The other day I needed to mend a plank that had come loose in my wooden fence. I’m not very handy but even I was able to determine that all that the job required was a hammer and a big nail. The former I had, but the nails I found in the garage were too small. Off to the hardware store went I.
“I’ll probably have to buy a whole box of nails in order to get one,” I grumbled to myself as I drove into the parking lot. Not so! To my pleasant surprise, I found bins of nails in various sizes sold, in that old fashioned way, “by the pound.” Nearby were small paper bags with instructions to “Mark the price and the weight on the bag” and take the bag to the check out stand.
Knowing that my hammering skills are those of a 7 year old, I decided to buy 5 nails. That way I could mess up several without having to make another trip to the store. (I know, you’re thinking the guy should not have worried about buying a whole box of nails; he obviously needs them!)
I weighed the nails in the nearby scale: 2 ounces. I wrote that on the bag. Then I searched around to find the price per pound. After a few seconds of visual investigation, I found it: $2.49 per pound. I wrote that on the bag and headed to check out.
After a short wait in line, I handed the bag to the young man at the register. The look on his face would have been the perfect picture to use with the definition of nonplussed in someone’s illustrated dictionary.
“What do I do with this?” he asked me in a tone somewhere between dismay and skepticism.
“It’s nails,” I said. “They’re $2.49 per pound and I have 2 ounces.”
“Do you have a calculator?” I asked.
“No,” said he.
“Do you have an iPhone?”
“Oh, yeah.” Whereupon he pulled out his iPhone, launched the calculator app, and then looked at me expectantly.
“Two forty-nine divided by 16 times 2.” Oops, I was going too fast. I repeated more slowly, one entry at a time.
“31,” says the clerk, “that can’t be right! I’ll ask someone else.” So the clerk calls to one of the other employees and explains his dilemma.
“Oh, just charge him 15 cents” says this more senior member of the staff. 5 nails for 15 cents. What a deal.
As I left the store and reflected on the clerk’s difficulty with the seemingly simple arithmetic required in this transaction, I started thinking about the new Common Core State Standards that most states have adopted. I’m ambivalent about them. For one thing, I’m not sure they are all that “new.” They look very much like standards of 1956 or 1976 (except, of course, we did not have standards then, though somehow many of us managed to learn a good deal). I also wonder if the re-wired brains of our digitally dependent, visually enthralled learners will be much interested in doing close reading or memorizing third tier vocabulary. However, if adopting new common core math standards means the check-out clerk at the hardware store will be able to figure out much to charge me for 5 nails, I’m all for ’em.