I had a love-hate relationship with numbers when I was a little girl, but not in the purely mathematical sense. I thought of numbers as if they had relationships with each other. Well, of course math is all about relationships, but I thought of numbers as having personal relationships with each other. For example: 3 and 6 were on-again, off-again friends. If I saw them together like 63, they were getting along, because the two numbers were ‘open to each other and facing each other’; if they were together like 36, the numbers were in a fight. I hated the number 8, because 8 was never open; and I didn’t trust the number 5 because he was a liar with his feeling, sitting on the fence, or two-faced. Yep, 5 was the most unpredictable of numbers. The worse was when 8, 3, and 5 came together, ’cause I never knew what was on 8’s mind, 3 was right out there with her feelings, and 5 couldn’t be trusted; and you know 3+5=8, 8-5=3; 8X5=40, another bad number with a 4 turning his back on the closed-off-I’m-not-talking-to-you 0. I had a super-good imagination, and I kept it going with all my number friends; that made adding and subtracting a whole lot more fun. And a lot harder.
Dad could add big numbers in his head. Not me ’cause before I got to the adding part, I got them grouped together as much as I could as friends first. Dad tried to teach me, “Just do this,” he said. “43+77+36: add 40+70+10, because the leftover 3 and 7 is 10, so you have 12o+36=156. It’s easy.”
Every time he did that I went ‘huh?’ in my head, and got my pencil out, and tried to put those numbers together in a friendly sort of way, so I could make up a story as I added: 6&7 were good, good friends, together they make 13, still pretty good friends, even though 3 tried harder than 1, who just stood around straight and unbending; another 3 comes along and tries to make friends, but the first 3 has her back turned, together they make 16. The 1 high-tails it up to the next column, ’cause the 6 got all huffy-mad and turned his back on the 1. The next column has 1 and 4 which makes 5, who gets along with everybody, or not depending on how he’s feeling, and 3 has 7 trying to make friends, adding up to 10, which is all closed up and not talking to a 1 that is just standing there all straight and stiff, so add the 5 in and now I had 156, another unhappy number, ’cause the 1 and the 5 are hard to understand, the 6 has his back turned on the other two numbers.
Yeah. Numbers were really hard to get together in any way that made sense. It seemed like I could never get them to stay friends. One minute they were cuddling up all cozy and facing each other, the next minute another number got in the mix and the relationship changed completely.
I guess even the youngest children know what most of us must learn and re-learn: Relationships take a lot of attention. Just when you think you have things going all sweet, serene, and predictable, some variable gets thrown into your life, and everything gets thrown into flux. Of course, the opposite is true, too: add the right character to the party and soon the place is full of friendship, life, and yes, even love.
I changed my tune about numbers when I learned algebra and found out I could make phrases and sentences with numbers and symbols that had perfect logic; the expression and could mean one thing and one thing only. No reading between the lines, no misinterpretations. Then mathematics became the purest, most beautiful of expressions. Math is my friend. I’ll tell you how I fell in love with statistics in my next post.