“No natural notion of infinity is compatible with the laws of arithmetic.”
gowers, mathematics: a very short introduction
Catherine Nilson waited outside of Room 23, beside the mural of Canadian Sports
Heroes, on the second floor of the Harrison Road Public School. This was where
her only child, an eight-year-old son, attended his advanced classes, and where
she meant to intercept him before he went into math, a subject taught by a round
man about her age named Mr. Melvin. He’d noted her idling outside his classroom
at five minutes to one, just as lunch was ending. He’d never met her before
(her husband, Andy, had come to meetings at the school, averring that he was
the parent more involved in Daniel’s education), and so he passed her a curious
look, but said nothing before entering his class.
All around her,
the post-lunch crowd was reassembling beside the double row of lockers. The
looks of the third and fourth graders unnerved Catherine. It had been almost
thirty years since she’d been subject to the laws of that society, and the way
these small men and women registered her presence made her think of her own
early education, in which she’d run the gamut of cat-eyed eight-year-olds with
their withering murmurs and their scorekeeping. In the short time she’d been
waiting, she’d become aware that she was the only subject of conversation in
the second-floor hallway. There was no whispering or pointing, however: the
subculture of prepubescent children was like heart cells in a petri dish. Connected
by a matrix of unseen fibers, they tended to beat in unison.
began arriving, but he was not among them yet. It troubled her to see what they
had traded up for when Daniel had been put into this accelerated group. These
too-intelligent kids, already cut free from the moorings of what was popular,
had the look about them of an underclass. Their rucksacks lacked logos, their
clothing and haircuts were plain. They shuffled into Mr. Melvin’s classroom
to have this advanced math pounded into them, and in this fashion they were
just so much clay, no different from the rest of their schoolmates. But the
rest of their schoolmates had been deemed average, so they got to have
fun and trade hockey cards and get co-opted by soft-drink companies and running-shoe
brands. Daniel’s friends were to be molded by higher learning, but molded
no less. She’d had this disagreement, complete with her own italics, many times
with Andy, and he’d always trumped her with what he called her pretensions to
commonness. They had a special child, he’d say, and she seemed ashamed of that.
She would throw in the towel at this point, because going any further would
mean trying to explain that she was not ashamed of Daniel, but rather she wished
she could see more of herself in him. A little of her commonness, she
thought, could see him through a great deal of trouble.
So here she was,
having taken the afternoon off from her firm, on this Wednesday in the fall,
to try to pull Daniel down a little from the ether of his education and back
into the oxygen of normality. She was here with her husband’s blessing, having
convinced him that the corrective she intended to deliver was essential to the
boy’s growth. She was here to make Daniel own up to a lie. The fact that she
had caught him in it was pure luck, but it had enlivened her hopes that he was
not so unique that he did not need to conceal a weakness, occasionally. She
longed for him to have weaknesses, to try something and fail. It was
a strange way to express her love, to want him to taste the poison of disappointment.
She thought if he did, though, he might develop its antibodies: humility, humor,
As she waited outside
of Mr. Melvin’s room Catherine kept her gaze away from the students, uncomfortable
with their eyes on her. It was as if they already knew she was here to betray
one of their own.
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