Neighbourhood Mathematics: A John Dunn story

John-Dunn-e1423861626174
That year I was deep into high school, closing in on Junior Matriculation.  All through the previous years at school mathematics had held no favour with me, certainly not with my abilities which were few, nor even with my instincts, which lay still untapped.  Arithmetic had been a menace throughout elementary and secondary school, and algebra in Junior Matriculation stood revealed as pagan torture.

One subject of mathematics, and one only, brought me two fingers of satisfaction, and that was geometry, which opened up the Pythagorean theorem — “the square on the hypotenuse of a right=angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.”

The theorem had to be memorized.  To hold it haltered, ready for work in memory’s cavern, we learned to recite old Pythagoras’s theorem as speedily as possible, so that, recited briskly, the words ran all together without spaces between them.

Nothing, however, in the wisdom of Ptolemy of the Nile, and nothing even from Euclid’s geometry that had helped the Egyptians so greatly when they were building the pyramids, and certainly nothing from the algebra’s quadratic equation could have equipped me for the test in simple arithmetic that Jack Hourigan dropped one morning at breakfast time in the kitchen of the doctor’s house.

Jack’s renown in the neighbourhood rested on two special talents in his basket.  First, he was master of mental arithmetic, and proved it every day in his grocery store, and second, he was the greatest tease of children in miles around.

All our family had come gradually to realize that one peculiar branch of mathematics had not come out of Egypt or the Near East.   It was Neighbourhood Mathematics.

Theorem One said that “In any family the sum of the children who take after their father, added to the number who take after their mother, equals the number of boys and girls in the family.”

Theorem Two said: All families in the neighbourhood will find a favourite from the youngsters of a large family.

In the Hourigan household across the street from my father’s office door, that favourite was Martha, number eleven of thirteen.  The choice of Martha was not a trivial nor an accidental affair: Martha had taken her first steps in the Hourigan kitchen, witnessed by both Mary and Mrs. Hourigan, and, furthermore, Martha had uttered her first words in that same Hourigan kitchen.

Anyway, at our house after morning prayers, members of the family had gathered around the big kitchen table for breakfast.  At one end of the table sat Mardie and Martha.  Close to Martha was the big Morris chair, near the reservoir at the back of the kitchen stove.  Mother gave the porridge a final stir before ladling it out to the multitude.

At that moment the latch on the office door lifted and clacked down, the door swung open and shut with a whoosh of air.

“Somebody’s coming in at the office door now,” said Mardie, alerting Mother.

“It’s likely your father,” said she, on her way to the pantry to get milk from the refrigerator…

Footsteps marched from the office to the kitchen.

“Is that your father now?” asked Mother from the refrigerator.

“No.  It’s only Jack,” said Martha.

“Oh! ‘It’s only Jack’.  Is that it, Martha?”  Jack began in a voice stricken with pain at Martha’s tender heart so suddenly grown cold towards him. “Oh, ‘It’s only Jack,’ Is that all you can say, Martha, about someone who can tell the world you took your first steps in our kitchen, and who came in here this morning to tell your mother how smart Martha is?  Is that all you can say, Martha, ‘It’s only Jack!’?”

Jack sat down in the big Morris chair almost beside Martha’s place at the table and said again in words torn and bleeding, “Is that all you can say, Martha?”

Martha kept on with her porridge, refusing Jack’s bait.  At five years old her only experience with repartee had come from rope-skipping time, where she had learned a put-down from the six-year olds, “Oh, you just think you’re smart, don’t you? Ya, smarty!”

Jack kept the pressure on.  “It’s only Jack,” he moaned, his voice creaking.

Grim-faced, Martha sat, silent.

“I know you’re going to be the smartest one in the family when you start to school, Martha,” Jack continued, “And II keep telling your Mother it’s all because of the things I’ve told you since you started to walk in our kitchen, because I said to your mother, ‘Martha’s going to be the smartest of all.  And it’s all because of my help!’”

“Hah!” Martha snorted, and at that very moment the latch on the office door clacked for the second time that morning, and dropped.  The door swung open with a whoosh of air, and shut.

The hospital smell of ether rushed in waves from the office to the kitchen.

“Well, Martha,” Jack continued from the Morris chair, “Here’s your father too.  He knows how smart you are, and he knows too that it’s all because of the things Jack has been teaching you.”

Dad, smiling at this shady repartee, went to check up on the fire in the kitchen stove.

“Any news?” Mother asked slyly, but audibly, as the stove lid clanged back into its place.

“A boy,” came the answer, quietly.

“How is she?” asked Mother, furtively.

“Fine.  Both fine.”

“She’ll be glad it’s all over.”

“Yes.”

“Did she have long to wait?”

“Not too long.”

Martha’s quest for knowledge sprang forward.  “How long do you have to wait for a baby?” she enquired.

Jack leaped from the Morris chair and bounded into the lists in the big kitchen, saying:
“Hah, you don’t have to ask the doctor a question like that.  Sure Martha, even Jack knows the answer to that one.”

“You?  Hah!”  Martha turned away in scorn.

Jack drove on.  “Yes siree, Martha, you don’t have to go to college for years and years to learn the answer to that question.  You just ask Jack.  Just see if he can’t tell you.”

“Hah, what would you know about it?” Martha said coldly.

“Well, Martha, you know how smart Jack is, and he can tell you the answer to that question of yours.”

“Oh, you’re so smart,” Martha conceded, “All right, smarty, how long do you have to wait?”

Jack leaned on the electric stove for support as he made the theorem ready.  The announcement came, rapid-fire, the way I’d learned the square on the hypotenuse.  It said this: “Thefirstonecancomeanytimebutafterthatyouhavetowaitatleastninemonths.”

A smile, only half-formed and crinkled, passed without comment between our parents, which I immediately interpreted as silent acknowledgement of Jack’s theorem’s being correct.

Correct to adults, and to us younger generation at the table, a puzzling jumble of words.  I glanced around to see if anyone at the table had caught the drift of those puzzling words. Jack’s theorem.  Not a sign.  It was something to be unscrambled, another word puzzle, like that one from Bible History that had caused me immense trouble in Senior Second: “Who was the father of the Sons of Zebedee?”  No, not Moses.  No, not Methuselah.  Who?  Deliver us!

Jack turned in the doorway.  “See, Martha,” he said, “I just told you so.  You know I’m right and so does the doctor.  That’s how smart Jack is.  Martha, are you listening?”  And Jack left to go to work.

John Dunn.