You know that one moment right after your plane takes off when you look out the window and see the city spreading out and you can see all the roads and the miniature houses and the tiny cars scooting around?
I hate that moment.
Well, I don’t hate that moment but it makes me very anxious. I see the houses and then more houses and more houses and I think, “Holy cow! How many houses are there in the world?” and then I start to think about how all those houses have people in them. People who have pots and kitchen tables and hand towels and forks and I think, “And how many forks are there in the world?!” And that’s the moment I hate: trying to comprehend how many forks are in the world. Because big numbers make me anxious. And really big numbers make me really anxious. And I’ll bet the amount of forks in the world is a very, very big number.
I’ve never been able to handle numbers well. In first grade when we started doing math using abstract numbers rather than counters (as in 2+2 instead of 2 apples+2 apples) I got most overwhelmed. I would look at a worksheet covered with numbers and see nonsense. In order to stave off my math-induced anxiety I began seeing numbers as living things. They’re numbers, not people, but they have specific genders, personalities and relationships. For example, 6 is a very kind female who 5, a male, looks up to enormously but 7, a male and 6’s boyfriend, is savagely protective of 6 and keeps her isolated from 5 and 8, another male who is extremely well liked by all the others. 1 is a gender-neutral baby, 2 is male, 3 is male, 4 is female and 9 is also female and a bit of a bossy jerk. 2 is nice, 3 is terrible, 4 wishes to be more popular and her desperation is off-putting to the others. I can’t remember exactly when I started thinking this way because, to me, 2 has always been and will always be male. I didn’t make up the 5-6-7 story, that’s just how it’s always been.
I read in a book a few years back there is a name for seeing numbers as genders or colors and it’s actually fairly common. That’s really irritating. I’ve spent my whole life thinking I was some remarkable child and turns out I’m just a big nobody.
With all their drama, each number has a specific value. When I see 6, I see "6-the-kind-female" and remember she equals 6 units. And knowing that "2-the-kind-male" equals two units, I can see 6+2=8. But I don’t see in my head “six plus two equals eight,” I see, “six-the-female brings six units and two-the-male brings two units and their units together make eight units.” To this day, I don’t see abstract numbers in my head. I see each number bringing their units which are, as I picture them, horizontal red ovals. The picture in my head of each number and its value is so instant that I can see the number 10 and visualize ten equaling ten red ovals and say, “Oh, that’s ten,” as fast as other people can see a 10 and think “That’s ten.” But I wasn’t always so fast at figuring out numbers and I spent much of my elementary school days re-teaching myself math using concrete units rather than numbers. I’m pretty good at visualizing even large numbers, probably up to about 4,000. Anything more than that is too high for me to visualize and if I can’t see it, I get anxious.
Junior high and high school had ever-harder math classes and I had to spend even more late nights at the kitchen table pouring over numbers and reviewing lessons. Then, my junior year, I decided to join Math Club. Why? Heaven only knows. I had to get a recommendation from my math teacher who eyed me warily when I asked for it as she saw me in tutoring at least weekly. I went to my first meeting, recommendation in hand, and guess what they do in Math Club?
LOTS OF MATH.
I also learned that Math Club meets to practice high-level math to prepare for the end-of-the-year Math Competition and the famous Math-Off against other schools. Also, they went to Math Camp.
Math-Off? Math Camp?
My first Math Club meeting was also my last Math Club meeting and my math teacher, bless her heart, never mentioned it again.
And that's why it bothers me to think about how many forks there are in the world. Because I couldn't go to Math Camp.