A New Equation : Algebra Studies Bring Together 3 Generations, Proving the Sum Is Greater Than the Parts


In an odd way, math class has shortened the distance of time and space between a grandmother, mother and daughter.

The grandmother, Irene Conn, had dropped out of college in 1947. Her daughter, Lindsay Morrison, married before she ever got there. So last year, when Morrison's daughter Marisa was preparing to enroll at Saddleback College, her two elders decided it was time to hit the books and make up for lost time--both inside and outside the classroom.

Now, the three generations sit side by side in the front row of a beginning algebra class every Tuesday and Thursday, helping each other distinguish the difference between trinomials and polynomials.

Usually only Marisa Morrison, 19, asks questions during class. But her mother and grandmother will jump in if need be.

"They really are indicative of the generations they grew up in," said their instructor, Patti Evans, who still smiles at the novelty of teaching three generations from the same family at the same time. "Marisa is the most out there. She says what she wants. Lindsay is more reserved, and Irene tends to be the most quiet."

But after class the three become animated with each other, and the years that separate them are reduced in ways that can't be calculated precisely.

"I didn't know my grandmother before this," Marisa said. "What if she passed away and I never knew her. I'd never be able to forgive myself. This has really closed the generation gap."

Now, the three have come to rely on each other to conquer what is perhaps a genetic predisposition to hating math.

"I have a built-in resistance to it all," said Conn, 69.

Her daughter, 42, who runs an interior design business from her San Clemente home, said she also "was intimidated by the math. We all just felt we needed each other's support. We all wanted to be together and nurture each other."

So far, the family support network has proved successful. In their pre-algebra class last semester, the first one they ever took together, they all got A's.

But the first major exam this semester turned out differently. They won't divulge their scores, but clearly it didn't go well.

"We were totally demoralized by it," said Conn, dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and a white cotton blouse, after class last week. "It really cratered our grades."

But with a determination characteristic of all three, Conn predicts their math grades will rise to last semester's level. That confidence is rooted in a strict study ethic that has the three poring over algebra books nine hours a week, most of it at Conn's dining room table in San Clemente.

"I keep quiet when they are working," said her husband, Bill, 70, a retired salesman. "I don't want to interrupt them and their thoughts. I'm proud of all of them."

A strange mix of history, coincidence and planning brought the three to the same classroom in the first place. Like many women then, Conn left college after two years to marry. She has no regrets about her move.

"It was the right decision at that time," said Conn, whose return to higher education was also spurred by an early retirement as an administrative manager of a Long Beach oil company.

"What was I going to do with my time?" she added. "Play bridge and do lunch?"

Her daughter also put family above her own education, choosing to marry at age 19. Morrison admits she never took school that seriously as a youngster.

"I regarded high school as a social environment," she said.

But after seven years of marriage and the birth of two children, Morrison began to feel intellectually "inferior" to her husband and his female co-workers, she said.

"I realized I was giving myself completely to his career," said Morrison, who is separated from her husband, a computer software salesman. "I said, 'No, I'm not going to let this happen.' I knew I had to develop my brain."

During nine of the past 15 years, Morrison has enrolled in Saddleback College classes that have helped her start her business.

"Instead of being a dumb blonde," she said. "I wanted to concentrate on more than just personal appearances."

When it came time for her daughter to head off to college last year, Morrison seized the opportunity to bring the three closer together.

"We all balance each other out very well," Conn said.

While most students her age would be uncomfortable with mother and grandmother looking over their shoulder, Marisa Morrison is at ease with both of her elders on campus.

"Most people wouldn't want that much parental authority around and might feel like it would censor what they do or say," said the youngest Morrison, who lives with her father in San Clemente. "But I've gotten past that. I really enjoy having them in class."

The three say they will trudge through one more algebra class together, and then they again will go their separate ways. Marisa Morrison, who works at a law firm and is considering a career in law, wants to transfer to a school in the University of California system and major in English.

Her mother will continue to run her business, but now with a degree. And Conn hopes to transfer to Cal State Long Beach to study speech therapy.

"There will be a pang when we part," Conn said. "There will be a real feeling of grief. It's been a very gratifying experience for all of us."

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