Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Some skills no longer essential

By Dick Hirsch

I was astonished when I recently discovered that some school programs no longer provide for the teaching of long division. The news upset me for several unrelated but noteworthy reasons.

Perhaps most importantly, it created feelings of both dismay and jealousy. I had a difficult time with long division and I always assumed some members of future generations would struggle as I had struggled. But no; the specialty that frustrated me for so long has become obsolete.

By the time I finally became somewhat proficient, some nerds came along and invented the handheld calculator that could be obtained for an investment of a dollar ninety eight or so, thus making the solving of complicated division problems instantaneous and the need for a thorough understanding of the intricacies of long division superfluous.

It upset me to think that some students of today won’t ever comprehend the process that some of us strove so diligently to learn. They can merely get an immediate answer, carried out to the fifth decimal point, by using their calculator.

Long division, you’ll recall, was the last of the four arithmetical skills to be taught. Addition was basic and once the students had mastered it, they moved swiftly along to subtraction. I was always OK with subtraction, but around fourth grade they introduced an exciting new concept: multiplication. I managed that, too, and I thought of myself as a person with a vast store of knowledge that could be applied in many different pursuits.

Then came long division. I think short division must have preceded it, but I must have been sick that day because I have absolutely no recollection of it. The approach of long division initially required mastery of the semantics of the field of long division.

First you had to learn to draw a half a rectangle. Inside that space you placed the number to be divided. It is still known as the dividend, which can be somewhat confusing to those with investments. Outside the box went the smaller number, which is known as the divisor. By what seemed at the time to be a baffling process, the divisor was applied to the dividend, yielding a result called the quotient. I can still remember Miss Lee, the fifth grade teacher, pointing to the problem written on the chalkboard, turning to the class, and asking for the all-important quotient. Most of the time I had no idea. When the answer finally became apparent, it was often uneven, which I interpreted as a tactic employed by the teachers primarily to confuse and frustrate the students. Whatever was left over was known as the remainder.

For me, long division has become symbolic of all the skills that are no longer essential because technology has made it unnecessary to be proficient in certain specialties. Math is a good example because the tedious work involved with making basic calculations has been totally eliminated.

Spelling is another. I was always a good speller, but today many people say practicing spelling is foolish because the computer will highlight and correct any errors.

One skill that I developed years ago and still use is parking. Don’t laugh. There are people you know who never actually park a car. They pull into a space in a lot or at the curb. Pulling is not parking.

Like long division, parallel parking has become a capability that is declining through disuse. That type of assignment involves finding a convenient location, a space between two previously parked cars, assessing its size, and then maneuvering into that space with a minimum of psychological concern and physical effort.

There was one memorable parking experience years ago that established my reputation and buffed my image in the family. I was driving one of those bulky stationwagons, looking for a space on a narrow street in a tourist area. I spotted a car exiting a spot. I waited, evaluating the space. It would a very snug fit. I checked the rear view mirror and signaled another waiting driver to move on. He didn’t; he was like a jackal, driving a small car and he was waiting, certain I would fail. I pulled into position, turned the wheel, and BINGO! In one mind-altering move I swooped into that space. The family applauded. The vanquished driver drove away.

I have somehow passed on that technique to my children and am pleased to report that I also have a grandson who apparently came equipped with the parallel parking gene. We believe that is an important talent worth perpetuating.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

An unexpected gift in the gathering darkness

By Dick Hirsch

You know how it is in the spring. The days may be balmy but the nights can still grow cold with the onset of darkness. You may want to open the bedroom window a crack, but, maybe not. It’s still the blanket season...assuming you have a blanket and a warm place to sleep.

That’s certainly an assumption that is easily made. But as an editor once advised me: “Never assume anything. When you assume, you can ‘make an ass out of u and me.’”

It was past twilight. We were walking though a small public park in the gathering darkness, a group of 14 tourists who had just finished a farewell dinner after spending a busy week on the road. The sound of heavy traffic from one of the main streets nearby was clearly audible; it was not the most verdant of parks, but it was a welcoming enclave in the center of a busy neighborhood. This was in a megalopolis of over 15 million. The lights were on at the outdoor basketball court just a short distance away, and one of those marathon playground games was still underway. Fitness enthusiasts were still training on the equipment that was installed at intervals along one of the paths. We were strolling through the park on our way back to the hotel.

Then there was an unexpected incident. I have thought about it several times ever since my return and I decided I had to do something about it, and that usually means writing it all down and telling the story. I suppose it could be called an incident report, although incident reports usually carry the connotation of unexpected negative developments. This development was surely unexpected, but it wasn’t negative.

As we neared our destination of the hotel, Sheila observed that on previous walks each time she had taken that same path in the evening she had seen a man, apparently asleep on a concrete bench.

“Can you imagine how uncomfortable that must be?” she asked. And before anyone could reply, she pointed at a reclining figure and added, in a voice tinged with excitement: “There he is. Can you see him?”

We all stopped to look and when you encounter an image of such lonely misery and desperation, I suppose it’s natural to be glad that it isn’t you who must sleeping in a park on a concrete bench. Would most people be sympathetic with those in such a situation? Sympathetic? Yes. But likely to continue walking? Yes. We’re mostly preoccupied, too busy to be bothered with such matters, aside from writing an occasional check to support agencies that deal with those who live in poverty and are consigned to life on the streets and sleeping in the park.

Then a strange thing happened.

One of the group stepped from the path and over the lawn toward the sleeping person. He said nothing, walking with a determined stride. Then he changed his gait, moving more slowly as he approached the person, obviously being cautious, perhaps fearful the sleeping man might suddenly awaken and believe he was about to be attacked. He stopped within a few feet of the bench and we could hear him tentatively speak:

“Hello,” he said. There was no response. This was in a foreign city, so the sleeping man would surely not understand English.

Again the man spoke, but we couldn’t hear what was said. The sleeping man heard, however, and lifted himself on one elbow to consider the situation, to see what or who had interrupted his rest. Then, without saying another word, the visitor pulled his sweater over his head, tossed it to the man on the bench, turned, and walked back toward our group. He stopped after a few steps, pivoted, looked back and waved toward the puzzled man on the bench. The sweater was on his lap. He waved back. We couldn’t see, but he must have been grateful and smiling.

It was a simple act, but a touching scene.

As the man rejoined our group he was greeted by back slaps, handshakes and warm embraces. He was embarrassed by the acclaim and denied any humanitarian motivation, saying he had suddenly decided the man needed the sweater more than he himself did.

As we continued toward the hotel we could see the man, sitting erect now, pulling his new blue sweater over his head and then settling back down on the concrete bench.