Allison's Book Bag

Last to Finish: A Story about the Smartest Boy in Math Class by Barbara Esham

Posted on: October 10, 2012

The title Last to Finish caught my attention. Most of my resource students are last to finish when in their regular classroom. However, the book’s subtitle, A Story About the Smartest Boy in Math Class, suggested that my students would not to relate to the story after all. This book by Barbara Esham is another entry in the Everyday Geniuses series. As with the first entry, If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi?, I found parts which I enjoyed and parts which I didn’t.

The first two-thirds of the book is about a third-grader named Max and his struggles with timed math facts. Every page held me to my chair, because I know many students who are like Max. He studies his math facts at home, completes his worksheets, and thinks he is doing well in math. Then his teacher starts the timer to test the class on their multiplication facts and Max suddenly becomes bad at something–“and that doesn’t feel so good.” I love how well Esham captures the expressions of an eight year old: “All I could think about was that terrible timer ticking that terrible tick-tick-tick! What happened? Are math facts suddenly erased from my mind while I sleep?” The comic style drawing of Max running a race or freezing at test time are hysterical, while also equally touching and sad. Such a perfect blend of emotions in the artwork! Fast forward to Max’s arrival at home and again I know many students like Max. His mom is telling him, “You may just need to work a little harder.” The sad reality is that some students do try, try, try. Yet in Max’s words, timed math facts ruin everything!

In the last third of Last to Finish: A Story about the Smartest Boy in Class, Max’s teacher discovers that he can do algebra. I appreciated the message Max’s teacher delivered: “Some people are great at memorizing all sorts of information, while others are great at understanding information. If I could choose between the two, I would rather have students understand mathematics.” I less appreciated that Max was selected to work in a program for accelerated students and was invited to join the math team. True, lack of fluency (or the ability to perform a task quickly and accurately) in a subject is not always an indicator of ability in that subject. And so, yes, there may be gifted students whose skills aren’t recognized, simply because they fail fluency tests. However, fluency can also be a strong indicator of ability. And for that reason I disliked that instead of Max being encouraged to practice his speed in math, which incidentally will be needed on a math team, he’s basically treated as a misunderstood genius.   

Okay, maybe I am being too serious about a book that is after all just fiction and so is basically entertainment. Most people love “rags to riches” stories. In other words, we love to read about how poverty-stricken Charlie struck it rich by finding the last Golden Ticket and winning a tour of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Translated to the academic world, how cool is it that The Lightning Thief’s Percy Jackson discovers that the real reason behind his attention-deficit disorder is that he’s the son of a god? And so, wouldn’t it be wonderful if every kid who is slow at math could discover that they are actually gifted? What struggling student wouldn’t like to hear that because of his exceptional ability, he can skip those challenging tests and go hang out with the “smart” kids? And that’s the problem with Everyday Geniuses–it is not escapist fantasy. The series has the commendable goal of inspiring struggling students. On the back cover, a professor has even written: “The books encourage children not to shy away from obstacles by showing how many adults overcame similar obstacles on the road to success.” Yet the reality is that far too many students, even those who are not diagnosed with a learning disability, struggle with not just their math facts but also everything else about math. These students need inspiration that cannot come from stories about kids whose triumph over difficulty is all thanks to a conveniently discovered gift.

To hear what others are saying about the Everyday Geniuses series, check out this video:

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

3 Responses to "Last to Finish: A Story about the Smartest Boy in Math Class by Barbara Esham"

I haven’ t read this book, so I am commenting in a more general way. You’ve talked about an element that often bothers me in books about kids with problems. The characters might be extra shy, extra slow, extra poor . . . yet readers soon discover that these characters have some very special gift, or their disability proves to actually be an asset, or they are destined to save the world. In real life, that’s not usually the case. But, as an author, I can understand that these characters are more exciting than the ordinary ones. So thanks for bringing this up, Allison.

As a reader, I do not like a book to mirror reality so much that I feel little hope. At the same time, there have been times in my life when I have turned away from books because they seemed so positive that I felt worse than ever about the situations I faced. Somewhere there is a perfect balance.

Of course the thing about balance is it’s so darn hard to achieve and maintain. I applaud Barbara Esham for writing books for young people with special needs. The first two of her books which I read didn’t strike the right chord for me, but the last two I read are ones which did. So, I hope that over all the Everyday Geniuses series meets a need.

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