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Making a splash with math

May 6, 2011
By Bob Seidenstein ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

People use the label "spiritual" so loosely, I've no idea what it means. Believers of old-time religion consider themselves spiritual, as do new-age believers. Pagans are spiritual, and so are Satanists. Tarot card and tea leaf readers, aura rebalancers, crystal and color therapists are spiritual. And on and on and on.

The only thing I know about this issue is I doubt anyone would consider me spiritual.

I don't believe in any of the traditional stuff: the Pie in the Sky and the Sweet By and By, divine intervention and divine retribution.

I also don't believe in a law of karma. But lately something about it has caught my attention.

It has to do with our recent flooding. It's been terrible for all of us, but I have a special terror about it - namely it may be my fault. More exactly, it may be the fault of a trio of us miscreants in my fifth-grade class.


The thinking Reid

Fifth grade was a real misery trip. It seemed to last forever, and I can't remember ever having a good time. To a great extent, I suspect it's because it followed fourth grade with Miss Reid.

Miss Reid was a classic schoolmarm. She was tall and thin and wore shapeless dresses of black, dark blue or gray. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. She wore rimless spectacles, and her only concession to color was rouge, which she wore in two bright red spots on her cheeks.

But while she was reserved, proper, and old-fashioned (I think of her now as more a 19th-century person than a 20th-century one), she was an excellent teacher. Her manner was unlike my first, second and third grade teachers. While they were authoritarians of the "spare the rod, spoil the child" variety, Miss Reid wasn't a disciplinarian at all. Not that she didn't control the class - she did. But she didn't do it by force. Instead, she ran the class with a gentleness that made us want to behave.

As a teacher, I've looked back at Miss Reid and tried to figure out how she did it. My only conclusion is her manner was her method - the traits that made Miss Reid Miss Reid also made her a fine teacher.

Miss Reid had one move I'll never forget: Every day she'd make us put our heads on our desks and rest while she read from a special book. I can't remember the book's title, if I ever knew it in the first place, nor can I remember any of its events or characters. I only remember it was about an island - but not any island I ever knew, like Eagle or Bluff. Uh-uh, this island was either in the sky, in another world, or another dimension, but for sure in another something.

It was a daily fantasy trip, made all the more so by Miss Reid's soothing voice. So lying there, head cradled in my arms, little string of drool hanging out the corner of my mouth, being teleported by Miss Reid to that make-believe island was my first psychedelic experience. And the best part was, it lasted 180 days. The worst part was, it was followed by fifth grade with Mrs. Daniels.


Boys, books and bad behavior

Mrs. Daniels wasn't intimidating or mean; she just didn't have any real presence in a classroom or much of a facility for teaching. Maybe she liked teaching when she first started, or maybe she became a teacher because she liked the idea of it but then found out she didn't like its reality. Or maybe it was something else.

Regardless, the result was she seemed unfocused in the classroom, as if the students were distractions rather than objects of her attention. I always felt she just didn't understand young kids. Certainly, she didn't understand young boys, which was evident on our last day of the school year.

"Listen, children," she said. "I've got something very important to tell you."

On the last day of school, the only important thing to tell a class is they're dismissed. Of course, this was not what she told us.

"Next year's class will have new math books, and yours will be discontinued," she said. "So if you want, you can keep your math books. Just raise your hands, I'll give them to you, and after school you can take them home."

I looked at my boon companion Ralph Carlson, in the desk next to me, and at the same time, he looked back at me. While no words were spoken, some sort of telepathic message passed between us.

Next I looked at Jim McClay, in the desk kitty-corner from me, and the same weird clairvoyance took place.

Immediately, all three of us raised our hands and Mrs. Daniels handed us the books, a huge smile on her face. At the time I assumed she was smiling because she was so out of it she thought we were really going to take our books home and do math over the summer - something as appealing as drinking a gallon of warm spit. Today I realize she probably was grinning like a jackass eating stickers because she was even happier to be rid of us than we were of her.

I looked at mine. Originally, its cover been bright, tomato-red. Now, after a decade of being mauled by grubby little hands, it'd been dulled and darkened to a grimy gray. I'd like to say I looked at the book, remembering fondly all the knowledge I'd gained from it, but as an authentic mathematic idiot, the only thing I learned from it was how bad I was with numbers. Instead, I just hefted it in my hand and contemplated its fate while I waited for the bell to ring.

When it did, the three of us rushed out the front door of the school and tore down Lake Street, coming to a screeching halt on the bridge by Riverside Park. Then, without having said a word, we carried out our telepathic agreement: We cocked our arms, wound up and fired our books into the water by the dam.

Then we all burst into hysterical laughter, as if we'd just slipped our shackles, after which we went our separate ways.

I'd completely forgotten that incident till early this week. I was pouring myself a tall glass of V-8 when suddenly I was struck by its color - it was the same as my fifth-grade math book when it was new. And then I time-travelled back to me, Ralph and Jim throwing them in the dam.

I chuckled at the memory at first.

Then a dark realization came to me: Could there be a karmic connection between the Saranac River overflowing its banks and my childhood act of unmitigated numerophobia? It doesn't seem likely, especially in light of the current flooding throughout the U.S.

Then again, that's not the real question.

The real question is: At the end of the 1957 school year, how many other rotten little boys threw their math books in the river?

Believe me when I tell you, it's a question to which I do not want to know the answer.



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