Good at Maths

I was out of touch as a baby. But, as I grew older, unremarkable events and predictable decisions that were taken for me by others, took me to a place where, if nothing else, I suddenly started to feel ‘in touch’. I finally started to feel something. Winning was what it was all about! Or, to be more accurate, the sensations that came with winning. Approval and belonging. Winning praise, winning cups, winning smiles...
I had a winning smile and it won me miles of smiles.

There I sat, aged nine and a half, in maths, smiling. Afflicted with a need to please, I had missed the point.
The answer wasn’t what it was all about. It was the working out that would really count.

If 153 divided by x = 17. What is X?
If John wants Alex but Sophie wants John, how will Alex get Sophie?

The important bit is in the question. Everyone can read the unimportant result. It’s 17 and Alex’s heart will bleed for Sophie’s. The point is to know how these things happened and to stay in control.

Up ahead in the distance I could see the deliberate movements of a yellow pencil. It was a new pencil and it sounded concise. The small pink eraser, nestled in its golden clasp was not yet spoilt by any experience of error.

The pencil moved with confidence. The movements were deliberate. Tiny little movements that helped me understand, as I watched, what the sharpened end of the pencil was doing:

• If the pink tip moved away from me it meant that the lead point was moving towards me,
leaving the trace of a line on the paper, like the number “one”.
• If there were two movements of this kind next to each other, it was probably an “eleven”.
• A curve or arc from left to right followed by a horizontal movement from right to left was a “two”.
• Eights were easy.
• Fours were dramatic – a vertical mark (heaven joining with hell), a horizontal (the physical.
West reaching out to the east) and a diagonal that joins heaven to the west.

And so I had found a way through. If I concentrated hard enough and locked my mind onto the way the pencil moved I would soon be good at maths too. I could slump my head forwards, let my long hair disguise the direction of my gaze and peer unnoticed at the yellow pencil. A voyeur of calculation.

The pencil was talking to me and showing me what to write.

Soon I stopped visualizing the movements as a numerical image before I wrote it down. Instead, I moved my own pencil in an identical way without ever looking down at my exercise book. I knew where I was on the page without looking down. I got to know how the distortions of perspective and distance needed to be factored into my interpretation. But I could not look away. I might lose my connection.

Sometimes there was a lack of alignment between my pencil marks and the pre printed squared paper in my exercise book. Often I would write a single digit across 2 or more squares, rather than within one and I was chastised for this.

My teacher would scribble illegibly about form being as important as content. But, on balance, everyone was smiling for now.

Martin Hinchcliffe. 2009 (Maths lesson. Grenham House School 1970).