Grandpa walked into Rosie’s hospital room with a handful of daisies.
“I brought you some flowers today, Rosie,” he said. He grabbed one of Rosie’s tall water cups from her side table and put the flowers right into the water left in the cup.
Rosie smiled. She was so happy to talk to someone who wasn’t a nurse or a doctor.
“I used my imagination this morning to make up a new story for you,” said Grandpa.
“I’m ready to hear it!” replied Rosie.
So Grandpa began.
The Multiplication Staircase
Rosie lived in a house that was older than her grandmother. Her family’s Berkeley home was a cottage really, a tiny home with a brick staircase leading up from the street. On both sides of the stairs, hydrangeas grew in the spring and summer under the shade of the ancient redwood trees that stood like giant sentinels on each side of the steps.
Every front yard on Rosie’s street had one or two coastal redwood trees, natives that had been planted when the houses were built in the early 1900’s. None of the houses matched, but each of them looked cozy with their open front porches; low-pitched gable roofs; and earth-tone sidings of wood, stone, or brick. The street was a tidy three-block stretch of narrow sidewalks, and, on the east side, a 43-step stone staircase descended to Euclid Street where, her mother told her, a street car once stopped to take passengers to San Francisco.
Rosie was born on this street–Hawthorne Terrace, and had spent her eight years of life walking around all the winding streets and staircases with her mother. Now, she was in third grade, and every day when she walked from school to home, she paused on Buena Vista Way, a hilly street, where she could see a staggering view of the San Francisco Bay—Oakland, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco’s ever-changing skyline, the small and big islands in the Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
But today, when she reached the section of Buena Vista where she could get the best view, she was lost in thought. Today, Rosie had failed her math test.
She just couldn’t memorize her multiplication tables. The numbers got all jumbled up inside her head, and when she sat at her desk staring at the test, the numbers filled her mind with fear and confusion.
Rosie turned right on Euclid while a tear dropped onto her cheek. She wiped it off quickly with her fingers and took a sharp left to ascend the 43 steps to Hawthorne Terrace. Rosie grabbed the black wrought-iron bannister and pulled each foot up the cement stairs, one by one. Usually, she counted the stairs to make the trek easier, but, today, she thought about how she had to tell her mother that she had failed her test.
Rosie slipped on one of the stairs, her body twisting around the arm that held onto the bannister, like a flag being whipped by a cruel wind around a flag pole. She rammed into the bannister as she fell, hitting her hip hard on the vertical bars. She let go of the bannister and plopped onto a cement stair, her legs crossed beneath her.
How did Mom climb these stairs without falling when she walked to the store or caught the bus on Euclid Way? Every day that Rosie had to climb them, she ran out of breath before she reached the top and, often, she fell and scraped a knee or grazed her hands.
Mom was snipping the hydrangeas in the front yard when Rosie finally reached home. “Hey, buddy, how ya doin’?” Mom said, standing up from her garden stool, her hands clutching her shears. A pail of old blossoms stood next to her stool. The hydrangea bushes were bursting with vibrant pink blossoms behind her—each flower bursting like a ballerina’s dancing tutu on a crowded stage of dancers.
Rosie looked down at her shoes, one of which was untied and dragging behind her.
“What’s up?” Mom laid her shears on the stool, stepped over to the stairs where Rosie was standing, and put her arms around her. “Did something happen at school today?” she asked, lines furrowing her brow.
“Well, you’re going to be disappointed,” Rosie said, staring but not seeing anything.
“You must tell me anyway,” Mom said. “Otherwise, I can’t help you.”
Finally, Rosie sat down on the brick steps next to Mom and told her about the test. “I just can’t remember them,” she said, wringing her hands in her lap. “Not only that, when I was climbing the stairs today, I fell and hurt my hip, bloodied my leg, and scratched my arm.” Rosie rubbed her hip and showed her mother her injuries.
“Hmm,” said her mother. “We’ll have to think about how to solve your problem, and I believe I have an idea. Let’s first have a snack and rest, then, we’ll figure this out.”
Rosie and her mom ate slices of apples and cheese while they sat on the front porch watching the bees flitting among the hydrangeas. Rosie told Mom about how she had painted a pink hydrangea with dots of watercolor paint during art time. “I can’t wait until you see it, Mom,” Rosie said, her face lighting up as she spoke. “I think it’s really good. After I used pink dots to make the flower, I used a leaf coated with bright green paint as a press to make the flower’s leaves.”
Her mom put her arm around her. “I can’t wait to see it. Maybe we’ll have to frame it when you bring it home. Well, it’s time for your math lesson,” she said. “Let’s take a walk.”
“What?” Rosie looked up at her mother with a question on her face.
Rosie’s mom stood up and reached for Rosie’s hand. She pulled Rosie to her feet and they walked down the brick stairs together.
“Where are we going, and what does a walk have to do with math?”
“You’ll see,” said Rosie’s mother. When they reached the narrow street sidewalk, they turned left and walked north where another set of stairs on the street rose up to Scenic Avenue. This staircase was made out of thick eight-foot wide old railroad tie planks, each dark step set into the hill and secured with large, iron bolts. The bannister was built out of redwood posts with a diagonal lattice in-between.
Rosie’s mother sat down on the bottom step and gestured for Rosie to sit down next to her.
“Aren’t we going to climb the stairs?” Rosie asked, rubbing her forehead with the back of her right hand.
“We will,” said her mother. “When you’re ready.”
Rosie sat down.
“Multiplication tables are like addition which repeats itself,” said Rosie’s mom. “We’re going to practice the two-times-table while sitting on this step.”
Rosie looked up at her mother out of the corner of one eye. “Hmmp!” she said.
“Two times one is just a single two. Two times two is two 2s. If I hold up two 2s with my fingers and count them—one, two, three, four, I find out that I’m just adding two—two times.”
“That makes sense,” said Rosie. She nodded her head and counted her mother’s fingers.
“If I add another two, then I have four plus six,” said her mother.
“And another two is eight. Another two is ten. Six twos is twelve! This is easy,” said Rosie.
Rosie and her mother sat on the bottom step while Rosie figured out how to multiply two from one to twelve. Her mother tested her several times and soon, she wasn’t making any mistakes.
“Time to move,” said Rosie’s mother. She inched herself up to the next big step. While Rosie and her mother sat on the second step, Rosie practiced the three times table. She used her fingers at the beginning, but pretty soon she was seeing the number three multiply in her head and she soon memorized all the threes up to twelve.
“Let’s go up,” said Mom, scooting up one more stair.
Rosie memorized the four times table in less time than she had memorized the three times table. The breeze felt good on her face and the velvety, seashell-shaped gardenias blooming on the bushes nearby filled the air with a heavy perfume.
“One more up,” said Mom, lifting herself with her arms to the next step.
First, Rosie’s mom counted in fives, “5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45. Can you do that?” She asked Rosie.
“I don’t know,” said Rosie, but she tried anyway. “5, 10, 15,” counted Rosie all the way up to 60.
“You just gave me the answers to all the five-time tables,” said Rosie’s mom.
Rosie’s eyes opened wide. She started with five times two and the rest were easy. Before her mom could even move, Rosie rolled herself up to the next step.
Rosie worked hard memorizing the six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, and ten-times tables. Each time she completely memorized a number’s multiplication table, Rosie and her mom moved up another step. After ten, they practiced the elevens. After the hard elevens, they practiced the twelves.
By the time Rosie had memorized from the twos to the twelves, Rosie’s stomach was growling. It was almost dinner time.
“The final challenge,” said Rosie’s mom, rising to the next step. Rosie followed her.
On each step, Rosie’s mom tested her with a time table from two to twelve. Each time Rosie got the right answer, until, just before the top of the stairs, she got the answer wrong for 11 times 11.
Rosie’s mom wasn’t worried at all. She just worked with Rosie on the same step while Rosie reviewed all the answers for the 11 times table. Then, Rosie’s mom tested her again, “What’s 11 times 11?” she asked.
“121!” shouted Rosie, clapping her hands together and raising them above her head like a champion.
“Up to the last stair!” said her mom. “You’ve won the championship of the Staircase Multiplication Tables!” she said, clapping wildly.
Rosie shook her head in disbelief. Just a few hours ago, she had been crying about failing her math test, and, now, she knew she’d never fail a multiplication test again.
“How’d I do that, Mom?”
“You just climbed one step at a time until you were ready for the next one,” said Rosie’s mom.
Rosie looked up at the cloudless, azure blue sky that rose upward into forever and ever. She imagined all kinds of staircases up there: wooden, cement, tile, and marble stairs; ascending and descending stairs; stairs with flowers growing through their cracks; stairs in the rain; stairs with tears of joy and sadness; and stairs full of families and friends.
Rosie wrinkled her brow and stared down the stairs for a minute, reaching out for her mother’s hand. She knew that she would always have to climb staircases, but, now she knew how—one step at a time.
“Wow,” said Rosie, looking up from her bed at Grandpa who was now sitting in a chair beside her bed. “I need to learn my multiplication tables, too.”
“You won’t have any trouble at all,” said Grandpa. My imagination just showed you the best way to learn them.”
Grandpa put on his beret, stood up from his seat, and bent over to kiss Rosie on her forehead.
“Your imagination is a genius!” said Rosie, her eyes glistening like diamonds.