Numerical communication: An escape from hot potato

I knew Emily was nervous. As she approached me, the incredulous fear in her 5-year-old eyes stared me in the face like a lost puppy. It was her first day at Kumon, a tutoring center that helps school-aged children improve their reading and math skills. She shyly bowed her head as I explained the initial testing process to determine her level. What I interpreted as initial rudeness, as she discontinued eye contact, I soon learned was embarrassment.

Emily had recently moved from China. Although her mom spoke English fairly fluently, Emily had little exposure to the language.

This was a first for me. During my two years working at the center, I had mastered hand gestures and simple phrases to explain students’ progress to parents who spoke limited English. I had probably been exposed to more than ten languages from all over the world. It often felt like the languages moved in a hazy circle like I was in the middle of a game of hot potato as students translated for their parents, and I never fully knew the accuracy of their translations.

This time, I was completely stumped. Emily’s mom had left the room, and I was left to fend for myself to test her reading and math skills. Without much explanation, Emily fled through the math test with great speed and accuracy, as her pigtails bounced along with her. She could already do multiplication, and I sincerely thought she would be teaching me soon, as I paused to reflect on the miserable hours I had spent in math class over the years counting down the minutes until I could move on to another class.

As I continued to work with Emily over the next couple of months, she sped through her math with a smile, while her mouth contorted in a frustrating expression as she struggled to learn the alphabet and then how to read. I have always found math and numbers to be a chore, but for the first time I enjoyed them. Emily and I could communicate flawlessly through math, while the English language continued to be a struggle. It was almost uncanny; she seemingly had the ability to read my mind and know when she made a mistake on a math problem, on the rare occasion when she did.

As her confidence and skills grew, mine did too. Even though I was the teacher, I learned a new appreciation for unusual forms of communication and connections. I never would have thought I could enjoy numbers, which had caused me hours of painful nights with math homework, while attempting to understand the basic principles of calculus. I began to appreciate that somewhat ironically math was just as important as words to communicate. Without math, I could not understand time, how to calculate tip at a restaurant or balance my checkbook.

Before I left for college, her mom presented me with a grammar book. She left me with the parting words, “Don’t forget that everyone needs a reminder every once in a while.”  Since that day more than two years ago, I haven’t taken any knowledge or words of wisdom for granted.  Whenever I glance at the book on my cluttered bookcase, despite initial resistance, I remember that numbers are a universal language and an important tool for communication.

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