The Up Sides of a Near Miss

This morning, as I was nearing the top of a curvy highway entrance ramp, I broke into a skid. I don’t mean a little fishtail. I mean a full-on skid where I desperately wanted to be on the entrance ramp but was actually sliding across the highway into traffic, at speed.

I grew up in a snowy climate, and my dad taught me how to handle skids in an empty mall parking lot when I was 16. (Thanks, Dad.) I’m now 42, and today was the first time I’ve had a car skid at speed because, well, I know better. Everything about this morning was surprising and wrong. I was not driving too fast and I took the turn well. The car in front of me was going faster and handled it fine. I drive a Subaru Outback, for crying out loud!

I recovered control while careening back and forth between traffic and the ten foot snow bank on the guardrail. Thankfully, all the other drivers were paying attention and got out of the way. We didn’t make contact with anything and emerged unscathed. Maya was so engrossed in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that she barely looked up from her book. Daphne took it all in stride. But I was shaken.

I wanted to sit and think, but the highway is no safe place for that, so I started driving again. As I drove, I was running through all the poor traction I’ve had at stop signs lately, the slide I had in a parking lot last week, the way the brakes haven’t been responding well in slush, and now this terrifying skid. In case you’re in a newsless cave, we’ve had a lot of snow in New England this winter, and the car just hasn’t been handling the way I expect it to. I dropped the kids off and headed to the mechanic.

Six hours later, I left with four new tires and new rear brakes. The mechanic said he could barely get the car to stop as he entered the garage. Leaving, I felt like I was driving a new car. That’s the Outback I remember! Fist pump!

I picked the kids up and told them about my day. Here’s where we get to the mathy part. As a math teacher and parent, I am attuned to everyday opportunities to talk about math with my kids. I notice them, seek them out, and take advantage of them, aspiring to what Christopher Danielson described in his perfect TMWYK post, “A Tale of Two Conversations.” I knew I could open a mathematical conversation here. But which one?

One option was to get into measurement. How often do you get to talk about 5/32 of an inch of tread?

I could also get into the math of risk. My kids are afraid of the wrong things, just like everybody else, even though the most dangerous thing we do is drive. Perhaps I could have introduced a little statistical perspective. Then again, the last thing I wanted to do this morning was scare my kids further.

Speed, rates, and distance are always a choice when talking about cars and driving.

The mechanic talked with me at length about tire tread design, which took us to rotational symmetry. If you’re curious, google words like directional and asymmetrical tire tread. It’s really interesting, I swear!

There were lots of opportunities to play with larger numbers. The tires are supposed to last 50,000 miles. We bought them when the car had 72,000 miles, and it now has 96,000. Hmm. That’s very appealing.

In the end, I guided us toward costs and money for a very specific reason. My old friend Ron Lieber has written a terrific new book called The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About MoneyI’m a few chapters in and loving it. Ron has convinced me that we need to do a much better job of raising financially literate kids. He’s encouraging adults to break down the taboos surrounding money, and engage in meaningful conversations about decisions, debt, needs, and wants. He points out that kids are aware of the thorny ethical, political, personal, and societal issues surrounding money from really early ages, and we might as well talk about them openly rather than hide them. I feel like a dope for not seeing it this way before.

The truth is, while I’ve always taken opportunities to talk about small money with kids because it gets me to good math talks, I haven’t done as good of a job talking about big money. Four new tires and new rear brakes is a big money moment that gave me a chance to talk about math and money at the same time. Here’s how that part of the conversation went:

Tracy: “So how much do you think all of that cost?”

Maya (7): “I think about $1,000.”

Tracy: “Wow! That’s really close! Let’s see. At first, he told me each tire would be $156.”

Maya: “So…that’s $624 just for the tires.”

Tracy: “How’d you do that?”

Maya: “I did the hundreds first. 100 and 100 is 200, and then I doubled that to get 400. 50 and 50 is 100, and so I doubled that to get another 200, which got me to 600. And then 6 and 6 is 12, and 12 and 12 is 24. So that’s $624. Wait. What do you mean, ‘At first?'”

Tracy: “Well, remember how we figured out that the tires should have lasted for another 26,000 miles? He had sold me those tires, and he felt bad they didn’t hold up well, so he gave me a discount on the new tires. He charged me $146 for each tire instead.”

As a math teacher, I set it up this way on purpose. I was curious if Maya would solve $146 x 4 to find the new total, or use her solution from the prior problem and solve some version of ($156 x 4) – ($10 x 4). At the same time, I was mindful that Daphne (5) didn’t have a way to access this conversation, and was looking for a chance to bring her in.

Maya: “So, he charged $40 less.”

Tracy: “Right, because he charged $10 less for each tire. Hey Daphne, can you count by tens for me?”

Daphne: “10, 20, 30, 40. Forty dollars.”

As she counted, I held up my fingers to keep track, and then pointed each finger toward a tire in turn, trying to help her associate $10 with each tire. She counted them by tens again, pointing at the tires herself. Pleased with the mental math the kids were doing, I decided to turn to the bigger issues around money, starting with a question.

Tracy: “Where do you think the $1,000 comes from?”

Daphne: “From the bank.”

Tracy: “How did it get in the bank?”

Daphne: “When you and Daddy work, you put the money you make in the bank.”

She made such a great connection to the breakfast conversation we’d had about allowance. As per Ron’s policies, we’d been talking about categories of give, spend, and save. I was able to add nuance to their ideas about saving by introducing the idea of a short-term cash reserve for unexpected expenses. We don’t know when the roof will leak or the dishwasher will go on the fritz or someone will get a cavity or relatives will fall ill and we’ll need to travel suddenly. We just know that these things do happen, and we need to have money ready to pay for them right away.

But part of talking about money is talking about the hard truths too, which is why I found myself going on:

“I feel really grateful today. I feel grateful that we can pay this $1,000, which we absolutely needed to pay for safety, and we still have enough money for heat and health care and food. Families who are having a harder time right now have to choose between those things, even though they need them all. $1,000 is a lot of money. Yes, we work hard and we save up for costs like this, but we’re also really lucky, and I am grateful.”

So began a conversation that lasted the rest of the way home. I’d opened the doors, and the questions came pouring through. They’re still coming, and we had a long talk after dinner tonight about how sometimes society is like a game that’s not played fair. Privilege, race, class, advantage. It’s all coming up. So good.

I feel grateful again. I started my day grateful that I got the car stopped. I end it grateful that I have a new way to engage in meaningful conversations with my children.

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