It's been a while since I practiced 10th grade mathematics. But the other night when my daughter came over to me looking rather dejected, I thought I would give it a try.

Always a whiz at her school work, this time she was having difficulty and needed some assistance.

Each of the problems in her assigned exercise was composed of two equations, each with two unknown variables of an "x" and a "y". The instructions read: 1) Communicate the relationship between each of the unknown numbers. 2) Isolate the "x" or the "y". 3) Determine the values of each of the unknowns to solve the equation.

My daughter had spent time working on these problems only to come up with incorrect answers. She had tried and tried, and at this point her forehead was knotted in deep concentration and frustration.

Mathematics had never been one of my favorite subjects, so I wasn't very confident that I could help. But when a child comes to you looking and feeling so discouraged, you put aside your insecurities, roll up your sleeves and get to work, albeit somewhat hesitantly.

We began tackling the first problem. Fortunately, my memory jogged. It was like getting onto a bicycle after not riding for years. At first you feel a little wobbly and uncertain, but then the skill kicks in and you're riding confidently.

One at a time, we worked through each equation. On closer observation, I could see that my daughter generally understood the necessary skills. Most of her errors had actually been quite minor, merely careless computation.

Once she saw where she had gone off track, my daughter gained the self-assurance to proceed independently, and before long, the task was completed. The previous lines of tension on her face were replaced with a radiant smile, expressing relief and gratitude.

Working on those math problems sharpened more than just my math skills. I discovered some essential yet basic principles that can be applied to life.

Life is full of equations. We confront a new set of equations at every change in our circumstances, at every new stage of our maturation. Each equation communicates to us what, at that point, is our relationship with ourselves, our world, and one another.

But every stage of life has unknowns. Our challenge is to figure out these unknown variables, so that we find the solutions that make our lives correct and true.

The lessons I learned from my daughter's math excercise are: 1) Tackle only one problem at a time. Otherwise, the load becomes too great to bear and you risk capitulating out of frustration or defeat.

2) Isolate the problem or the unknown, and you will have taken the first step on the road to your solution. On the other hand, if you combine all the unknowns, the equation becomes impossible to solve.

3) Finally, we all make miscalculations. Realize the difficulty in finding the flaws in your own work. It may take the eye of experience or wisdom or objectivity to determine where you are making a mistake. Be big enough to seek help in discovering your errors.

The exercise concluded, my daughter wanted to know if I, in my school years, had gotten straight "A"s in math.

Now that's a variable I intend to leave unknown — and unsolved.