare foot. The teacher, Mr. Gradgrind exclaims, "Facts!", "What is the definition of a horse?", and "Not Fancy, but fact is what matters! Fact! Fact! Fact". And the kids in the Dickensian classroom being crushed under the hailstorm of "facts" without meaning or value, devoid of moral or humanity. God damn, I thought. I'm that guy. Every morning, when my Sissy works on her math at the kitchen counter. That's me -- the plain fact man. The son of a *****.

Of course, success in modern American education is now an effort in memorizing facts. Its focus on "objectivity", testing and student performance on "standards" leads all schools, public and private to focus on educational material that can be counted, plotted on a graph, charted, timed and demonstrated. This forces schools and educators to either omit the greatest portions of what the humanities offer or create absurdly reductive "objective" measurements of performance.

My Sissy is in that system, and as parent, who, while critical of that utilitarian system, needs to have his children function within its broken parameters and quick-sand foundations. . . .

So there I am, at the kitchen counter with a multiplication worksheet and a timer. (Sissy's school, like all schools in my state, place a high priority on fast recall of math facts). She's working on "rocket math": 4 minutes, 80 problems; she has to finish them all, within the time frame to move on to the next worksheet. It's like a video game. "Level up"!

Sissy's panic-y; she doesn't want to disappoint her parents. I'm angry: with her for "not getting it", with me "for pushing this absurd activity", with the system for "requiring efforts in absurdity". . . . AND I know that she does need to know her math facts. That the idea of knowing facts isn't bad or wrong. Just overly prioritized and mishandled.

. . . . . . .

So I figured that while I can't change the system, nor my Sissy's role in that system, I can change the teacher. I can not be so Gradgrind. So I sit next to her, rub her back, cover the clock with a silly picture that she drew, and do my best to keep her focused (always the issue) on her math while keeping a brisk pace.

I think it's working, a little bit. With more time, I'll be able to know for sure. But I'm still being Gradgrind: "facts!", just a gentler one. One thing's for sure, in the US, education is in Hard Times.

Updated 06-21-2012 at 08:58 PM by The Comedian



  1. prendrelemick's Avatar
    This is brilliant. I've been there with daughter number three and her reading. We had to really put the time in, repeating the same stuff over and over again and being patient on the outside while on the inside you're screaming no,NO,NO.

    And did it make a difference in her life? I think so.
  2. qimissung's Avatar
    This is brilliant. Being forced to be one of those Hard Times teachers (and a parent) I can definitely relate.

    I've come to the conclusion that they (and myself when I'm brave enough) are focusing on the wrong verb. Instead of making them learn, which they are trying to make us do, we should instead let them learn. One small word, a world of difference.

    I know you want her to focus, Comedian, but maybe you could break up her lesson into two or three bite sized pieces for the summer; maybe spend the first five minutes when your in the pool asking a question then thowing her the ball when she gets it right, then letting her ask you a question, etc. Then repeat at bathtime...

    In other words make a game of it. Maybe let her make up a game, too. That way you're both exercising the creative aspect of it, while at the same time diminishing the rote aspect of it. And making it (oh that dreaded word) fun. Hmmm, whoever thought learning could be fun?

    Anywho, you're obviously a great dad, and kind, and good, and loving. Good luck. I know you guys will get there.
  3. LadyLuck's Avatar
    I smiled when I read this. I have found myself doing the same things with my son. Education is so firmly rooted in memorization, and I remember being miserable at it as a child. Your Sissy will get it We work through ours in the grocery store, or the pool like Qimi suggests. My son is terribly distractible, and I find that by working with him when he's already distracted means that when he has fewer ones then he does better.