Driving to work in the morning rush hour, half listening to the radio, artsy words pop out. “Imagination”… “Creativity”… “Drama”. I turn up the volume. This may be a story validating the arts. Perhaps Congress realizes artists are the soul of America and need to survive. Instead I hear “string theory”, “quantum physics”, “mathematics”–and a quote from G.H. Hardy “Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”
Whoever Dr. G.H. Harding was, I wish I knew him when I was a kid. He might have been the one person with whom I could have shared my secret.
I do not remember how I discovered them. It may have happened when I looked at a number upside down. Or when I crossed my eyes, making it appear to move. Especially when rolling my head around. However it happened I discovered people lived inside numbers.
It was easy to see them once I knew they were there. Since I could only draw stick people, I created pictures of them in my mind and that’s where they played. And sometimes they visited my dreams.
Number One was a baby girl with deep brown skin and tiny pigtails. She was a genius baby, who was born speaking every language. Her mother (that would be me) let her swim instead of take baths.
There was a romance. Two and Five married after meeting at a dance. Seven was their daughter who was a horseback riding ballerina and a pilot. They were from France.
Three was an alien who only wanted to eat human babies.
Four was a lost soldier who tried to protect the baby.
Six was a bike rider from China. He rode his bike on the ground, up walls and around the ceiling. Sometimes he helped the soldier (#4) keep the baby(#1) from the alien (#3).
Eight was a “Switcher”. She was a sweet old lady on some days and a witch on others. Both gave candy but for different reasons. On the days the witch appeared, no one was safe. She knew a thousand spells that would turn anyone into anything… Not only fairytale frogs— but snakes, mosquitoes, one-eyed lizards, and poop.
Nine was a “King/Queen”. Being both male and female and split in two parts they had to rule the kingdom together. It didn’t work out so well.
If I grew tired any of them, they died or disappeared. There were others waiting. Once the sweet old lady accidentally killed herself by drinking poison the witch left in the refrigerator. It ended the witch too. She was mad about that, but it couldn’t be helped, sharing the same body and all. They were replaced by Butterfly Woman who would never sit still and had nothing to say. After awhile she was boring, so the old lady/witch women were reborn. I had that kind of power.
There was an innocent love triangle. Innocent because I didn’t know what a love triangle was. The lost soldier and the Chinese biker both loved the French girl-number 7. She was nice to them because she was born without any mean bones, but she loved her horse more than them.
I overheard my mother tell my Dad that she was glad I didn’t hate math the way she did. She had found pages and pages of numbers I had written.
One day the teacher announced we were ready for two digit numbers. I brought myself to attention. New numbers? I wondered what they would look like. And what stories they would bring. She asked us to get out our paper and pencils to copy what she wrote on the blackboard. She printed the number “one” and “zero”.
That was odd. Zero was an old man who didn’t like children. He grew a cotton candy garden, but built a huge iron fence with twirling spikes to keep children out. The gate key was hidden in his shoe but the only time you could steal it was the one day a month he took a bath. So seeing the little baby next to the old man made me nervous.
The teacher asked us to write the number she called “ten” on our papers. I had counted to ten many times but didn’t know it looked like this. The old man would never get close to a baby. I wrote the numbers, but gave them some space.
The next numbers she put on the board were “ones”. Twins. I smiled. I had never imagined that.
Then the one and two. Baby and the Woman from France. But the woman already had a daughter. The daughter might become jealous.
I saw the pattern and began to panic. If she put up the numbers I thought she would, the baby would be in danger. She wrote a one and a three and I almost screamed “You cannot put the baby next to the alien who wants to eat it”. I kept the alien as far away as I could.
I wrote the next numbers before the teacher did
I added another soldier to protect the baby.
And more soldiers above and below.
And then many more. An army of them.
I was so concerned about the baby I did not notice the teacher walking around to check papers. I would have held up two fingers and wiggled in my seat. And when given the nod, taken my paper with me and stayed in the bathroom for a long time.
But I was too late. She leaned over my shoulder and snatched my paper. She stared at it for a long time. Her eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth but nothing came out. She put my paper back in front of me, turned away and went back to the board.
She sort of smiled and said, “Well, most of you are getting it. But some are having… trouble…” Her eyes locked on mine. “We’ll try it again tomorrow.”
I could tell she didn’t know about the number people. I glanced at the papers of the other children. They didn’t either. When my brothers did their math homework that night I snuck up behind them to see it. They chased me away, but not before I saw they made their numbers stand next to each other.
I began making my people disappear. The last to go was the baby. I sang her a song, placed her on a Viking ship and she sailed away.
Then I wrote the numbers the way the teacher did and forced myself to forget their faces.
And began to hate math, just like my mother.
I imagine Dr. G. H. Hardy as my teacher…
He gazes at my paper. “Could you explain this? I’d like to understand.” He pulls up a chair, leans in close and whispers, “If you are willing to tell me.”
And I tell him everything.
Dr. Hardy nods, asks questions, and sees why I had to protect the baby but has a suggestion. “Perhaps you could consider these are new numbers with new stories to find.”
This makes me excited—and scared. When something is this beautiful I am afraid it will end.
Dr. Hardy smiles, “Let me tell you about something we call infinity“.