Here’s another item inspired by my pilgrimage to church this morning. What an odd place to find inspiration, no?
Our minister, in honor of his birthday, is talking about old age. He gives a fine example of “You know you’re old when….” Back in his younger days, he says, he might lose his concentration or be in a hurry while driving, and he’d back into traffic or cut someone off. The reactions would be predictable. The other driver would glare, honk, wave his fist, or flip the bird. Our minister would respond in kind. Yes, he said that. I am having a hard time imagining our white-haired minister flipping off some random driver, but it’s a fun exercise. Anyway, last week, he says that, as is his custom, he again backed from a parking spot, right back into traffic on the Post Road, forcing another driver to slam on his brakes. However, upon seeing the white-haired man at the wheel of the offending car, the other driver did not glare, or honk, or wave his fist. He did not flip up his middle finger, either. Apparently, at the sight of Methuselah at the wheel, the other driver just looked at our minister with a disgusted, or perhaps it was dismissive, shrug, and waved his arm in an “after you” gesture. This complete lack of rage struck our minister as the ultimate sign that he was no longer young, no longer worthy of a “What the heck are you thinking, buddy?” It was a sad moment for him…but also a good story.
The minister is leading into a sermon about the fact that we live a long time and therefore have a long time to make an impact on our world. He refers at one point to a saying he has heard. It is based on the fact that if you look at a tombstone, you’ll usually see, prominently displayed, the starting point and ending point of a person’s life journey, but the the person’s legacy, the subject of their epitaph, lies in the dash that’s wedged in between those two points. The saying is something like, “It’s not your birth date or death date that matter. It’s the dash.”
At this moment in time, my mind and my minister’s mind diverge. I can’t tell you much more about the sermon, because my mind veers into memory lane (without signalling, mind you). I am remembering an aha moment that one of my students had in math class two years ago. This may sound random, disrespectful, or even sacrilegious to admit. Let’s just call this the confessional. That makes it sound like I was at least being a little religious.
I had been reminding the class that subtraction problems can sometimes be solved more easily by adding a number to both parts of the problem, kind of like sliding both numbers up or down a number line. As long as they stayed the same distance apart, you’d still get the right answer. For example, if you had the problem 13 minus 9, it might be easier to see the answer if you moved both numbers one higher. Then it would be 14 minus 10. I was pleased with my tip. Most of my class was unimpressed. They had no problem with 13 minus 9 in the first place. However, at this moment Casper, who did not always find my math instruction gripping, leaped to his feet. “Oh my gosh. I just realized something!” he blurted. Now, I should tell you that Casper, at age 10, was a bit of an intellectual, and he already spoke in a manner much like a professor. “May I show you on the board?” he asked deferentially. Sometimes I had to cut him off, because his observations or ruminations might go on for a while, or because the rest of the class might not be quite as interested in the concept as he was. However, on this day, having just pontificated on the value of the “add to each part of the problem” theory, I didn’t see that I could very well cut off Casper. “Go right ahead, Casper,” I said one pompous professor to another.
He proceeded to the front of the room and picked up the pointer. Yes, he did, and he wrote a subtraction problem on the board, emphasizing the minus sign as he wrote. He then drew a number line and labeled it with the numbers in his subtraction problem. At this point, he turned toward his students…I mean his classmates, and began his talk. “Now, I have been subtracting for a long time. I think I have understood it, too. But I just made a very exciting discovery. It has to do with this dash. I had never realized that the minus sign between the two numbers could also be interpreted like the dash between two dates or two times of day. Do you see what I’m saying?”
Crickets. Mute crickets, even. Crickets with blank stares. Crickets with slack mandibles.
Casper, undaunted, or oblivious, continued. “No, really, this is quite exciting. You see, when someone writes October 2014 to October 2015…” While he said this, he wrote out “October 2014 – October 2015,” and then he kept explaining, “…what they are talking about is the time between those two dates. You see, the dash here means there is space in between, OR you could say that it means ‘the distance apart’ for those two points. Now, what I have just realized is that in a subtraction problem, this symbol, which I thought was just a minus sign, could actually be that same kind of dash. It means the same thing. It means that in between these two numbers is a distance or a space. The minus sign is a dash that shows there is a space between the two numbers. Your job,” he paused dramatically, “is to find out how much space there is between the two points.”
And with that, he dropped the pointer, clapped his hands together in that gesture of slapping off the chalk dust of ignorance, and strode back to his desk. I am guessing that I am the only person in that classroom who has any memory of that moment. The crickets made barely a chirp, much less an “Ah ha!” or “Eureka!!” I’m not even sure if I remember the moment for the profound discovery or just for the way Casper shared it.
I’m back at church, now, and I re-tune in time to hear that I should go out into the world in peace, and while I’m at it, I should make sure that I make good use of whatever small dash that I’ve been granted.