Negatives + Positives = Learning

-19,000 + 19,000 + 10,000 – 9,000 – 990 = 10

The calculation above was the response a fourth grader provided when asked to create a mathematical sentence with “10” in it.

school-kids-classroom-raising-handsThe fourth grader’s response was given to my wife a few years ago when she visited that student’s classroom. My wife teaches at Fresno State and, as an education professor with an emphasis in elementary math, she delights in participating with kids in their classroom. For her, working with fourth graders and helping teachers learn how children learn is far more joy-filled than spending time on a university committee.

Often, when we get home in the evening, we’ll talk about what happened in each of our days.

“What’d you do today?”

And so I learned about a fourth grader who confidently used negative numbers in a problem. That little “-” before the 19,000 excited my wife. Negative can be positive! The student understood the complexity of numbers. Numbers are negative and positive and there are myriad ways to solve problems. Wow!

“What’d you do today?” My wife asked me.

This was when I served a church . . .

My day had been spent in a hospital’s intensive care unit, with a woman in our congregation near death. On the prior day, her “plugs were pulled,” and death, whether it would take minutes or days, was not far away.

My wife had been in a classroom with children’s hands waving over their heads: “Let me try an answer!!”

I’d been surrounded by medical machines and white-coated doctors.

One of the dying woman’s sons was there. The decision to remove her life support had been made by him in consultation with physicians and other members of the family. Close, beloved friends were present. Throughout the day, though she was categorized as “non-responsive,” friends held her hands, hymns were sung, and prayers—spoken and silent—were shared.

No one in the hospital said, or probably thought, “Wow!”

And yet, I believe there were more similarities with my wife’s day to mine than differences.

A child, taught well, allowed to explore and wonder and make mistakes, begins to grasp the grand complexity of numbers. But not just numbers. The child begins to enjoy thinking, receiving from teachers the gift of knowledge that leads to more knowledge. Questions become lights on the path of learning. Arriving at an answer is nice . . . but what’s next, what more is there to learn! Memorizing certain formulas is essential, but discerning how math connects to reality is exciting.

In death and dying, which our culture shuns as we continue to make gods and goddesses of youth and physical beauty, there is grand complexity. There is a learning and a wondering. In my day, around that delightful woman’s bed, love was present. It was a love shadowed with loss—how much I still wanted to hear her voice, listen to her tell another story—but it was also a love that came from how she lived her life and how much she helped others see a living God as part of all relationships.

What is the right formula for life? How do we put the negatives and positives into a formula that leads to more life and learning?

Please, please, let us teach our children of all ages well. Let them, let us, be allowed to explore the grand complexity of life. Let us, together, be able to rejoice in a new discovery. Wow! Negative numbers make sense!

Let us, together, be able to weep at the time of dying, trusting that it is also part of the gift of life. The cliché is true and too easily ignored: every moment matters. Let us support each other, let us be able to hold a hand and a heart and still sing songs of hope.

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