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Humiliation, Multiplication, and Ice Cream

We all need a Papaw.

In the memoir Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, the author describes a scene in first grade where six-year-old J.D. realizes that he doesn’t know what “multiplication” is while some classmates do. When he gets home he cries to his grandfather, Papaw, whose reaction to family and life can be unpredictable and even violent. What unfolds is an endearing description of the role family, however defined, can play in helping children in school. He writes:

It wasn’t my fault that until that day I had never heard the word “multiplication.” It wasn’t something I’d learned in school, and my family didn’t sit around and work on math problems. But to a little kid who wanted to do well in school, it was a crushing defeat. In my immature brain, I didn’t understand the difference between intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot.

I may not have known multiplication that day, but when I came home and told Papaw about my heartbreak, he turned it into a triumph. I learned multiplication and division before dinner. And for two years after that, my grandfather and I would practice increasingly complex math once a week, with an ice cream reward for solid performance. I would beat myself up when I didn’t understand a concept, and storm off, defeated. But after I’d pout for a few minutes, Papaw was always ready to go again. Mom was never much of a math person, but she took me to the public library before I could read, got me a library card, showed me how to use it, and always made sure I had access to kids’ books at home.

In other words, despite all the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And it just might have saved me.

Check out Hillbilly Elegy if you haven’t seen it, to buy or to borrow from your own local library.

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