Multiplication eureka

From the What I Learned Yesterday files…

I have always loved numbers, especially in terms of manipulating them. Remember those arithmetic drill books, endless columns of 3 + 6 and 12 – 5 and every other possible combination? I loved paging my way through them, filling up all of the blank spots. My grandmother’s living room had a big bay window with a flat base I could crawl onto (I don’t think it was intended as a seat), behind the curtains, and I loved to hole up there with that book. Even *better* was when I encountered those drills in elementary school, and they were *timed*! Hooray, a race!

But even before those memories glows a beautiful eureka moment I hope I’ll never forget. I was in daycare, somewhere between 4 and 5 years old, musing about multiplication (for no reason I can recall), when suddenly I Got It. I jumped up and ran around trying to share the shining vision that I’d had. The best I could do then was, “But it’s so simple! Two times two is just 2, two times!”

I still remember those words, and I remember the lack of a similarly excited response from the other kids. Was it incomprehension? Disinterest? I couldn’t seem to put my revelation into words that made sense to anyone else, and I was buzzing with commingled frustration and joy. At that moment, the “x” sign had ceased being an arbitrary symbol specifying a relation to be memorized. Instead, it had *meaning*. I was swimming in triumph at the feeling of having *cracked the code*, seeing yet another pattern but also the whys behind the pattern. (Of course, when I reached elementary school, I then got to memorize the multiplication tables, like everyone else. So much for eureka…)

I have a handful of other memories from that daycare. Conspiring with a friend to stash our pears from lunch, which we hated, in our pockets for later disposal. Sprawling on threadbare green carpet in front of the TV and goggling at afternoon cartoons. Singing “This Old Man, he played one, he played knick-knack on his thumb…” Discovering awe and predation on finding a black widow spider out back. Discovering how surprisingly hard other kids can pinch if you don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Shivering at horror stories about loose baby teeth being tied to a door and extracted with a slam, then rushing to the bathroom to inspect my own teeth for any worrisome looseness. But these have all faded in a way that my “2, two times” moment has not. And it left me with an appetite for that feeling of “Oh wow, I get it!” that is what makes the study of anything new so very delicious. More learndorphins, anyone?

0 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Scott Van Essen said,

    February 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I used to love taking those timed arithmetic tests in elementary school. 100 problems in 5 minutes = 3 seconds per problem. In all the tests I took, I was proud that I only ran out of time on one test, forcing me to not answer two questions.

  2. Tim said,

    February 14, 2011 at 10:12 am

    (Knew it already.)

    I don’t remember this eureka, but I must have had it at some point. I learned this and then would do the repeated addition in my head. For that reason, I thought it was completely unnecessary to memorize tables and refused to do so. Of course, I couldn’t quite add fast enough to pass the fastest timed test so my teacher threatened me: no math books next year if I didn’t have the tables memorized by the end of the summer.

    I treasure that memory as the time I learned to procrastinate! :D


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