Homework Help: Her Dad Wasn't The Answer

By Donna Scaramastra Gorman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 16, 2008

Growing up, I had the worst kind of dad. I'll give just one example:

After school, I would grab a quick snack, maybe hang out with some friends, eat dinner, whatever. Much later I'd remember that load of math homework, only I would be tired and I really never understood the homework anyway, and there were always one or two questions I couldn't figure out. And I'd think, "Why not ask Dad? He'll know the answer."

I was like the dog who gets kicked but keeps going back for more. I never learned from my mistakes, and so I kept going back to Dad to ask for the answers. He never -- not once -- acquiesced. I'd try to catch him when he was in the middle of some important work of his own, so that he might just glance distractedly at my paper and say, "It's 5 x/y squared," or something like that. But it never worked. You see, my dad was an engineer, which is the worst kind of dad to have. Engineers don't always know the answers. But they always know where to look for them. And they never get tired of looking.

So every time I'd go to my dad hoping for a quick solution, he would instead put down what he was working on and take a good long look at my homework. He'd "hmmmm" and "heh" and scratch his chin. And then he'd say those dreaded words: "Well, to really understand how to solve this problem, you have to know something about physics." My heart would sink as he'd go to pull his college physics textbooks off the shelf.

I was trapped. All I needed was an answer, and quickly, so I'd have time to pick out the next day's outfit before going to bed. But there I was, stuck at the table with an engineer, a fat calculator and a stack of old textbooks.

Having a dad like that is torture.

I recalled this vividly when my second-grade son missed two days of school due to illness. To catch up he had three days of homework to do in one short evening, and he was working hard to squirm out of doing it. Finally, he told me he couldn't do it without his father, who had he promised to help him.

And so my husband abandoned his own project and joined Shay at the kitchen table.

My husband is not an engineer. He's a federal agent, which is an entirely different beast. He can drive a car backward and flip it around in a 180-degree turn. I think he probably could shoot a bad guy while simultaneously steering from the passenger seat. He can read you your Miranda rights or jump between you and a bullet. Stuff like that, he can do. Second-grade science, not so much.

So you'd think my son would be safe from my own childhood tragedy. But -- his father also has a PhD, in Russian literature, which makes him as nerdy as your average engineer. In other words, like his mother before him, my son was good and trapped.

As near as I could tell from my position in the kitchen, the homework they were bent over had something to do with determining which liquids are see-through and which aren't. "You don't know what 'translucent' means?" my husband asked Shay. "That's okay, we can look it up right here in this dictionary." My son heaved a sigh as his dad flipped through dusty pages and I choked with laughter. It's so much funnier when someone else is the victim.

Soon, they had soda bottles and water bottles and all sorts of other things they needed to peer through together. And more words to look up in that dictionary: "viscous" and "transparent." My husband explained that if you know how to use a dictionary, you'll never go wrong in this world. Shay nodded, all the while watching the sun set through the windows and wondering if he would finish before his friends all went inside for dinner.

It's tough having a father like that, with books and pencils and the motto: Look It Up. I felt his pain, truly I did.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company