Published on June 2nd, 2015 | by Katherine Thome


The UnCommon Core by KATHERINE THOME

“Directly compare two objects with a measurable attribute in common, to see which object has “more of”/”less of” the attribute, and describe the difference. For example, directly compare the heights of two children and describe one child as taller/shorter.” – CCSS.Math.K.MDA2


Kindergarten math in my house looks something like this.

“Mommy, can I measure your foot?”

“My foot?”

“Yes. With this.”

Ellie takes the red ribbon off her ponytail and lines it up with my shoe. Then she places her finger on the ribbon where my toe is and brings the ribbon over to her own foot in its sneakers with neon-pink laces.

“Yours is half a ribbon bigger than mine. But I’m growing and soon mine will be a half ribbon bigger than yours.” Don’t let it be too soon.


photo by miriam/flickr creative commons

Among parents these days, there’s so much intense concern surrounding the Common Core, math proficiency, and standardized tests scores. Somehow, I can’t manage to interrogate Ellie’s math curriculum with any real enthusiasm. I question myself when everyone around me is worried about making sure our kids are keeping up with the rest of the world.

My father died when I was eight. Thus, I have different anxieties. Parents who lost a parent as a child always do. We grew up as an “other” to kids. When we become parents, we are still “others.”

When other parents worry about high-stakes tests and college admissions years away, I worry about a possible future where today’s giggling ride on the tire swing is only a fuzzy memory for Ellie and my body is high on hill like Emily in Our Town. I feel alone. Don’t “normal” parents know what the really scary future is–one where their child is alone in the world, without their love?

I’m not afraid that Ellie will grow up unable to get a job because some kid who can do differential equations in his head halfway around the world will beat her out in an interview. I’m afraid that she won’t be able to find the common ground to connect with him. It terrifies me to imagine a time when she will be afraid and forget how to love boldly, break rules and tell that kid that even though he can do math in his head, it doesn’t matter because he didn’t stop to help another kid who tripped and fell down. What if she will grows up lying and cheating because she can neither resist nor recognize perverse incentives created by banker bonus pools and teacher accountability programs?


“Measure a Thousand Times, Cut Once” by Sonny Abesamis flickr/creative commons

She’ll do fine in school, I get my hives over the idea that she won’t see the beauty of the Northern Lights as akin the beautiful math of fractals, that she won’t hear the clink of an ice cube on crystal as an expression of the physics and waves responsible for Sibelius, that she won’t realize there is a family within less a mile of our house going to bed hungry. Or worst of all, that she’ll think their hunger is somehow their own fault. All because no one will be there who can teach her these things.

Because my father died when I was young, I have made plans. Lots of them. My husband and I have “an excess” of term life insurance. Our wills are up-to-date. We debate who will raise Ellie if we die. I have plans upon plans. I’ve gone so far as to figure out where I’ll go and what I’ll do if my husband dies and leaves me a single mom in Silicon Valley. But I am not prepared. This rational planning of the head never prepares the heart. At least once a month, I still wake in a panic at 3 am.

There is no reason, logically speaking, for me to fear I will die young. However, there is a rational one. Although I feed myself organic food, exercise, and avoid even the trace of second-hand smoke on the sidewalk, I worry. Every time I press my finger to the bridge of my nose or my forehead with a sinus headache, I wonder for a split-second if this time it’s a cerebral aneurysm. The night my father had a seizure at forty-four, he took Benadryl and Tylenol. What he needed was an ambulance ride to a neurosurgeon.

Parents with young children die every day. People don’t talk about it. One in twenty children lose a parent before adulthood. When you compare that to autism striking one in 400, the silence is ludicrous. It’s partly that Americans are optimists. We do research, learn, and find a cure. Death doesn’t have a cure. It’s not supposed to.

Mostly I am afraid that, like my father, I will die unexpectedly before I have time to protect her from the swirl. She will have to internalize and navigate the lessons and worries of growing up because someone else will fail to help her through it if I am gone. These are not the conversations you can have at parent coffees – they are too awkward. So I sit and hope that I can wrestle up the energy to intelligently opine on the common core, incorporating movement throughout the school day, and optimizing leisure so that Ellie has enough activities to count as enrichment rather than overscheduling.


My father had wishes and dreams for me. He had opinions about the person he wanted me to be, the school I should go to and the books I should read. He died before most of that could happen. Some of it probably came to pass and some of it didn’t. I don’t really know about most of that. But I do know he cared about making me brave, making me honest, and most of all making me capable of enormous love. I think he’d be happy with the work he left my mother to finish.

That’s how I can fall back to sleep when I am tempted to worry that she can’t read yet but three kids on the playground can recite The Raven. I already see Ellie’s capacity for love, her ability to ask for help when she needs it, and her ease making mental connections. That’s the part of education that concerns me – the common core of a human being.

I don’t want to have her know what it’s like to miss me every day of her life, to ask what I would think of a new piece of music, if I would like her choice of boyfriend or girlfriend, or if I still remember the day we ran up and down the dunes at Half Moon Bay and ate grilled cheese sandwiches served out of an abandoned caboose. I want to take her back there when she’s grown and run up those same dunes and eat the same grilled cheese with her family. It’s both probable and possible I will.

Science, progress, and MetLife say “You will live to eighty.”

Fear says, “Or not.”

Today, all I can do is tell her that I think she’s the bravest person I know, that I’m proud of her for telling me the truth when she’s made a mistake, and that I love her “to infinity plus one more than that.”

In my bone marrow, I know that no one can do the job of bringing up Ellie like I can because no one is me. No one can love this child with the mind-blowing love I have for her because the love I have for her is so immense I finally comprehend infinity. If that’s not the most important of math lessons, what is? Perhaps it is the mathematics of scarcity – the scarcity of a mother’s love.

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About the Author

Kate Thome is thrilled to have her debut essay in MUTHA. She grew up with her mother in New York City and Westhampton Beach. After majoring in philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, Kate pursued a career in banking and payments. She holds an MBA from the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. A member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, she blogs about her memoir in process at http://irememberthatnight.blogspot.com. Kate lives with her family in Northern California.

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