# Math Geek Mom: In the Fast Lane

Important lessons.

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March 26, 2015

In Calculus, the first derivative of position can describe how quickly an object’s position is changing over time. A more common way to describe this is to talk about “velocity”, or how fast something is moving. Although a different use of the word “fast”, I found myself thinking of this recently when my daughter participated in a 24 hour fast with our parish youth group.

I have to admit that my first reaction to her idea that she participate in the fast was to suggest that she not do it. 24 hours was a long time to go without food, and I am someone who gets dizzy and sometimes even shakes after only a few hours without food. Like any mother, I wanted to protect my daughter from suffering and from being uncomfortable. However, I soon learned that the pledges collected would go to build a well for a school for blind children in Uganda. I remembered a former student from Uganda who brought her talents back to her country after studying Public Health in graduate school. Realizing that the majority of mothers in the world have no ability to protect their children from the experience of hunger, I, still skeptical, signed the permission slips and let her go. Over one hundred students from the parish participated.

The fast began with her being given a bottle of water. She was allowed to refill it as often as she wanted, and was even allowed to have some juice that was distributed at regular intervals over the time there. The 24 hours were spent partially on activities that benefited the poor in our area, such as putting together care packages for homeless people, and partially on learning about poverty around the world. While outside in rather cold weather (which was nothing like the reality of winters in various places in the U.S. this past year) they were asked to imagine what it would be like to have to sleep outside in such cold. Of course, they slept inside, in the cafeteria and gym of the parish school, but she was quick to tell me about learning about homelessness when I picked her up the next day.

The goal of the fast was to raise enough money to build a well for the school in Uganda, and they raised enough money and then some. The “extra” money was to go to another agency that fights poverty in Africa. Because the money would benefit blind students, she learned how to write her name in Braille.

Did the experience have an effect on her? I have to think it did, as I learned the next day. We were driving along the road and passed a man walking along the side in shorts. As it was about thirty degrees outside, I pointed him out to her, wondering why someone would dress in summer clothes in such chilly weather. She was quick to point out maybe the man was dressed that way because he was poor and had no long pants, or even because he was homeless. I (rightly) felt like a jerk for pointing him out.

When I teach the frieze group in Abstract Algebra, I have my students dance out the group of motions. And when I teach History of Math, I have my students put on a trial (complete with me in my academic robe as the “judge”) in which they try to decide whether Newton or Leibniz actually invented Calculus. I have long ago realized that sometimes things are best learned by putting your whole self into the experience. I am hoping that something similar happened when my daughter went without food for 24 hours of her (short) life.

Readers, how do you find ways to teach your children about issues of poverty and justice?

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