Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Word problems

       Scarcity:  Why Having Too Little Means So Much (a Times book by S. Mullainathan and E. Shafir, released last September) considers not only the facts but the feelings of scarcity and finds similarities between those those with too little time and those with too little money.  The authors report, further, that persons experiencing scarcity do not have the luxury of doing well in their studies -- of mathematics or poetry -- because the scarcity demands their first attention.
       And  . . . this connection between external environment and a student's learning brings me to a poem by Dian Sousa, a poem that gives us some things to think about.  


The parents have quit sleeping.
They are in the kitchen boiling chemicals,
covering the windows with cardboard.

The mother has lost two more teeth.
The soap is dirty and the dog is missing.
The father can’t feel his arms. His blood is a beehive.

They have forgotten to send the children to school,
but the collection men assembling in the front yard
have taken strange pity on the filthy girl.

Everyday they bring her word problems
to keep her math skills sharp,
to keep her dreary brain pumping with tricky equations
to make her stomach shut-up and her mouth go numb.

At 10 a.m. when your little gut is whimpering
like the skeletal dog dying under the burned-out car
and death gains velocity with every bit of bread and milk
that goes instead to all the paunchy sucklings encased in sunny houses,
please, little hungry one, calculate in degrees how much suffering it will take
before time returns to its circular track and the mothers arms are finally free
enough to reach you again, to re-cradle you, to feed you.

If you can, if you are strong enough,
here’s a stick and a square of dirt,
please be sure to show your work,
even if it doesn’t make any sense right now.

I will illuminate my work in a love-based equation
that reduces for eternity the stinking sad bones of poverty
to the netherworld of zero.

I will solve for green
where green is multiplied by compassion
so that green no longer equals the color of dried poison in a dirty cup,
or the edge of a dollar tied to the end of a string you’ll never catch
because it’s always jerked away by someone you’ll never see.

I will solved for green
where green is re-factored to its essence
so that green equals the color of a jolly worm
napping on a row of fat tomatoes.
I will divide green by green
and add exponentially the shady name of every fruit tree
and the medicinal secret of every flower.

I will solve for green
where green is the common denominator,
the one heavy thread that binds the blue ocean to the brown dirt,
the turquoise river to the red clay,
the claw and the hoof to the tail and the spike,
and starving spirit to the quaking body and the hopeful belly.

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