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Numbers, emotions and arithmetic empathy

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I visited some of my past students at their new school. Here’s what unfolded. (A collection of all memoirs are filed here.)

As I take time to order pizza for them at Domino’s, I keep looking back every few seconds to make sure they’re behaving well. Two and a half years later, my old students are still seven-year-olds for me. They are behaving well indeed, but that’s because they’re having a huddled conference at the table.

When I return to them, I see they have been collecting money. Some hand over ten-rupee coins to the collector-in-chief, some hand over fivers. Within seconds, the collector-in-chief hands the bunch of change over to me.

“You bought pizza for us, please take this,” they say. I refuse; they insist. I thwart their efforts with the threat that I’ll take the money, but then I’ll also return the gifts they got for me today. One shoots back at me: “Okay, take my money, return my gift.” – before guffawing away, saying that he hadn’t got a gift in the first place.

Most of them had, though. For a life where money (or the lack of it) teaches them arithmetic more than any teachers can, their pens in gift-wraps do not stop coming. The eight boys I was meeting after two long years had grown up into arithmetically sound beings – the last I knew them, they couldn’t handle large numbers mentally.

The stories they told me and the way they treated me and each other were full of linkages between numbers and emotions.

Kids who I once struggled to convince that “12” was “twelve” and not “onety two”, could today read bus numbers and take the correct bus in seconds. As I opened their gifts, they wanted to check how much each pen cost. They wanted to know my salary, so that they could soon multiply it by 12 to know my annual salary – mighty quick. One of them explained the monthly cost of his bus pass and how it saved him money; another sadly told me the school van cost a lot. Eyes beamed as I mentioned lunch, but next moment, none of them wanted it, because they thought it would be expensive.

As I departed, they stopped at a jalebi shop, and before I knew it, had bought me what they thought was the best they could return to me for the pizza and for the memories of two years.

Scarcity is full of all the values and math lessons you’ll ever need.

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