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Middle School Algebra: My Daughter and I Bonded Over Homework

The first time my 12-year-old daughter asked me about hiring a math tutor for help with middle school algebra, I said “no” because, well, I’m cheap.

Plus, I felt confident that my partner and I could field her questions when they arose.

Then, a few months later, after I’d repeatedly stayed up until 11 PM with Lily, working on pre-algebra problems, my husband re-introduced the math tutor idea.

I slapped it down once again.

This time, though, my “no” wasn’t an outgrowth of stinginess and arrogance.

This time, it was because, in this pandemic moment—when my seventh grader holes up in her room for hours each day, pulling further and further away from her family and the world outside—these late-night middle school algebra sessions have become our lifeline back to each other.

I’ve had to invest some effort, of course.

The first problems Lily brought to me triggered foggy memories of y=mx+b, but God help me if I remembered what any of it meant.

So after an initial fight-or-flight blink of panic, when I wondered if hiring a math tutor would have been the wiser course after all, I searched for a Khan Academy clip and mumbled, “Sweetie, it’s been nearly 40 years since Mommy did this. Give me a sec.”

Seated next to me in our living room’s huge purple bean bag chair, Lily wore her version of the pandemic uniform: black karate pants and an enormous white sweatshirt, with her blond hair piled sloppily atop her head. I was still in jeans and a T-shirt, having come home from my library shift a few hours earlier.

Our heads listed toward each other in front of my laptop as a nighttime quiet settled over the house.

Side by side, Lily and I re-learned that m indicates a line’s slope, which is equivalent to change in y over change in x; and that when you plug in 0 for x, you determine b, which is the line’s y-intercept.

“Right! That’s right!” I said, grabbing a nearby piece of paper to scribble notes for myself. But soon we were staring down three pages of middle school algebra problems on Lily’s Chromebook.

We got off to a wonky start, struggling to translate the video we’d just watched into what the problems asked for. But gradually, we got into a groove, plugging in coordinates and solving for each variable.

At one point, swept up in a moment of flow, I turned to Lily and said, “So you don’t find this fun at all?”

“Mom, it’s math,” she said, her tone an eyeroll.

“Yeah, but it’s like a puzzle,” I gushed. “To me, finding the answer feels so satisfying, like a piece you’ve been looking for finally fitting into place. That’s what I always loved about math.”

“Whatever, Mom,” Lily said, grinning and shaking her head. “Let’s just keep going.”

Variations on this scene have played out night after night since. Lily makes fun of me for obsessing over a problem, refusing to move on until I’ve unlocked it. I tease her for blanking on what 18 divided by 3 is, or for wanting to write, “I don’t know. Can you explain this in class, please?” as an answer.

When we laugh together, our hearts unclench, releasing our day-to-day conflicts about dirty dishes in Lily’s room, items missing from my closet, poor dietary choices, and screen curfews.

I’ve been so worried this past year—about many things, of course, but particularly about Lily.

Before the pandemic, she’d thrived while making the transition to middle school, and she’d had a solid core of close, good friends in addition to our tight-knit family. Yes, she’d already started walling herself off into a pre-adolescent cocoon at home, but now, buried daily in homework, bat mitzvah prep, and a lot of pandemic-induced social isolation, she’s become someone I often struggle to recognize or understand.

Which leads me to this inescapable irony.

By the time Lily had first ventured into algebra, she had become, to me, the most heartbreakingly unsolvable variable in my life.

Recently, though, she was preparing for a math test, and I suddenly feared that I’d gotten too carried away by my own enthusiasm, and that somewhere I’d crossed the line between helping with and DOING her work.

We did the test review sheet together.

“OK, remember, what’s m?” I asked.

Lily stared at me.

Uh-oh.

But we dug back in. We worked it all out.

And when she left to log into her class and take the test, I felt like I was being tested, too. We all have been this past year, haven’t we? But Lily ended up earning a score of 29/30 on that exam.

“We got an A!” I crowed, fists in the air.

“No, I got an A, Mom,” Lily said, biting back a smile, pointing at herself. “I’m the one who took the test.” Then she expressed annoyance about the one problem she got wrong.

“Don’t sweat it, kid,” I said. “You did really, really well.”

“I still don’t like math,” she insisted.

Yet the unspoken end of her sentence seemed to be, “But I like doing it with you.”

And for just a moment, I felt the gratification that comes from working on a challenging problem and finally—after fumbling through several failed attempts—zeroing in on its unexpected, beautifully simple answer.

Jenn McKee

Jenn McKee is a Michigan-based journalist/essayist/arts critic whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Scary Mommy, and American Theatre magazine. To see pictures of her cat, or hear about all the weird things her kids say, follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn), or visit jennmckee.com.

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