Life Lessons in Math

Do two quarters equal a Kennedy half-dollar?   I didn’t think so in 1965. 

50ȼ Piece


 My grandmother used to give my sister and I “50 cent pieces” as we left her home in Virginia and started back to South Carolina.  We were tickled pink to get them.   Once, after arriving home with my beautiful Kennedy half-dollar, I started an impromptu show and tell session in the neighborhood.  My big mistake was showing it to my arch nemesis (or as close as one little five-year old girl can be to an arch nemesis) –the little girl who lived across the street.     

I offered to show it to her in front of an empty lot.  “Oh,” she said, “Let me see it!”  As soon as I handed it over, she raised her arm, reared back and threw it as far as she could into the brush.  Tears were shed, parents were called, and a fruitless hunt for the coin ensued.  But to no avail.  The “50 cent piece” was never found. 

 The little girl’s father, Dr. Olds, a physics professor at a nearby college, had a brilliant mathematical mind.  He once told us that he entertained himself when stopped by trains by looking at the car numbers and adding up the number of cars whose four digit id numbers were prime numbers.   He was, and still is, a sweet and patient man.  He punished his daughter by docking her nickel allowance for 10 weeks.  The problem came when he offered me my payment.  He came over with two quarters but I was totally unconvinced that two quarters would equal 50 cents.   Poor Dr. Olds would have had less work driving to the bank and getting me a Kennedy half-dollar than he had trying to explain to a 4 ½ year old how to carry a one when adding two fives.  Finally, when I remained unconvinced after 20 minutes of very patient mathematical illustrations and demonstrations, my dad stopped snickering long enough to intervene.  He promised me that, though I didn’t understand the math, I could simply believe Dr. Olds because Dr. Olds was a very smart and honest man. 

 Sometimes, when I add things up by hand, I think of Dr. Olds and the lesson we all learned that day:    Equivalent ≠ Equal.

© Laura Hedgecock 2009


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