The Estimating Epic

I hate estimating. Not because it’s especially difficult or because I morally disagree with it, but because of my history with it. Whenever the word “estimate” is mentioned (not that it is a common word in my conversations, but it’s certainly not an idiosyncratic choice of diction–unlike the word “idiosyncratic”), my parents shoot me a coy grin and make instigative jeers.

It all goes back to the first grade, a tumultuous year of self-discovery and life-changing decision-making. Do I want to pack a lunch, or buy it? If I want to pack a lunch, do I want the Scooby-Doo fruit snacks, or the Disney Princess fruit snacks? But if I buy a lunch, I don’t have to carry my lunch box on the bus and risk leaving it behind. But if I don’t pack a lunch, how will my mom deliver her daily lunchbox notes to me? Will she have to drive to school and slip it to the lunch ladies? How will they know which kid to give it to? If they give it to the wrong kid, some other prick will think my mom loves him, and she doesn’t– she loves me. But my mom’s a nice lady and couldn’t turn down a poor innocent child who thinks he’s finally loved so she’d wind up adopting him and I do NOT want another brother.

Needless to say, I brought a packed lunch every day until high school.

Another thing about first grade is that we did a lot of problems dealing with math. I had other problems, like the whole lunch-packing debacle, and if I wanted to play tag or swing on the swings at recess, and then a whole slew of personal problems, like which Hot Wheels car I could trade my brother to get that cool green one he had, and if I could finally be annoying enough to get my parents to let me stay up past 8 PM (I ended up picketing around the house in my campaign to stay up until 9 PM).  But in the classroom, we primarily dealt with problems of the math persuasion, and worked on counting numbers and manipulating numbers (read: adding and subtracting) because how could we ever survive in this world without knowing all the intimate workings of numbers? (As it turns out, after putting up with math my whole life up through AP Calculus, in my adult life I have discovered that shockingly little math is required to be a functioning member of society, quite contrary to what your school board would like you to believe.)

One of the units we were working on was estimates– making guesses at the quantity of objects. I suppose this is admittedly a relatively useful skill to have, as when someone needs to know how many pain killers you’ve consumed after doing too much math, you can say, “About three” instead of “I don’t know, about fifty.” Sometimes math can prevent disasters like dramatic miscommunication, although I would argue that estimating has very little to do with math and more to do with common sense and snap decisions.

As you may know, school frequently entails homework. Teachers claim homework helps instill the lesson in your brain and blah blah blah but all I hear is “I’m insecure and I need to feel like you’re always thinking about my mind-blowing lesson plans.” (Considering that I’m a college student, you may assume I’d have a more mature relationship with homework, but you would be wrong. Homework is to this day annoying and icky.) The estimating worksheet had pictures of bunches of apples and other groups of objects frequently involved in math story problems, like marbles and outdated playthings of the like.

You were just supposed to consider the group of items and come up with an estimate for how many were there. As I am abundant in common sense and can be assertive with my decisions when I want to be, I came up with some real good estimates and got the homework done with enough time left over to run around the backyard for a few hours before dinner. The next day, I turned it in.

The following week rolled around. We got our estimating homework back.

I’m a good student, all right? I’ve always cared about school (I mean, homework sucks but I do it) and back then, I was fairly exceptional because everyone else was still sucking their thumbs and shit but I didn’t put any of my digits in my mouth at any point in the day, so I was a real fan favorite among teachers. (Later, I was disappointed to discover that “not sucking my thumb” became no longer a means for praise.) So I held myself to some sort of standard at the least.

I looked at the dang estimating homework, all graded up.

A big “X” was through problem number three. The teacher had crossed out my “40” and wrote “50” next to it. 50. The correct answer was 50. I had put 40. On an estimating assignment.

That night, first-grade me stormed up to my parents and angrily presented the homework sheet to them. They looked it over, then looked at me. After grumbling about it all day, I finally blew up.

“It’s ESTIMATING!” I cried. “How can you get a problem wrong if it’s ESTIMATING? It’s a GUESS. 40 was my GUESS. If I counted, I would have gotten 50, but we were supposed to ESTIMATE. ESTIMATE!”

Now, I have kindly researched and gathered for you the definition of “estimate” in order to underscore all our understandings of the word:

“verb. roughly calculate or judge the value, number, quantity, or extent of.”

Roughly. Hmmm. Judge. Extra hmmm.

Boy was I fired up. How could my teacher knock off points for not giving the “correct” approximation of a bunch of dumb jacks drawn on a page? No one even played with jacks anymore! 40 was close to 50! I glanced, I considered, 40 seemed a damn good snap estimate in my opinion. I didn’t realize our “estimating” homework was actually supposed to be “counting” homework in disguise!

All that came of my ranting that night was my parents laughing at my frustration, although they ultimately agreed with my argument. However, it was first grade, and my family wasn’t looking to file a grievance with my teacher over 5 points.

Unfortunately for me, my family does not let things go. In the ensuing years, I have been ridiculed for my estimating abilities. On zoo trips, “How many snacks should we bring for the kids on the trip?” “I don’t know, but don’t ask Britt, she can’t estimate!” At family reunions, “She’s struggling with estimating, but otherwise school is going great.” “Thanks Dad.” And more recently, “Do you need me to estimate that for you?” “Let it go, Dad.”

To set the record straight, I am a pro at estimating. In fact, it has become my preferred means of assessing the quantity of things. So when I slander estimating, it is because of my complicated past with the word. Estimating is actually kinda great. I hate counting. I don’t have the time to dawdle with counting. So no matter how poor my estimating skills may be, I will continue to estimate– even if the world says I do it wrong.


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