history - May 4, 2023

You stupid teacher!

Never have I thought I would teach mathematics to a group of retirees. It all started when I jokingly offered to teach Vera a bit of mathematics. This was soon after the Math Circle started.

When Vera agreed, I almost fell off my chair. I asked my wife to join us just to save me from being alone with Vera. She politely declined.

"Don’t tell me you’ll leave me alone with Vera?" I said.

But she just shrugged and went over to the dining room, where one of our daughters was crying for whatever reason.

I didn’t expect Vera would actually come. But she did. And she brought two other seniors from our neighborhood.

"Coffee, please," she said. "For all three of us."

"Yes, sure," I agreed.

"Ida will have cappuccino, and Franko will have it with milk. I will have black coffee," added Vera.

"I actually prefer beer," said Franko.

I brought coffee and beer.

"You know, Vera," I said. "The Math Circle is quite tough. But children have never asked me for coffee yet. Or beer, for that matter."

"Don’t waste our time. Just start," she said. "We have plenty of better things to do."

"This class is entirely optional," I said. "You don’t have to be here."

"Oh, but I didn’t want to offend you by not coming," said Vera. "So it’s kind of not optional because of my kind heart."

"Just start," said Franko. "Just leave this crazy woman be."

And Franko is the only man on Earth who can call Vera crazy without being beaten to death.

But with what topic shall I start? Numbers? Geometry? Two-dimensional mappings of objects on cave walls?

"You know," I said. "Mathematics started with farming."

Franko burst into laughter.

"Young man," he said. "I know no farmer who is interested in mathematics. Not a single one. And I know many of them."

"Well," I said. "Not in that way. But as long as men hunted and gathered food, no real progress was made in mathematics. Once people turned to agriculture, around ten thousand years ago, everything changed. Villages appeared. Pottery, carpentry, weaving developed. It was discovered that copper is malleable and could be fashioned into tools and weapons more easily than stone. Bread was baked, beer was brewed. Not in a year. It took millenniums. But still. Remember, on the other hand, that for long millenniums before that, almost nothing had changed."

At that moment Franko slowly grabbed Ida’s shoelaces and started tying them to her chair. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Ida saw nothing. Or she pretended she didn’t see. Ida is a shy and reserved woman. Not sure how she gets along with Vera. Probably she just does everything that Vera says.

And what was I supposed to do? Should I send a sixty-two-year-old man out of the room? Call his parents? Let them know their son’s behavior was not OK?

I pretended I saw nothing.

And I continued: "Trading started between villages, especially due to all the manufacturing that was now taking place. And to trade, the concept of numbers is essential. At first, pebbles or shells arranged in heaps were used. After some time, special symbols for numbers were introduced."

At this point Franko leaned back, totally satisfied with himself. He managed to tie both Ida’s shoelaces to her chair.

"People also started measuring the length of objects," I said. "Units like fingers, feet, and hands were usually used. Geometrical patterns were used as ornamentation on pottery, the weaving of baskets, and metals. Near our capital, Ljubljana, geometric patterns were used as ornaments by pile dwellers around 1000 – 500 BC!"

This was supposed to be the highlight of the lesson. Such interesting and important things in our proximity! But it was not. My seniors were bored. More than bored.

However, at this moment Ida saw something had happened to her shoes and started screaming. Despite knowing very well who’d done it, she was still yelling in her high-pitched voice: "Never again will you see me here, you stupid teacher!"

I knew immediately we would be a dream team.

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