Parent-Night Hint: Keep Mouth Shut

By WOODY HOCHSWENDER

New York Times

[snip]

The teacher was discussing the prealgebra and basic geometry the children were studying, with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse, and so forth. On the blackboard he sketched out a few impressive-looking equations. Conversation lagged.

Turning from the blackboard at intervals, the teacher prodded the dozing parents with a familiar refrain: “Any questions?

Silence.

Any questions at all?”

[snip ]

He spoke. “So what is x to the zero power, that is, you know, x0?”

The teacher looked momentarily as though he were a fawn caught in the headlights of a large truck. This is perhaps the origin of the word dumbfounded. Perhaps some earnest pedagogue long, long ago was asked a trick algebra question — and was found dumb.

[snip]

The teacher, recovering his confident mien, stated: “Oh, uh, that would be zero, of course,” accompanied by an iron smile. “X to the zero is zero,” he reiterated.

Which was a problem. You see, the answer is not zero, as any middle school math teacher should know. The father, unfortunately, felt compelled to point this out. (You see, this really is a gift.)

“Er, no, that is not correct,” Dad said evenly. A deeper hush, like that whiter shade of pale one hears about, enveloped the room.

“Actually,” the dad went on, “x0 is 1.”

All eyes riveted now on the teacher, who was squirming, and Dad, who was sensing his own impending doom and the end of his child’s academic career. Mom was staring at the ceiling, her eyes performing round-the-worlds continuously.

Dad continued: “According to the law of exponents, when two equal numbers with exponents are multiplied, one simply adds the exponents. For example, x1 times x1 equals x2.” And, he went on, x1 times x-1 would equal x0. Therefore, since a negative exponent by definition is expressed as a fraction, x1 times 1/x becomes x/x, or 1.

That would be the end of story, except that in the next marking period, the child received a 67 in math, which, for those of you long away from the groves of academe, is a D. On all subsequent parents’ nights, Mom has barred Dad from appearing anywhere within 500 feet of the school.

So I watch the ballgame instead. And the moral of the story?

**On parents’ night, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.**

October 7, 2007

Parent-Night Hint: Keep Mouth Shut

By WOODY HOCHSWENDER

New York Times

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