Every once in a while, someone calls upon me to help them with their homework, which is usually a mistake.
So when my friend Jeffrey needed assistance with math one day, my wife suggested that perhaps I wasn't the person for the job.
"We're all grateful that you were the first to teach him to recognize the shape of a martini glass," she said, "but I'm not sure math is your strongest point."
"He's in the second grade, for God's sake," I said. "If I can't do second-grade math, we're all in trouble."
"Then you've learned a lot since our own kids were in the second grade," she said with a shrug. "Good luck, Jeffrey."
OK, so I'm a little slow on multiplication, but give me 2 plus 8 or even 16 into 42 and I'm sailing, baby.
"It isn't exactly math," Jeff said, opening his folder. "It's called reasoning."
"Hey," I said, "I did that in school. 'You've got three people on one side of a river and one boat. How do you get them across the river in two trips with only one person in the boat at a time?' Or something like that."
"Did you solve it?"
"No, Jeff, I didn't. They all died of hunger on the same side of the river."
He handed me a paper. "Try this one," he said.
He visits once a week. Sometimes we watch Animal Planet together. Sometimes I tell him stories. Always we snuggle.
"Let me see," I said, reading from the paper: "Marie and Emily will stand side by side. Marie has blue eyes, but Emily does not. Marie will stand in front of someone who does not have brown eyes. Marie and Emily both have red hair. Howard will stand behind a girl. John will not stand behind Howard. Howard has brown eyes, but John does not. John will stand behind a girl with red hair."
My wife walked through the room. " ... And Elmer is sitting next to Jeffrey looking perplexed and wondering how he's going to squirm out of this one."
"I'm not a bit perplexed," I said. "I just have to simplify the problem."
She calls me Elmer because I mumble when I answer the phone. Sometimes people think I'm saying my name is Elmer Teenez.
"Admit it," she said. "Your mathematical logic is limited to '99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,' and I can remember times when you failed that."
"Don't worry, Jeff," I said when she'd left the room, "we'll solve this sucker. First of all, we'll change the names."
"I don't think the names are important," he said.
"Good stories," I explained, "always have intriguing names. Emily and Howard, for instance, are not intriguing names. How about Jorge and Tiffany?"
He laughed. I love hearing kids laugh. "I don't think my teacher wants Jorge and Tiffany," he said.
The object of the problem was to put each person in his or her proper place, eliminating inessential clues. We didn't get stuff that hard until my third year in college. Times have changed.
"You sure Miss What's-Her-Name didn't confuse your paper with something she was using for her master's thesis?" I asked. "It's pretty advanced."
"Her name is Miss Stalcup," Jeffrey said. "Everybody has the same homework."
Teachers never have first names. It was a policy established at the start of the 20th century. They had to drop their first names in order to teach. Also, they had to wear sensible, flat-heeled shoes and be quick to spot anyone chewing gum.
I read from another paper: "Bob ran 5 miles. Rita ran 3 times as many miles as Bob. Jan ran 2 more miles than Bob. Nan ran as far as Bob and Jan together. Pete ran 4 miles less than Nan. Lee ran twice as many miles as Bob."
"It's a junior track meet," Jeffrey explained. "The winners get medals."
"In high school, I ran the 100-yard dash," I said. "Once I did it in 10.3. I was gold-medal material in those days, Jeff. I remember running against Oakland High. There were these hotshot twins. Swedes. Two of the ugliest kids I'd ever seen. Their father used to sit in the top row of the bleachers and spit on the milers as they passed by. One day their mother. ... "
"What're you doing?" Cinelli demanded, standing in the doorway.
"We're doing a paper on reasoning."
"You sure it's not a paper on disgusting events from your past?"
"I'm trying to add color to an otherwise uninspiring problem."
"I'd better do the helping here," she said. "You'll have little martini glasses running around the field or hookers standing in a circle."
Too bad she took over. We were getting to the easy part. "On Tuesday, David saw 3 squirrels and 8 chipmunks. On Wednesday, he saw 6 chipmunks and 1 squirrel. How many squirrels did David see on both days?"
Stay with me. I'll have it in a minute.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.