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Vol. 7, No. 3

Long Division
by Michael Redhill

Long Division

“No natural notion of infinity is compatible with the laws of arithmetic.”
timothy 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.
          Daniel’s classmates 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, resilience.
          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.

 

To read the rest of this story and others from the Fall 2003 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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