First one hundred, then ourteen and now this. The other day I’s waiting for a long while at the post office to send a package and I heard a boy giving his mother a Maths lesson. I couldn’t retain all genius enunciated that day but what I remember I document.
First lesson’s all about the 111, or how he described it, the one and the one and the one. But know that if you read that as one hundred eleven, you’re very very wrong. The kid couldn’t be more explicit about it: “the one and the one and the one is a number that is called ten-one.”
The mother hardly payed any attention to him. His next drop of wisdom was about sequence. After the ten-one comes the twenty-seven, then the twenty-eight, then the twenty-nine, and then the sixty-eight. I don’t remember how sixty-eight was written in numbers, but it was something equally crazy.
Then he began to explain what happens with numbers’ properties when you modify their digits’ order. The 12, for example (of better put: “if you put the one in front and the two behind”), is called twelve. While if you switch the drawing, “the two in front and the one behind”, it’s called thilty-one. I wouldn’t know if the L was a pronunciation defect or part of the made-up name. What surprises me the most, in fact, is that the boy ignored stuff as basic as the formation of twenty-one, but handled perfectly the “front” and “behind” stuff with words, that I always mix up when I don’t think about it half an hour prior to talking.
The mother, at this point, actually heard what her son was saying and she corrected him. She explained that though it’s true that 1 and 2 make a twelve, 2 and 1 actually form the twenty-one. The kid’s answer was solid: “No, mom, there is no twenty-one.”
And the last of the teachings I remember’s one of the last ones he said: “There is a number called sesén.” Now sesén, pronounced seh-SEN or something like that, are actually the first two syllables of sesenta, which is Spanish for sixty. The mother looked at him with an insistent look on her face, waiting for that last syllable, but it never came. The number is called sesén. How is sesén written? “A three with a five and a five.”
I could say what happened was what I described in Ourteen, a kid trying to pretend he knows how to count. Imitating what he perceives of his teacher, for example, when he teaches the numbers to them. Imitating, in fact, what he understands of which is taught to him. And there is some of that, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story.
’Cause what I had described was my little sister making numbers up in a low voice, mumbling with the intention that no one would pay too much attention, that anyone could think by default “well, if she’s counting she must be counting properly.” This boy, on the other hand, was preaching his truth, completely confident and explaining the tables of combination of digits as far as he understood ’em.
It wasn’t just that he didn’t understand the Maths and he presented them vaguely. He didn’t understand the Maths and he had replaced them decidedly with something else entirely. My theory is the boy was actually thinking about Alchemy. And what an Alchemist! He treated every number as a compound with mystic properties, which could react with any other one and form a new number, a surprising one, that we’d have to run and add to the encyclopedias. He mentioned numbers as one mentions pokémon, elements memorized from a table, that can be found in nature and react differently to different treatments. Some combinations simply didn’t exist, digits you could put together but wouldn’t generate any real number.
And the worst is, in the end numbers can be a little like that.