Hannah is scrunched up on the floor, writing, in a position only a gymnast could find comfortable. Her pencil moves quickly. It’s 9:30, and it’s past her bedtime.
“Daaaaad. Just one more minute!” She isn’t pleading – with her, it’s more like a command. Her voice is directed into her papers as she says it. She doesn’t even look up.
You can’t really argue with determination.
I let her continue the Challenge Level 3 math problem. I had already spent 45 minutes with her, “helping,” because I’m the dad. Dads are supposed to be able to do fifth grade math, but it turns out that this isn’t always true.
When we first sat down, I had the breezy paternalistic confidence that I could do anything and that I knew all I needed to know. How hard could this be? I love helping with homework. I’d make myself useful, furthering her education. It might even be memorable.
I read the problem with her. We went over it a few times. I asked her some questions. After what I assumed was too long a time to be working a math problem, I began to worry that she might crack. We weren’t making progress. It was getting late. She did, in fact, burst into tears when I suggested that the problem might be too difficult, that she had picked an especially tricky one that probably not even other adults who are not your dad could solve. I silently cursed her teacher.
By the end, I had to get decisive. I told her she had to get ready for bed, then went into the other room (so she wouldn’t see) to look for the answer on my phone. I found it. I read it, and kept reading it. The solution was long and I didn’t understand it. I realized that she would never be able to figure it out. I cursed her teacher again.
By then, though, Hannah had already pushed off into the Arctic wilderness on her own. She didn’t need me bogging down the sled. She was suddenly optimistic. She shouted from the next room that she’d figured it all out.
I knew she hadn’t. I knew that the pattern she saw was one pattern among many, and not the right one. But I let her keep writing. I let her stay up later than she should, pushing herself forward. In that moment, she was right. Sometimes, the answer just doesn’t matter.