Back-of-the-book answers lose meaning

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Dad and I got home at the same time that September afternoon, he from harvesting in the cornfield, I from my first week in fourth grade. He had waited at the door for me and stooped to give me a hug.

"Look, Daddy. We got new arithmetic books and the answers to the problems are in the back of the book."

This feature of the book didn't seem to impress Daddy. He opened it and began reading aloud the first problem, "Farmer Brown had 20 ewe sheep and one ram. He decided to sell half of the ewes for 10 dollars apiece. With the proceeds from the sale, he paid the feed store 50 dollars and bought his wife a new sweater for five dollars. With the remainder he purchased wire fencing to make repairs. How much did Farmer Brown have left to pay for the fencing?"

"Now, look," I said, "The answer is back here."

"No!" Daddy snapped the book shut. "It's nice to know the right answer is there, but you want to work up to it or you'll miss the joy of getting there and the pleasure of knowing you've worked everything right."

Joy? I'd never found much joy in working complicated arithmetic problems. This was before calculators. One had to know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply.

After supper and when all chores were done, Daddy drew up a chair to the table and said, "Now, let's see about Farmer Brown's problem."

Mama, who had already returned to her sewing machine, stopped and began to work some buttonholes by hand. Grandpa laid aside the newspaper he was reading. Grandma removed her glasses, closed her eyes and leaned her head on the back of her rocker, keeping an outstretched hand on the opened Bible which was always on her chair-side table. Even Cat, curled up in another chair, stopped her loud purring, as if we all needed quiet to solve Farmer Brown's problem. I realize this was to be one of our family's togetherness times.

So I started my work, reporting aloud each mathematical step. I heard muted expressions of, "Right." Grandma, as if out of sync, would pat her Bible and whisper loudly, "The answer is in the back of this book." After the last computation, I said, "Forty-four dollars."

Everything seemed to stand still. No muted "Rights." Just small, barely audible intakes of breath.

"Is that the answer in the back of the book?" Daddy asked.

In the joy of being wrapped in the love and attention of the others I had forgotten all about that back-of-book thing. I hurried to it and announced, "Forty-five."

I looked at my work sheet, wadded it up and threw it to the floor in a fit of fury and embarrassment.

Grandpa got up to wind the clock. Grandma drummed her fingers on the Bible. Cat jumped down to play with my worksheet.

I felt abandoned. Eventually Mama broke the spell. "When I started on this dress I'm making, I cut out two sleeves for the same armhole and had to go back and cut another one before I could get on with it." She laughingly dismissed her mistake. It seemed she was talking to me.

I picked up my worksheet, smoothed it out as if for some kind of apology.

Then Daddy spoke. "Sometimes a sheep finds a hole in a fence and wiggles through, finds itself alone and looks for the hole to get back in." Everyone seemed to be talking in riddles. How could Daddy know I was feeling like that sheep on the outside?

I reviewed my work. "I made a mistake," I admitted.

"Good thing the right answer is in the back of the book," Daddy said. This was the first time he gave that part of the book some approbation.

"It is better to work up to it," I acknowledged, to sort of balance things.

We said our "good-nights" and went our various ways. As I stooped to kiss Grandma "good night" I saw she had the Bible divided where the New Testament began.


Jean Bell Mosley is an author and longtime resident of Cape Girardeau.

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