I can do it when it isn’t There!
Over forty years ago, I was a class teacher in a City elementary school in what was one of the more deprived areas of Sheffield. The class was one of fifty-five eight and nine year olds, whose ability ranged from the very bright to, how shall I put it, those who found that new knowledge was gained rather slowly.
Among the latter group was John. I am afraid I have forgotten his surname, and even if I remembered it, I should respect his privacy and keep it to myself. John, who must now be in middle age, probably a father himself, possibly a grand-father, was a cheerful, happy, pleasant child by nature. But, to put it gently, had not yet reached the top flight of intellectual achievers.
When it came to reading and writing, he struggled. In arithmetic he was still at the stage of using material aids for the simplest of calculations. All primary teachers meet many Johns and their sister equivalents in the course of a career. But John remains in my memory after others have faded from it, because of something he said one morning over four decades ago. No doubt he has long forgotten the incident, but my memory is fresh.
This particular morning – it must have been morning because arithmetic was always done in the first part of the day, when allegedly minds were still fresh, and ready to tackle mathematical problems with vigour – John, that morning, for the umpteenth time, was trying to master subtraction. He had his pencil, well chewed at the end, notebook, rather dog-eared, and box of counters, like tiddley wink tokens, on his desk in front of him.
Faced with deciding what remained when five was taken from eight, he would count out eight tiddley winks from his box. Then he picked out and removed five of them; reckoned one by one those that were left, and then carefully wrote the figure 3 in his book, hopefully the right way round, but more commonly facing back to front.
That morning, after completing several of these sums, he told me he could now do them without using counters. I was sceptical, but decided to test him. I put the box of counters under his desk and asked him to take three from nine.
He carefully counted eight fingers and a thumb, sticking them in the air as he called out the numbers from one to nine. Then, as he called, one, two, three, three digits went down. A careful count showed that six appendages remained upright. Pleasure lit up his face as I confirmed that he had the right answer. He had done as he promised, and completed the calculation without counters.
Mischievously, I then asked him to take four from twelve. He counted up to ten on fingers and thumbs, discovered that he had run out with some way still to go, so, nodded his head twice saying eleven, twelve as he did so. Two more nods as he intoned, one, two; the right thumb and forefinger went down on three, four respectively; it was a simple matter then to count the remaining digits and come up with the right answer of eight. All done again without counters and with two fingers short. It was a proud moment for him.
But that isn’t the whole story of why I remember John. I remember him for what happened next. For suddenly, his face wreathed in smiles and with joy shining from his eyes, he said “Eh, Sir” (teachers still were referred to as Miss or Sir in those days), “Eh Sir, I did it when they weren’t there.” Or perhaps being Sheffield, “…when they wasn’t there!”
Though his observation was perhaps not strictly accurate, we both knew what he meant, and recognised what had happened. John had glimpsed for a moment a great mathematical truth. Those who are mathematicians, know that mathematics frequently deals with the abstract, with what is “not there”.
For example, mathematicians often speak of infinity, which is that place where you can no longer add one to a number to make it still greater, for an infinite number is one that has already reached its maximum size; it is the place where tram-lines come together and meet, or so my physics teacher once told me; it is where recurring decimals stop repeating themselves. It is a place of wonder and miracles. In John’s language, infinity “isn’t there”, but nevertheless has a reality. Whole books are written about infinity, science and mathematics depend upon it, and, not least, the love of God is infinite.
But John’s vocabulary didn’t include infinity. He was experiencing that moment of joy that comes with a sudden insight. Archimedes, as every school-child is taught, jumped out of his bath crying “Eureka” as he discovered the truth about the displacement of water, a phenomena upon which all ships depend if they are to float; John, knowing no Greek didn’t shout, “Eureka”, but cried, “I can do it when it isn’t there”, as he stumbled upon abstract thought.
To be present at a moment of discovery is a joyous and humbling thing. To observe a child experiencing the ecstasy of knowledge revealed, is to see heaven. To subtract numbers that aren’t there maybe little enough in itself. To have it suddenly revealed for the first time that it can be done, is to become a Columbus discovering a new land.
Traditionally, both wise men and shepherds went to see a lowly born child. To see a new-born child is to also experience joy, wonder and peace, which is probably why they flocked to see the babe in a manger. They saw, as all see as they look upon a child, what isn’t apparent, but what hope and faith leads them to believe is there, a seed called potential waiting to germinate. One sees the future; one has a glimpse of an infinity of time and power that we call eternity.
That is why Simeon said as he viewed the new-born Jesus brought to the Temple, “Now let thy servant depart in peace”. Simeon felt complete and secure for he had seen what John might have said, “wasn’t there”; he glimpsed a hope for the future that lay in the presence of a new-born child.
Much that gives meaning to life, in John’s phrase, “isn’t there”. One cannot put truth, righteousness, compassion, tolerance, wisdom, love and a multiplicity of other qualities in a tin box on the desk, as with plastic counters. These qualities are intangible, abstract, but though “not there”, are the building blocks on which a whole and complete life is built.
Those abstract nouns cover qualities which may be hard to define, elusive to categorise. But we know what we mean by them, we are aware when they are present. Without them life is the poorer, like a Christmas pudding without the fruit; a stringy turkey without the trimmings.
John used that which “wasn’t there” to face up to a problem and arrive at a satisfying ending. The imaginary counters that John saw in his mind’s eye were useless in themselves, but were essential props to be taken up and manipulated in order to reach a joyful conclusion. They might not be visibly there, but paradoxically, their presence was essential.
Job asked, “What is wisdom; where is the place of understanding?” Qualities that were real enough, but they “weren’t there”. And yet, unless they are present, the peace and goodwill we mouth at Christmas-tide, and crave for throughout the year, is not achievable. Understanding is the key, a box of counters if you like, that enables peace to be achieved. Wisdom it is that consolidates the answer, and writes it in the book.
Two thousand years ago was born one who grew up to announce, “A little child shall lead them”. He knew, as we know, that it is a child who questions interminably. It is a child who from time to time stumbles against a door of understanding and pushes it ajar. Sometimes we are privileged to be present at that moment and share in the deep joy, as a new vista unfolds before the discover’s eyes.
Perhaps John thought of the Creator of all Things as the being that “isn’t there”. For his definition of “isn’t there” was that which is not concrete and material, but yet enabling, and real. “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings ….”
Our children are brought to be christened in the presence of the invisible but real, seen not with the physical eye, but with inner vision. That which “isn’t there” enables us to perform minor miracles, whether it is John manipulating numbers that only he could see, or the adult facing the burdens that threaten to overwhelm.
In a few minutes a young child will come to be dedicated here. We trust that she may be, as all children should be, taught to see and understand that which “isn’t there”, but by which all life is given meaning. May we all dwell under the protection of the infinite, whom, unless we become as children ourselves, we may not know is there. Invisible, though all pervasive, it is the power that gives life.
Fulwood 29 December 1996
Fulwood 9 Dec. 1990
Upper 16 December 1990
Mexborough 20 January 1991