The highway was crowded. All four lanes crawled slowly northward, each car taking its turn to move a few precious feet before slowing and stopping. Idling. I must have read the billboard up ahead a dozen times. I think I had memorized it before we had even traveled the length of our car.
We languished in the left middle line. Cars on either side of us seemed to make slow progress, while we waited, and waited. I played a podcast for my children to maintain civility. From the back seat, I could hear my 6yo audibly sighing over the recording, while my 4yo repeatedly asked, “why aren’t we moving? Why aren’t we going?”
I saw a small window of opportunity to switch lanes — the driver of that silver Prius must have gotten distracted at the wheel to leave so much space — and I took it.
“Let’s try this lane!” I narrated to my children. “Maybe we will move faster!”
As soon as we switched, naturally, the lane we had just left moved a little, and we came to a sudden stop.
“Hmm… maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea,” I confessed aloud. “What do you think, little loves?”
“I think our new lane will be faster,” S, age 6, announced.
“So you think this was an okay choice?”
“Yeah!” She is a wonderful little cheerleader. So I decided to throw out a mathematical question.
“How could we figure out if this was, in fact, the better choice?”
S scrunched her face in thought. Little brother N looked at her, and blinked. I hit pause on the podcast. By this point, neither our new lane nor our old lane were moving.
S started slowly: “well, we can count!”
“Okay! Let’s do it!”
We waited a few seconds, and then car ahead of us started to move. It was time! We slowly passed a car that was trapped in the lane to our right.
“One!” shouted out S and N.
We rolled slowly forward, my foot cautiously on the break, but then: “Two!”
We made it halfway up the next car, but stopped. “Thhhhhhh..” I heard S winding up to announce the next number, but she left it unresolved. Meanwhile, little brother N shouted out, “Three! Four!”
“Not three, S?” I asked her.
“No. We didn’t pass it.”
“Okay, so we have to have pass the car entirely.”
S nodded. N watched gamely.
We started moving again, this time passing the third car.
“Three!” Both kids shouted out. “Four!”
I pressed firmly on the breaks, just as the lane to our right started to overtake us.
“Oh no! Three!” S shouted. “Two!”
“What’s happening?” I asked S.
“They’re passing us, so they don’t count! ONE! Oh, no!”
The other lane stopped. S breathed a sigh of relief.
We started to move forward a little bit, but then the lane to our right had a sudden break when several cars up ahead shifted lanes. “ZERO!” S declared in dismay.
“What happens next?” I asked her, as the car to our right inched forward.
“Another zero?” S asked.
“And then a negative 1,” she said crisply.
Oh! I wondered if she thought that there is both a positive zero and a negative zero, but all of a sudden we were moving, and I did not want us to lose count.
“One! Two! Three! Four!” We were zooming past now. “Five! Six! Seven! Eight! …seven… six. Seven! Eight!”
Each number counting down was uttered with a strictly solemn tone, while the kids enthusiastically counted forward.
“Nine! Ten! Eleven! Twelve!”
By that point, I was feeling much better about our lane change.
“What do you think? Is this lane the faster lane?”
“Thirteen!” S shouted out. “YES!”
Up ahead, the traffic was starting to ease a little.
“You two did a great job using math — using data! — to figure out the answer to our question!” I praised the kids.
S said nothing, but, from the rear view mirror, I caught glimpse of a small and satisfied smile.
We could. have measured the number of cars in several different ways. Instead of alternating between counting forward and counting back, we might have counted the cars we passed, and also counted the cars that passed us, and compared the two numbers — or found the difference. Counting on and counting back worked well for both of my kids, and meant we only had one number to keep in our head at a time.
Later, at home, I drew a number line on a white board in our kitchen for S.
“Let’s draw some arrows. This is like when we passed two cars… and then… oh, no, three cars passed us.” I drew three arrows down. It was hardly a perfect metaphor for what had happened — we hadn’t moved backwards, at all — but it felt like a start.
S looked past me, towards the bookshelf in the living room. “Uh, mama, you already taught me about this, I think.” It’s funny to me how S and N both have a low threshold for “school-ification.” They’ll happily mathematize the world, but once it starts to feel like a lesson…
S picked up a copy of the latest Bad Guys book, and that was that.
Cover photo by Life Of Pix from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/landscape-photography-of-cars-7674/
Photo 2 by Dom J from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/cars-on-road-during-sunset-297927/