My father was a brilliant man, a mathematician, an aeronautical engineer who was head of the team who designed the airframe of the Blackhawk helicopter. I remember cocktail parties at our house, my brother and I sneaking halfway down the stairs, peeking into the living room to get a look at Mr. Sikorsky. My father was as precise and regimented as I was unmethodical and disorganized. When I needed help with my math homework as a teenager, he was the last person I wanted to go to, but he was the only one I had. I remember the times my mother would see me standing in the doorway to my parents’ bedroom and give me a little push inside. “Go ahead,” she’d say, “it will be okay this time.” I would sigh and shuffle over to my father’s big oak desk where he would be working on something that involved slide rulers and graph paper. “Dad,” I’d squeak, “can you help me with my math homework?” “Of course,” he’d say. “That’s what I’m here for.”
We’d start out cordially enough with me showing him the problem and trying to tell him where I got stuck, but then he would start writing these complicated formulas that I couldn’t understand. I’d show him the examples in the book, hoping he’d tone down his explanation, giving me the solution for the simple minded, not the rocket scientist, but he couldn’t bring his brain down to my level, and when I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, he became curt, his frustration palpable. He couldn’t see that what was so effortless to him was like a foreign language to me. One time, when I dared tell him what my teacher said to do, he threw my math book across the room and said, “Then why bring this to me?” I snatched up my textbook and fled crying from the room. My mother stormed in and made him apologize, something my father just didn’t do. He did it that one time, though, such was the power of my mother. Yea, Mom! Don’t get me wrong. My father was a wonderful father, loving and giving, full of laughter, but like many brilliant people, patience was not one of his virtues, though he mellowed considerably as he aged.
As a middle school dean, I listened over and over to teachers who were frustrated with their students’ test scores. “I taught this at the beginning of the year and it’s like they never heard it before,” they’d tell me. Or, “This was review from last year. Nothing new, and my students act like they’re learning it for the first time.” I would explain that brain research shows that the adolescent brain is still developing, and the part that allows them to hold onto that instruction isn’t ready to absorb that information after one or two presentations. In fact, studies have shown that teachers need to repeat instruction something like seventeen times before it becomes a solid memory. Seventeen times! I think of how many times I said to my kids when they were growing up, “How many times have I told you to…?” I know it wasn’t seventeen times.
Okay, so now comes my theory and the whole point of this post. I’m thinking that as we age, our brains revert back to our adolescent years, and someone needs to tell us something over and over again until we absorb it. Seventeen times, in fact. Maybe more. For example, my daughter is a blogger (My Pajama Days) who is adept at using the computer to promote her site. She’s been Freshly Pressed at least four times already, and she hasn’t been blogging much more than a year. I want her to help me be a better blogger, like show me how to use Twitter, how to link to other writing sites and put their icons or logos or whatever they’re called on my page, etc. When I visited her last week, I wanted to take advantage of her vast knowledge and get her to show me a few things. So I shuffled over to her desk where she was writing her latest post, my mother’s invisible hand on my back, urging me forward, but darn it if my daughter didn’t get my father’s genes. She looked at me incredulously. “Really, Mom? I just showed you how to do that last time you were here (or maybe she said yesterday).” But she hadn’t shown me seventeen times! “It’s not my fault,” I wanted to yell. “It’s my amygdala! My amygdala!!”
I feel like Benjamin Button, in a way, though my body isn’t getting any younger. It’s my mind. I was sharpest when it mattered most. When I was raising my children, and when I had my career. But it’s okay because I can really bond with my teenage granddaughter, we of similar brains. Oh, and guess what? This last visit she gave me a pair of her Converse sneakers she had outgrown! Cool! They’ll look fab with my new boyfriend jeans!”