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COFFEE SHOP EXPERIENCE PROVES EDUCATION CRISIS

When people want to make a point about something, they often say, "Do the math." But what if the person you're talking to, an adult, can't do the math? My husband and I went to a popular coffee shop for a bagel. As we made our selections, I watched an employee hand print our order on a scrap sheet of paper. Curious, I asked her why she needed to write out our order by hand. She explained that the computerized register was broken.

She asked another young woman to add the order up. The woman wrote down the prices of the four items we had ordered. With a pen in one hand, she leaned on the counter, resting on her elbows. She began to stroke her forehead as though this was going to be a complicated task that would take some time. And it did. I watched her as she began to add the columns, using her fingers for parts of the computation. I smiled, because when I'm tired, I do the same thing to balance my checkbook.

But I wasn't prepared for what happened next. After my husband reminded her he was eligible for the senior discount, she looked back at her co-workers and yelled, "What is 10 percent of $4.60?"

My husband and I answered in chorus, "46 cents." I picked up my order from the counter and walked away so my tongue would not be tempted to give her a math lesson on the spot. I was equally proud of my husband, who took the change and did not offer tutelage, either.

But when he joined me at the table, I felt less restrained to withhold my opinion. I said, "How could she have gotten a job without knowing how to take 10 percent of a number?" My husband answered wisely, "She is from a generation who has never been without a calculator."

I sat there pondering how a young adult from this culture went through our school system and didn't know to simply move the decimal point. Was that really part of the reason she couldn't do a simple computation like this? Are pocket calculators taking the place of intellectual development in our school system? Because if that's the case, no amount of federal money, voucher programs or newly equipped schools will solve this problem.

This isn't about the ease and plenitude of technology at our youth's fingertips. Nor is it about where they go to school. This is about brain boot camp that builds the mental muscles that are to serve us a lifetime.

Math discipline engaged and expanded my capacity to reason and to use logic. I developed an ability to see patterns and make associations. These skills did more than teach me to solve specific problems, I learned to analyze, evaluate and synthesize information. I cultivated both deductive and inductive reasoning, which I used to make better choices. I learned that these skills are not only necessary for a normal life, but are indispensable to an abundant existence.

Technology will continue to evolve, playing an even larger role in our educational system for generations to come. But if the government, parents and teachers do not limit its use until students' mental capabilities are secured, we will become a nation with a motto: Employer beware.

PAMELA OCCHINO, an entrepreneur, trainer and freelance writer, lives in Kenmore.

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