Role Reversal

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.”

Me as a teenager

My father and me

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!”

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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22 Responses to Role Reversal

  1. Wanda says:

    When I took driver’s ed in high school, I asked my mechanic father to explain the difference between a standard and an automatic transmission. At that point, I would have been more than satisfied to learn that you had to push an extra pedal with a standard than you did with an automatic. Little did I know that my simple question would lead to an hour-long lesson with drawings, etc. I think it was then I learned that my dad once aspired to be an engineer, but “real life” and the need to support a family got in the way.

    • comingeast says:

      I can just picture your dad and you! Thanks for sharing that story. Just read your latest post and am looking forward to reading more when I get a chance. Don’t know how you found me, but I’m glad you did!

  2. Bud says:

    My Dad wasn’t college educated but very smart. When I’d bring him my algebra homework, he’d look at it for a few moments, then say, “Well, I can tell you the answer but I can’t tell you how I got it.” Unfortunately, I was the one that was frustrated with my kids when I tired to explain math. Ironically, once I became an engineering consultant the skill that helped me most was my ability to explain complex concepts to people without the background to understand them. My dad was a toll maker who worked for Sikorsky for a while, by the way, and the last project I worked on before becoming a consultant was a system for the SH-60R helo built by Sikorsky. Small world.

  3. mypajamadays says:

    I hope I wasn’t rude!? So sorry. I will show you sixteen more times. But then that is it. LOL! That is one of the best pictures of you I have ever seen too.

  4. Pamela Johnson says:

    Well, once again, it seems that a possession belonging to your family has turned up in our house. It is a love letter from your mother, sent to your father, dated Jan. 13, 1970–in celebration of their 26th Anniversary. He must have been hard on your mother too. She expresses love but makes references to having their going through very difficult times. But what gets me here is her signature! She signs it “Youngster.” That expression seems vaguely familiar to me–possibly in remembrance of your father’s softer side. Did he really call her “Youngster?”

    • comingeast says:

      Yes, he really did call her Youngster! Wonder why Uncle Delmas had that letter? Curious!

      • Pamela Johnson says:

        I don’t know exactly how it got here. Except for the fact that he and my mother made a trip to Texas shortly before she died. Possibly he was given some sentimental items from your father and that letter got mixed in with all the remembrances. Other than that, I’ll never know. It’s amazing how many old items I’m finding around the house. My father has an “autograph book” which had entries made in 1938. They seem to keep everything!! My mother might have some idea, but her memory is not that good anymore. If I can figure it out, I’ll let you know,

        I would have to say that my father did have a sentimental side and I once came across pictures of relatives going back to World War I. As a person trying to clean up with these momentous keepsakes, I’m meeting all kind of challenges!

      • comingeast says:

        I have old pictures of people I can’t identify and no one to ask about them anymore. All the things I wished I’d asked, and now it’s too late.

  5. Val says:

    My dad was a doctor and an intellectual and he couldn’t understand my inability to ‘buckle down’ and learn stuff! Then late in his years he and I discovered I have dyscalculia and he stopped trying to teach me maths stuff himself but got me all these ever-so-simple books that I still could not get my head around! (I actually did a course some years ago for people with this dyscalculia and it helped a bit. Your theory of having something taught to you seventeen times is pretty spot on, as repetition helped – but what really helped was learning that I had to keep checking things as I just wasn’t perceiving them correctly.)

    I enjoyed reading about you and your father… even if he was a little scary at times for you. Mine scared me over similar things.

    • comingeast says:

      I was a special ed teacher early in my career, so I have heard of dyscalculia. Hadn’t thought of that term in years! It can certainly be a problem, especially with a father like yours. But other than the math thing, my father wasn’t too scary! Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Love this! My kids tell me the same thing all of the time!

    And how fascinating about the helicopters–we drive by a Sikorsky billboard outside of Troy quite a bit and I had no idea.

    As always, great photos, too!

    • comingeast says:

      My father was Head of Structures at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut. He was in incredible father, but even incredible people have flaws. It made me a sensitive teacher, though, because I never wanted the kids I taught or my own kids to be afraid to ask me questions. I’m glad you like the pictures. Oh, to have my red hair again! All the color seems to have drained out of it as I’ve aged. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Judith says:

    Love amygdala – don’t know what it means but as my son said when he was about 6 years old – I’ll use it all the time and people will think I am grown up.
    Thanks for the post Susan.

  8. My daughter has a brain like your father’s also. She gets frustrated with me when explaining things to me that i should “get the first time”. I am creative though where she isn’t so we have found we can learn from each other.

    • comingeast says:

      I am a grammar nut, and my daughter, as brilliant as she is, falls a little short in that area, so that is the one thing in writing that I can help her with. But she never asks. Drat!

      • Pamela Johnson says:

        I have always been a grammar nut myself. Little did I know until adulthood that my father had been helped by my grammar corrections of his speech. He was from a poor Southern family who made comments like “He don’t” or “If I was” (raher than “If I were.”? I had no memory of all of his changing his speech patterns from my lessons as a child. But he did. He had only a high school education, but was a superviser of men with college degrees. Maybe his corrected grammar did not account for his success, but it contributed to a more polished person.

        Having poor grammar, no matter how brilliant one is, is a fatal flaw. It is particularly anathema for a writer. It must be difficult for you to convince your daughter of its importance, and she may have to learn the hard way. But I do hope she learns.

        If I were you, I would not wait for her to ask. Tell her the truth–that she can’t make it as a writer with poor grammar. You may be regarded as intrusive, but that is the risk one must sometimes take in helping another. I wsh you the best.

      • comingeast says:

        Her grammar mistakes and misspellings are really quite minor. She is a gifted writer. I see many young people today who aren’t as strong as we were in grammar and spelling. It was stressed and taught and taught when we were growing up, but creativity is what is stressed today. And that’s not such a bad thing. She already is making it as a writer, so I don’t worry about her.

  9. I’m blaming my amygdala for everything from now on.

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