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Easing stress -- with math

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By MARLENE SOKOL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003

NORTH TAMPA -- The school has been here since 1922. This can't be the original building. But it's real brick, not prefab or concrete. The houses are Old Seminole Heights. The narrow streets date way before the minivan.

We've ventured outside our suburban comfort zone because this is what parents do when their kids are in Math Bowl. It's what kids do in this day and age, when everything is competitive.

Maybe it's the sense of history. But I'm pushing back through the decades. Was math always fun? Did it always win pizza and trophies?

Or is this a function of modern-day gratification, the adrenaline rush, the heady sensation of marching off to battle?

The Hillsborough County Elementary Mathematics Council organizes these events, broken down by grade, east and west halves of the school district, then combined for the championship here at Seminole Elementary School.

Around the room kids are crossing fingers and toes. All week they've practiced word problems and old test questions.

Parents sit on the sidelines with cell phones and cameras -- mothers and fathers in roughly equal numbers. Trophies tantalize from a corner table.

Outside there is news of a professor arrested on terrorism charges, of more mobilization on Iraq. In the month since the last Math Bowl round, the space shuttle exploded and a blizzard crippled much of America.

Inside, it's all about what number Teresa is thinking of if you double it, subtract 19 and get 25. It's about how likely you are to land on a game board piece if you toss a ball, blindfolded, into a can.

"Math is real world," says math council president Barbara Knox, who is running today's competition. "We want to make it as real world as we can."

As she did in the last contest, Knox taunts the teams between problems: "You want to know who is winning. And I'm not going to tell you."

Are the kids having fun?

It looks that way. Five to a team, including an alternate. Each has a job. There's the reader. The writer. The checker. The calmer-downer. I've learned, at these events, that teamwork matters. Last time around, kids on the other teams were elbowing each other to answer the questions.

How many more yellow fish than blue fish are in the aquarium?.

What is the largest area Tommy can can use to build a fence for his pet skunk?

You have to wonder where math will take these kids. Will they build a better space shuttle? How high is up for a generation who used computers while still in diapers?

"The computer can only do so much," Knox says. "You have to be able to understand what to do with the computer."

Yet, for all their brainpower, they are still children. Confused by world events. Stressed out at home. One minute Math Bowl means everything to my daughter. The next minute, she'd just as soon watch more Disney Channel.

I remember finding math a stressful component to a world that seemed on a steady course. Granted, our troops were in Vietnam. But it seemed, nonetheless, like a simple life.

My child, by contrast, finds math a source of comfort. Is it her? Is it me? Or is life more frightening in 2003?

Knox will announce the winners. But first she will award ribbons to all the contestants. She'll invite everyone for pizza. She'll announce an upcoming math fair at a shopping mall.

Then the winners claim their trophies. Cell phones go around. Somewhere in the room, tears will fall.

We will leave, and it will occur to me that Knox is wrong. Math is not the real world. Outside, the buildings are not all real brick. Everyone does not get a ribbon. Things do not add up. The very next school day will begin with a bomb scare.

Say what you will about the rigors of competition, but in here, at least, every problem has an answer.

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