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.
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.