Friday, November 11, 2011


Today is, as you have probably noticed, the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the eleventh year of the millennium (give or take a year) and I would suspect that twice today people will be glued to their digital clocks and watches to consider the number eleven coming up six times (three for the time, three for the date). There will be those who attach significance to all this and I'm one of them, but not in any mystical or superstitious sense. Instead, I'm attaching a whole lot of gee-whiz significance to all those elevens. It is simply, to use a quaint term, neat.

As a child I liked running across moments like these with numbers. I grew up before it was usual to wear a seat belt and so, when taking trips, I stood so that I could rest my chin on my father's shoulder as he drove. I talked to him pretty much non-stop and we both watched the odometer and played games with the numbers there. I liked when he hit 98,765, and I thrilled when he turned it back to 00,000. (Most of our cars weren't expected to make it to 100,000 and I remember Dad selling a really old station wagon with only 11,000 miles or so on it because he'd done round the odometer.) We liked numbers like 32,123 for their symmetry, and 77,777 for their consistency.

Beyond this, on trips, I would inevitably ask how much longer we would be driving. Dad would tell me how many more miles we had to go and then suggest that I figure it out. Often this would get me off his back (literally) and into my seat for a while to figure in my head or with pencil and paper. "Dad, if you're driving sixty miles-per-hour, does that mean we go a mile every minute?" And he would show me the road signs marking tenths of a mile and tell me to count them while watching the second hand on the clock. (Yep, there were analog clocks in our cars then too.)

None of these number games were set up as work. This was play for him and he made it play for me. We played until we tired of it and then, rather than force the issue, we would switch. I would talk to him or to Mom or to my brother. We would listen to an audio cassette my brother had made of a favorite M*A*S*H episode. We would listen to Mom read a book. And sometimes we were just quiet and watching the road pass by.

I learned a lot from our math play. Mostly I learned that numbers are for playing, that there is supposed to be fun in numbers and in manipulating them. Much the same way that I learned to play with words (as I'm doing now) and not worry about how things came out, so too with numbers. Often, I started in on one question only to drift off into others. I didn't necessarily come back to the original or worry about finishing the thing I was playing at. Dad sometimes forgot the question as he thought about whatever he thought about on these drives and I would be left to either re-explain it or just go with whatever I had figured.

The best comparison to all of this that I can make is that it was very much like how my friend and I played in the summers. We had no set plan. We started each day with "what do you want to do?" We played Hot Wheels until we tired of that. We threw the Trac-Ball back and forth until we were done with that. We listened to music for a while. Hell, sometimes we cleaned the cupboards in the kitchen. It wasn't work, it was play. So too with all that number stuff in the car with Dad.

On the television last night our local news reported that our local schools are all failing. I'm a teacher and I know about this. We are failing a bunch of tests and outside measures that say kids aren't working up to standards. Note the word: Working.

I learned math by playing with numbers. I carried that play-ethic into school and continued to play with them, racing Sean McGinn to finish our multiplication problems, inventing number-based codes with Scott Jackson, and looking for elegant solutions alone in my dorm room. One problem with schools is that we do too much work and far too little play. Work isn't that much fun, but play is. And if school isn't at all fun, people won't do it very well. I know. I've taught for seventeen years and it is miserable to try and get kids to do work. On the other hand, it is a joy to get them to play. My English classroom is all about playing with words. We do a tremendous amount of play. My hope is that none of them will remember doing much work at all. I don't remember doing that with Dad and I aced every test I took, mostly because I didn't worry about them and figured they were just another game to play.

There's a lot more to say about this. Lucky for me, playing with words is what I do. More to come when I write on.