Thursday, 12 March 2009

Lessons - Katherine Langrish

Two early school memories. I’m about six, I’m learning to do sums. I have a sheet of simple additions on the desk, and I’m not quick at this, but I am getting the idea:
2 + 6 = 8
4 + 3 = 7
I’m working steadily down the sheet, and then I come to this:
0 + 0 =
What!? I’m baffled. Absolutely and utterly foxed. How can you add two nothings? How?
I grapple with it and grapple with it. Finally I scribble what I know isn’t the answer but is at least an answer:
0 + 0 = 14
I carry my book up to the teacher. Who puts a big red cross beside the sum, and I feel rebuked. She explains, kindly enough, that nothing plus nothing is – well, nothing; and though I sort of understand, I also feel cheated, because the whole point of adding up is – isn’t it? – to make more of something: so making an addition sum out of two zeroes in this way feels unfair, a sleight of hand. And there – I suspect – begins a lifelong mistrust of the rules of mathematics – a feeling that numbers are governed not by laws but by some elaborate set of conjuring tricks. I know I'm wrong, of course, but that's been my emotional response. (And, er, judging by the current state of the economy, maybe I'm not entirely wrong.)

Second memory: I’m about a year older, I have my brown school reading book in my hand, and I’m about to knock on the headmistress’s door. Everyone has to go and read to the headmistress each week. It’s an occasion steeped in ceremony: there’s something special about leaving the classroom while lessons are happening and making this solo pilgrimage across the quiet school hall. The door swings open, and I see her room drenched in sunlight, her window opening onto a garden beyond. I stand at her desk and I read aloud, and the story is Briar Rose. And somehow the feeling of her office – this sunlit, secluded, shut-away space – weaves into the story I’m reading, so that while the tall hedge of briars springs up around the castle, and everyone, even the doves on the roof and the flies on the wall, drop into their century of sleep, I feel as though it’s all happening right now, and the sleepy afternoon enfolds the school for a perfect enchanted moment, now and forever.
My point?
If I do have a point, it’s only that neither of these educational experiences were in any way planned. They were unintentional side-effects. Accidents. Yet I’ve remembered them for years, and they seem to me important, formative moments in my school years, even though the teachers involved never knew, and never could know, what was invisibly going on inside my head. Life happens in the gaps between the lines, the spaces between the atoms, the silences between words. Fascinating, isn’t it? And maybe rather alarming.


Laurie said...

Aha! I know the answer to this one. 0+0=
Well there are two answers depending whether you are a 'nothing' or a 'nought' user:

nothing plus nothing equals nothing-nothing
or nought plus nought equals nought - or maybe nought-nought or maybe . . . Drat! Now you've confused me . . .

It has, of course, stirred my memories, especially of my primary school teacher - Miss Rich - in the mid-50s getting us to clamber under our desks or run across the playing field and clambering down into a deep gully. The aim of this was to demonstrate what she and the children she taught there during the Second World War did to avoid the bombs dropped by German bombers!

Incidentally, she always seemed sad and was a spinster. Years later, I came across a photograph of her in a local newspaper archive. She was young and beautiful (1916) and the article recorded that her fiancee had been killed in action in the trenches of the Western Front. Then I was sad.

By the way, the primary school was Broadmoor and was in the ground of the famous lunatic asylum for the criminally insane - the school governors have recently voted to drop Broadmoor as the school's name. What was unique was that every year we toddlers put on a nativity play in the Victorian asylum's majestic theatre in front of a mix of proud parents and mass murders, poisoners etc. My schoolmate at the time was the son of the superintendent of Broadmoor and is now a well-known gothic Novelist. You may have heard of him - Patrick McGrath?

A great site you all have here and I enjoy visiting it!

Best wishes


Nick Green said...

A mesmerising post, Kath. And so very true. Makes me think of Wordsworth's Prelude - the 'Spots of Time' passage. 'There are in our existence spots of time...'
i.e. Those mysterious moments, grounded in pure chance, that linger, and become the seeds of who we are. WW says it better than me... obviously.

0+0 I could manage. I think it is the sign of a truly great creative mind to be instantly baffled by it, to fixate on it as a puzzle. For it appears in King Lear, of course...!

But what's the square root of minus 1? Now that's what gets me.

Katherine Langrish said...

Laurie, that's quite extraordinary!!! Inside the grounds? And to think of the position regarding CBI checks...

And Nick, thanks for the Wordsworth connection. It's exactly the meaning I think I was blundering towards. Will go and look it up! Not sure that my maths confusion is really any great sign of creativity, though of course I'm delighted to think so - no; I think looking back it's more that I couldn't forget about the plus sign. It's a verb, really, isn't it? So to me it meant something, and couldn't be got rid of simply by eliding the two zeroes.

Katherine Langrish said...

'Nothing will come of nothing'-
- it took me a moment or two to figure out your teaser!

AnneR said...

Laurie, that's fabulous! When were you and Patrick McGrath (brilliant novelist) at Broadmoor? I went to school just a few miles away. We heard the siren every Monday morning. And as an infant I was taken to cricket matches (my father was playing) at a different lunatic asylum.

As for the maths... 0+0=20, perhaps ;-) More seriously... there are now reckoned to be different qualities of infinity, and I think there should be different qualities of zero. After all, if you have no apples AND no bananas, that is a different zero from just having none of one of them. The line in King Lear is a rejection of the concept or zero, newly introduced into Europe at the time and widely denounced. People thought there was no point in having zero and that it was even impious.

Sorry, end of maths history lesson :-) Fantastic, stimulating post Kath xx

Laurie said...

For AnneR. I played with Patrick McGrath for the whole summer of 1959 - the same year as his book Asylum (also a film) was set in Broadmoor.

I was quite devastated when he just disappeared. It is only in recent times when I saw a Sunday supplement article that recorded that he had been sent to prep school at nine, before going to public school, that I found out why.

I lived in Crowthorne and about five hundred yards from Broadmoor Primary and about 600 yards from the siren - gosh it was loud!

When my parents came back from North Africa, they were housed like many families in old army nissen huts - two families to one hut - on a disused army camp near Bracknell.

Eventually, they bought a house in Crowthorne that faced the perimeter fence. My mother saw some workmen cleaning the roadside gutter on the other side. It was hot and she invited them over for a cup of tea. She put chairs on the lawn for them and poured the tea. Out the front, some men dressed as warders were seen running up and down in panic - evidently a large group of murderers had gone missing. Yes you have guessed it, they weren't workmen, they were lunatics!

The warders were not impressed! They used to be exciting times when someone escaped. Officer cadets from Sandhurst were deployed to search gardens, sheds and chicken houses.

My mother always said I should lock the door if the escape siren sounded. My mother went out to shut the chickens up for the night and the siren sounded. I locked the doors - I was very little - and would not let her in. She was of a nervous disposition and even more so when my father got back several hours later, after dark!