An Easy Example

Copyright 2017 – Katherine Lato

When Jenny clicked, the computer showed a spinning disc. She tried not to groan, but Mama noticed anyway and left the stove to peer over her shoulder. “What are you doing? Are you looking at a video?”

“It’s homework.” Jenny pushed her hair out of her face. “My teacher explains the math concepts every week with a video, but I can’t get it to load.”

“I knew you shouldn’t be in that math class. It’s too hard for you.” Mama hurried back to the stove. The smell of fried meat made the small kitchen feel closed-in.

“It wouldn’t be if I could get this computer to work.” The circle spun. The video hadn’t made any progress. It must be longer than last week’s. Their computer often stopped part way through, but this was the first time it hadn’t even started.

“Well, you can’t hog the computer.” Mama set a stack of plates on the table. “We need it for your brother’s speech therapy.”

“He’s playing outside with his buddies.”

“It’s good to take advantage of the daylight. You should be outside as well.”

“I need to watch this video.”

“Videos use up our allowed bandwidth too quickly. We have to make it through the month. You should ask your teacher for a handout of the material.”

“It’s only available as a video.” Judging from the spinning circle, their allotment was being throttled already. “Can we go to the library tonight?”

“No. Daddy is working the late shift. I can take you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow wouldn’t help with tonight’s homework, but complaining would only bring forth another lecture about how she shouldn’t push herself so hard, that she should be having fun. Mama didn’t understand that math was fun.

“Can you tell your brother dinner is ready?”

“All right.”

* * *

After eating and helping with the dishes, Jenny took her textbook into her bedroom to avoid hearing her brother sounding out simple words. It wasn’t his fault he had a speech problem, but it meant her parents paid more attention to his schoolwork than to Jenny’s, plus neither of her parents understood algebra.

Jenny studied the book, trying to figure out functions from the description. She read about f(x) and how a function took the elements from the domain and related them to elements in the co-domain. Her teacher’s explanation had made functions seem easy. But her textbook didn’t mention marmalade, or even input and output. She studied the equation f(x) equals x squared. “If I put a 2 for x, then f(2) equals 4. If I put in 3 for x, then f(3) equals 9. In marmalade terms, if the function of marmalade was to make toast taste squared better, then f(2) would be 4 pieces of great-tasting toast. And f(3) would be 9 pieces of great-tasting toast. OK, that makes sense.”

She worked on her homework until bedtime, then again first thing in the morning. She couldn’t figure out two of the problems.

When she arrived at the bus stop, Sally said, “What happened to your hair?”

Jenny touched her ponytail. She usually wore her hair in a ponytail or with a headband to keep her shoulder-length hair in place. “Nothing.”

Sally’s hair was tightly braided on the side. Several strands were loose.

“Your hair looks great.” Jenny slapped her forehead. “Was today the day we were wearing French braids? I didn’t have time anyway since I was working on functions. When I tried to apply what Mr. Hansen explained yesterday, I got lost.”

“It was easy after I looked at the example,” Sally said.

“What example?”

“The one he posted on the website.”

“He posted it as a video file,” Jenny said. “I couldn’t watch it.”

“Why not?”

“My brother was using the computer.”

“You have to share? When I said I wanted to take Algebra this year, my parents bought me a new laptop. They said if I was going to be learning advanced math concepts at my age, it would be easier if I had a good display.” Sally grinned. “It’s also great for watching youtube videos. Did you see the adorable cat one that Mayling posted?”

As usual, Sally needed no encouragement to describe the video in detail. If Jenny had her own laptop, she wouldn’t waste her time watching cat videos, although seeing big dogs scurry away in terror at tiny kittens did sound funny.

* * *

During Algebra, when Mr. Hansen asked if there were any questions, Jenny asked several. After explaining that a function was a special type of relation where every element in the domain was included and any input produces only one output, he said, “This was covered in the video. Did you watch it?”

“I couldn’t,” she mumbled.


“I thought I understood what you said yesterday, but when I was doing the homework, I got confused.”

“Next time watch the video. You should be doing that each week, it’s required for being in this class.”

“Yes, sir.”

He started to walk away.

Jenny blurted, “Could you explain today’s concepts using marmalade?”

When the class laughed, Mr. Hansen’s frown made him look much older. “Save the jokes for after the quiz.”

She hadn’t been making a joke. His explanations with marmalade made it easier to visualize the problems.

* * *

When Jenny arrived home, Mama was busy in the kitchen. “Hi, sweety. How was school?”

Jenny would love to discuss being embarrassed in class, but Mama might say ‘I told you so.’ “School was okay. Can we go to the library before dinner?”

“Your father isn’t home yet. Be patient.”

When Mama’s phone rang, Jenny listened to the conversation with growing dread.

“I suppose if you have to,” Mama said. “We can certainly use the money. That’s fine. I’ll put it in a container for your lunch tomorrow.” She hung up the phone and sighed.

Jenny asked, “Is Daddy working an extra shift?”

“Yes. You can go to the library over the weekend.”

“That will be too late for the quiz.”

“Another quiz? I really think that class is too hard.”

Jenny fought to control her tears. The math wasn’t difficult. If Sally could do it, Jenny was sure she could as well. Thinking of Sally gave her an idea. “After dinner, can  I go over to Sally’s house? She has her own laptop so we could watch the video together.”

“I don’t know,” Mama said. “I don’t like you walking on your own late at night.”

“Sally only lives three blocks away.” She probably shouldn’t have mentioned the math homework. Mama worried that Jenny spent too much time on schoolwork when she should be having fun. “Sally told me about a great cat video. We could watch that.”

“In my day, we didn’t have to use a computer to have fun,” Mama said. “All right, but you have to be back by eight-thirty.”

“I’ll phone her now.”

“We’re about to eat dinner.”

“It will only take a minute,” Jenny said.

“Keep the call short. I’m near the end of my minutes on my phone this month as well. I swear, everything these days needs data.”

* * *

When Jenny arrived, Sally said, “Good. We can watch cat videos.”

“I came over to watch the video for math class.”


Jenny said, “I didn’t see it.”

“Why not? You’re only supposed to watch cat videos after doing your homework, you know.”

Jenny tried to imagine a world in which watching cat videos was something she did daily. She couldn’t. “Think of it as review.”

Sally agreed, but then fast-forwarded through what she called ‘the boring parts.’ It ended up being most of the video. As soon as she got to the end, she said, “These cat videos are adorable.”

Although the cats were cute, Jenny wished they could have seen all of the math video. Mr. Hansen’s explanation gave her an idea. She wanted to work on explicit versus implicit functions. She managed to smile and laugh until she could leave.

“But you haven’t seen the best one,” Sally said.

“Mama said I needed to be home by eight.” With the lie, she would have time to work on explicit functions before bedtime.

“Your loss.”

* * *

Jenny knew she hadn’t done well on the quiz, but her cheeks burned when Mr. Hansen asked her to stay after class. Since she was getting an A in her next class, she didn’t mind being late, but she was afraid he would suggest dropping the class. She needed math to pursue her dream of becoming a biochemist.

Once they were alone, Mr. Hansen said, “What’s going on? Last week you got one-hundred percent and this week you barely passed.

Jenny studied her shoes. “The examples in the textbook were difficult this week.”

“That’s why I had a longer video than usual to explain the concepts.”

“But you didn’t post the video until Monday.”


“I have to share the computer with my brother.” Jenny looked at Mr. Hansen. “We don’t have enough bandwidth to stream long videos. Last week you posted it on Sunday, so I watched it at the library. My dad works the late shift. Mom can’t drive me to the library most weeknights and won’t let me bike at night. I go every weekend, since I can bike during the day. This week you didn’t post it until Monday morning. Maybe you could post them earlier?”

Mr. Hansen’s adam’s apple was visible when he swallowed. “I can do that.”

“I’d like that.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “This must be what Partners Bridging the Digital Divide is talking about.”


“I went to a fundraiser last month and they were talking about digital access. You should have your own computer.”

“My family can’t afford it.” Jenny sighed. “My parents think I don’t belong in this class.”

“You belong here. I’ll contact my friend and see about getting you a computer. It won’t be a new one. His organization refurbishes computers and donates them.”

“My parents won’t take charity.”

“It’s not charity,” he said. “It’s like trying to do math without a pencil. You should have a computer.”

“Everyone in class should have a computer. I usually see José at the library, and sometimes Luis is there as well.”

“I’ll work on this.” He took out his phone and typed for several seconds, then tapped his finger against his lips. It was one of his ‘I’m thinking’ mannerisms. “In the meantime, I’ll post the videos for the next week on Friday afternoon. In addition, I’ll make several flash drives with all the videos on them.”

“How does that help?”

“You don’t need to be connected to the internet to download them.”

“It’s illegal to make copies of videos,” she said. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”

“I created these videos. It’s not a copyright violation if I give you permission.”

“That would be great.”

“It’s not enough,” he said. “But it’s a start. Don’t worry. I’ll do better.”

The end