Bonnie Henry: 2+2=4. Really. Is a calculator essential for that?

2013-04-07T00:00:00Z Bonnie Henry: 2+2=4. Really. Is a calculator essential for that?Bonnie Henry Special to The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

OK class, today's math problem is: Joe is buying a bottle of water that costs $1.97, total. He gives the clerk a five-dollar bill. Joe's correct change should be:

A) $2.03.

B) $3.03

C) Whatever the cash register indicates.

D) Whatever the clerk's calculator indicates.

E) Whatever the pinky on the clerk's left hand comes up with after he's used up the rest of his fingers.

F) None of the above.

The correct answer, of course, is "B," though one not easy to come by in today's world. That was the reality once again foisted on me the other day as I gave the clerk the fiver for my bottle of water, instantly counting out in my head the correct change.

She, clearly flustered, pulled out what looked like a personal calculator and began tapping out what amounted to a second-grade math problem. Suppressing the urge to blurt out the answer, I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, the calculator gave her the go-ahead. "Keep the pennies," I said as I left, hoping that wouldn't also put her into a tizzy as to how much three pennies were in cents.

Thank you, Mrs. Steele, and all the rest of my elementary-school teachers who taught me adding, subtraction, fractions, short- and long-division, and, of course, those all-important multiplication tables.

Hey, I may not remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday, but I will go to my grave knowing that 7 times 8 is 56. And 9 times 8 is 72 -without a calculator.

Blessed be the child who grew up before such "aids," when the only thing math nerds could whip out during class was a slide rule. That, too, has been relegated to the ashcan of higher learning, thanks to cheaper and more efficient calculators.

But c'mon, shouldn't we still be able to figure out a few numerical problems in our heads? Why do you need a calculator to double a recipe? Three-fourths cup of flour is a cup and a half doubled. Good ol' common denominator will save you every time.

Alas, my math acumen peaked at just about that level, and it was only the kindness of various high school combo math/track coaches that got me through enough algebra and geometry to qualify for college and a career crafting words rather than numbers.

While my elementary-school teachers also coaxed along my reading and writing skills, they were powerless to address my penmanship. I did, and still have, atrocious handwriting, despite my being kept inside for recess during the entire third grade in the vain hope that practicing my letters over and over would somehow improve them.

It never did, though I did learn enough to get me through dutiful thank-you letters to grandparents, as well as reams and reams of essay tests during high school and college. Tell me, do they still use blue-book exams in college, or have they been replaced by the laptop?

That may soon be the case everywhere, as more and more states are, according to a recent Associated Press report, discarding the teaching of longhand in elementary school in favor of added proficiency in keyboarding.

Some teachers are against this abandonment, pointing out that advanced placement essays for college still require that they be handwritten, and that printing by hand, rather than cursive, takes too long.

So, Mrs. Steele, it looks like you may still have a case to be made for legible penmanship - despite this pupil's abject failure. Meanwhile, thanks again for 4 times 7. And 9 times 9. And ...

Bonnie Henry's column runs every other Sunday. Contact her at

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