Through the virtue of me having young parents, at age nine my own son Taylor has the fortune of not just having grandparents, but great grandparents alive and well. On my mother’s side in particular, I have a grandfather (after who I am named), who is still quite the traveler at age 72. While he lives in Ohio he frequently “pops in” on my son and me. Despite his inability to call and let me know he is coming or how long he will stay, once I get over the initial shock of discovering he is waiting in the driveway for me to come home from work and welcome him into my home, we usually do have a nice visit. (Though he has yet to convince me to give him his own garage door opener despite asking on more than one occasion!)
My son especially likes having his great-grandfather around. My grandfather, as I am sure do most grandfathers, has seventy plus years worth of stories and opinions and riddles he has collected over a remarkably varied life. And if there is one thing that my grandfather is not, it is shy; so my son finds his great grandpa immensely entertaining--as did I at age nine. (Although between you and me I really thought by the time I was nine I had stopped falling for the old pull-my-finger trick that still sends my grandfather and my son into fits of laughter visit after visit.)
The last time my grandfather came out to visit, Taylor had a lot of homework. So after dinner my grandfather settled onto the couch to watch wrestling, (pronounced WRAST’lin), and Taylor and I went about trying to do his homework. The assignment was geared at reinforcing multiplication tables. Something my son struggled with for a bit. So we were working on it for a while. Long enough that my grandfather decided either the school was passing out too much homework, or I was explaining it wrong. So like any concerned great grandparent would do my grandfather clicked off the TV, walked into the kitchen, and pulled up a chair intent on showing us the error of our ways.
Grandpa asked Taylor to explain the assignment--which my son did. Without warning Grandpa then plucked the page and pencil from my son’s hands and proceeded to stare over a multiplication problem for some time. The page stared back at him.
128 x 69 =
Taylor and I watched with growing fascination as grandpa proceeded to scribble nearly as many figures on the page as there were problems. At last he grunted and wrote his answer.
Now I am by no means a mathematical giant, but something seemed a bit peculiar about his answer. So I did a quick computation and came up with 8,832. And while I was still trying to politely figure out how to tell my grandpa “thanks but no thanks”, my son didn’t show any such discretion.
“That’s wrong Great Grandpa!” he exclaimed.
My grandfather took the page back, made some more of his calculations in the margin, then looked up in all seriousness and said to my son:
“Taylor, you are old enough to know the truth.”
I have to tell you at this moment I was pretty shocked. While I was not sure what great personal revelation my grandfather intended to make, I was sure it was to be a difficult one. Every father and grandfather and great grandfather wants the children in his life to see him as a giant, a genius, a god. I could only imagine how difficult this was going to be for my grandfather to explain to my son that times had changed, things had changed, and maybe he wasn’t as sharp as he once was. My grandfather said none of those things. Instead he continued:
“Taylor, your teachers and your school and your principal aren’t going to tell you this, but the truth is when it comes to arithmetic, and I mean real world arithmetic, not the stuff they have picked out for you and put into those books, well the truth is 7’s and 9’s don’t figure. The answer to your homework will never come out right because one of the numbers ends with a 9. So I did the only thing you can do, in real life I mean, I rounded the 9 up to a 10. Sure you can round a 7 or 9 down as well if you want to low-ball it, but I figured this would be easier for you to follow.”
I stared for a moment, incredulous, not sure if my son was believing this, if my grandfather was believing it. I had no earthly idea what to say. Then I thought about my grandfather who in his day had worked as a machinist, who built the die and tool that was used to punch the first removable soda-pop top. Remember, (or maybe you don’t), those first aluminum soda cans that had the tab you just pulled off of the can entirely and chucked it onto the ground? Obviously that was before “give a hoot—don’t pollute” and those pull tabs littered highways everywhere until someone got the idea to make the tab a part of the larger can. Still, discounting the negative environmental aspect, in its day the pop-top was an ingenious piece of engineering. A technological leap and my grandfather was a part of it.
Then I considered how much computers have changed, from the time when I was an 11 year old boy banging out BASIC on my TRS-80, to now when the processor in my wristwatch has more memory and operating capacity than some of the machines that were remarkably once labeled “personal computers”. Day in and day out at the office, I see the technological envelope pushed here at SoftLayer. We offer our customers the latest and greatest from integrated remote out of band management, to high speed fault tolerant digital backups. I am an integral part of one of the most exciting and talked about technology ventures in the history of webhosting. Yet will there come a day when I am sitting at the table with my own son’s children wondering how it happened that I can’t manage to come up with the correct answer for an elementary school problem?
“Well for now,” I said trying to sound authoritative, “I guess we better do it the way your teacher wants—the way the book explains it. You have quite a while to go before you are out in the real-world and by then I bet you have figured out how things work all on your own.” Taylor shrugged and wrote down 8,832. Grandpa started to speak, hesitated, and then held up his index finger. “Does this look crooked to you Taylor?” he asked. “Say maybe you could help me straighten it out by giving it a little pull?” Laughter ensued.