Third Grade Math Word Problems Reimagined as Horrifying Stories

Third Grade Math Word Problems Reimagined as Horrifying Stories May 16, 2021

Rosie is finishing up her third grade lessons. She is looking forward to a few weeks off in the summer. We homeschool year round, but she’s made such progress this year, I promised her all of July as a holiday if she’ll only be good through June.  She is most looking forward to being free of the math book, which is sad because she’s quite good at math. But she finds this particular curriculum extremely tiresome and not very easy to understand. 
I bought this particular third grade math book because it was cheap, and because I remembered my siblings learning math from it when we were homeschooled, so I thought it would be easy to teach. It’s a lot ghastlier than I remembered in retrospect– there’s a Bible verse or an improving Puritanical adage written in the margin on every other page. I like how the math concepts are broken down into tiny increments but I despise how weirdly the increments are scattered around the book instead of presented in a logical order. 
One thing I do enjoy, and will miss, are the word problems. They all come out of a strange, ominous fantasy world where something terrible is constantly about to happen. I have pondered the eerie poetry of the word problems while Rosie struggled over her math assignments. Somehow they got my mind churning out prompts for horror novels or a nasty television anthology series. 
I present my musings here. All these quotes are used in accordance with fair use principles for the purpose of parody and review. And my review is: while not very good at teaching Rosie math, this book would make an excellent set of creative writing prompts.
“Mrs. Schmidt earns $75 per day at her job at Whitewater Christian Academy. She works five days per week. How much does she earn in six weeks?” I don’t know, but I think it won’t be enough to pay her lawyer for the wage-an-hour violation. In retrospect, that should have been her first clue that something was wrong when she signed on for the job at Pastor Kavanaugh’s odd little intentional community. Sometimes she contemplates what would have happened if she’d followed her instinct and retired to Florida with her sister. Now she hasn’t been off the compound in six years, and her old life seems like a dream. 
“Jamie has 35 classmates. On a Bible test about David, 1/2 of the 36 students made a score of 100. How many of the students made 100 on the Bible test?” Whatever the  number, I am sure the other half of the students had a pleasant evening cleaning the entire school with toothbrushes as punishment. That’s Mrs. Schmidt’s least favorite part of the job, but Pastor Kavanaugh insists. 
“Mr. Tetlow went to the store He bought nails for $5.78, wood for 45.78, and paint for 18.25. How much money did he have left from $70?” And why is he not allowed to direct the annual Passion Play ever again? Now Mrs. Schmidt has to do that too, and she’s not getting paid for it. Come to think of it, she can’t remember the last time she saw a paycheck. No one ever seems to get paid on the compound, but nobody leaves. It’s the darndest thing. 

“Mary made 7 gallons of lemonade for the church party. How many quarts did she make?” And why is her lemonade the best lemonade here in the intentional community? And why does Pastor Kavanaugh get so happy whenever he drinks any? He’s such a taciturn man. And why do we get these strange headaches the next morning? This never happened to Mrs. Schmidt at her old school.

 

“Mr. Lee made 12 signs at work. He made 3 yellow signs and 5 blue signs. If the rest of the signs were white, how many white signs did he make?” Pastor Kavanaugh wants the “repent or perish” signs lined up Burma-shave style outside the compound. He is very particular. Mr. Lee has thought about asking the pastor why the signs have to be in those particular colors, but he’s not the kind of man who takes kindly to questions. Just think of what happened to Mrs. Schmidt when she asked for a raise. 
“Emmanuel Christian School has 78 students in the 3rd grade and 19 fewer in the 4th grade. How many students are in third and fourth grades?” And when did we change the name of the school from Whitewater to Emmanuel? And what happened to those 19 students? And why do the children all gather in the cornfield once a year, looking grim? 
“A secretary at Faith Christian Academy can type 85 words per minute. At that rate how many words can she type in eight minutes?” Again with the new name for the school. How come the secretary never looks up from the typewriter? And how come if you sneak into the school at night, you can still hear her typing?
“Mrs. Benson helps at the hospital. If she earns $57.67 each day, and works 5 days per week, how much does she earn in 3 weeks?” Mrs. Benson feels she could be more helpful if she had a medical degree, but Pastor Kavanaugh says all a woman needs is faith and a man. He says that if she had faith the size of a mustard seed, all of these sick would rise from their beds, praise the Lord, and become regular repeat donors to Whitewater Emmanuel Faith Christian Academy and Pastor Kavanaugh’s other good works. When this does not happen, he blames her. 
“Max and Julia were practicing the piano. Max practiced for 45 minutes and Julia practiced 1/3 as long as Max. How long did Julia practice?” Julia was glad that Pastor Kavanaugh let her learn piano. But she was sick of playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” If only he didn’t sing. If only he didn’t DANCE. If only he didn’t demand that everyone present in the music building stop what they were doing and march around in formation. 
“Cassie wants to buy a Bible that costs 8.95 and a game that costs 5.99. She has saved 10.00. How much more money does she need to save?” None. She already has enough. Because games are forbidden on the Whitewater Emmanuel Faith Christian Academy, and Bibles are free. 
“Donna’s dog had 6 puppies. There are 5 black puppies. What fraction of the puppies is black?” And why is Pastor Kavanaugh screaming that it’s an omen? 
“Jody swam 12 yards in 5 seconds. How many feet did she swim?” And how much further does she have to go before she is safe from Pastor Kavanaugh’s alligator? 
“Russell walked 3 miles and Stephen walked 6 miles. Kent walked 1/3 as far as Stephen. How many miles did the boys walk in all?” And how long before Pastor Kavanaugh notices they’re missing? And how come the gate to the cult compound always looks the same distance away no matter what? Jody warned them about that when she tried to swim away across the moat, but they didn’t believe her. Now they see it happening before their very eyes. What will they do? 
“Mr. Zingler drove 30 miles on Monday, twice as far on Tuesday as on Monday, and 3 times as far on Wednesday as on Monday. How many miles did he drive?” I don’t know but I wish him godspeed. Out of this math book, into a pleasanter curriculum. Keep driving, Mr. Zingler. Keep driving and don’t look back. 

Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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