Years ago, at a preliminary round of a junior best-speaker
contest, Suresh De Mel spoke of his ambition. He wanted to be an
accountant. The reason was ‘fascination
with numbers’. He went on to enter
university after studying in the Mathematics stream and later re-invented
himself as an economist. He was and I believe still is teaching in the
Economics Department at Peradeniya.

Numbers are fascinating things. I have written this before; i.e. how my
friend Ravi Arulnandy, when invited to watch a sunset from the Sports School
of the Ministry at Independence
Square , watched for a few seconds and muttered ‘I
see beauty in other things.’ When asked to elaborate, he said ‘numbers’. I suppose in any society there are
number-fascinated individuals. They become mathematicians, accountants,
engineers, economists, statisticians and others whose lives are made of numbers
and equations.

I like numbers. Always did.
I liked numbers so much that I believed at the age of 15 that I could
not like anything more. So I opted to enter the maths-stream for my A/Ls. It took me a year to realize that I liked
other things more. My mother, in her
greater wisdom, told me to do the exam once and then switch to arts. I passed, barely, but well enough to qualify
for admission to read for a degree in the physical sciences, but fortunately or
unfortunately had already decided to sit for the A/Ls the next year in arts. So I entered the Arts Faculty, Peradeniya. The interest in Mathematics did not subside,
for I selected Pure Mathematics as a ‘Main Subject’ for the General Arts
Qualifying Exam. It was a lonely time since I was the only student and unlike
parallel students in Science Faculty (who had to sit the same paper) did not
have access to the bright-sparks who would complete the tutorials and then
tutor their fellow-students.

I still like numbers.
Last night I wondered what the source of this interest was. Several hours later, I don’t have a clear
answer. The exercise, however, yielded
some unforgettable teachers.

Being a second child helped, I think. No one asked me to learn the multiplication
tables. No one asked much about
anything, come to think of it. I am not
sure if that was good or bad. I learnt
the multiplication tables and began to see patterns. I picked up a lot of short
cuts, not because I wanted to but because I was lazy and preferred play to
study. I just wanted to get books and
school out of the way as quickly as possible. Everyday. I went to school because ‘school’ meant
‘interval’.

I still remember, though, how I learnt the multiplication
tables. I walked to the particular set
of numbers. If it was the 7-times table
that I was working on, I would take one step and think ‘seven’ and would not
keep the next unless I got ‘14’ right.
It was like that going up staircases and coming down, even if I was in a
rush. ‘Rush’ forced me to think quickly. It must have been some variant of the
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In later
years I would try to calculate the digital root of number places, especially
before we got ‘English Numbers’ and other such games. I’ve led a pretty boring
life, I know.

Mrs. Rajapaksa and Mrs. Chandraratne (Grade 1 and 2
respectively) must have taught me to write numbers. I owe them. Mrs. C. Liyanagama was a
meticulously neat teacher. Grade 3. She made numbers look like beautiful
pictures. I owe her. Mrs. Palihawadana
(Grade 4) was interested in speed. I owe her. Mrs. Tillakaratne (Grade 5) was
obsessed with her class producing the best results at the Scholarship Exam. She
succeeded. I owe her. Mr. George
Liyanage was strict. Too strict.
Terrified me. I floundered. Lost all interest in Mathematics. I owe him too for I learnt how not to
teach. Mr. Cooray (Grade 7) had no
chance, for by that time I had given up on Mathematics as well as
education. I got 17 in the mid-year
test. Mrs. Sita Weerasooriya who had
marked the year-end papers of that class for some reason, and knowing I was the
son of a fellow-teacher, checked my score. She was horrified to find I had
scored ‘only’ 42. I remember grinning and telling her ‘Madam, that’s very good,
I got just 17 in the mid-year test’.

Mr. Upali Munasinghe changed it all. He taught as though he was teaching a Grade 1
student. Two years plus extra lessons at
home (he used to stay with us on cricket-practice days; he was
master-in-charge, Under 13 cricket) revived an interest and turned it into a
fascination. Mr. Nelson Fernando (Grade
10) had his own methods and was a very effective teacher. He ironed out the
crumpled corners of the mind. As did Mr.
Appuhamy, a teacher at St. Anne’s, Kurunegala,
who taught my brother and I when we spent our school vacations at our
grandparents’ house in Malkaduwawa. I am
indebted beyond words to all three.

Mr. Dayaratne (Pure and Applied Maths) turned a sagging
interest in the A/L exam into a more committed exercise that produced a ‘C’ out
of a sure ‘F’. Mrs. Munasinghe (tuition
teacher) turned that ‘C’ into a ‘B’ the following year (I took Pure Mathematics
along with 3 Arts subjects). I owe them
both for helping me enter university. My last formal mathematics teacher was
Mr. Kasturiarachchi, who had just graduated from the Peradeniya Science Faculty
and taught me GAQ Mathematics. I
tortured him because classes were at 1.30 every day of the week and he had to
come all the way to Polgolla from Peradeniya and invariably teach a drowsy
student whose fascination with numbers was considerably deadened by fascination
with other things. I owe him.

And now, totally out of ‘mathematics’, I am taught by my two
little girls, 10 and 7 years of age. They teach me how to help them. I owe them
too.

My days are now numbered, I know this. I need to say my
thank-yous before it is too late. And in these words of gratitude for making
numbers please me in so many ways, I am tormented by one lack: the inability to
quantify my thanks. My older daughter
asked me what ‘infinity’ is. I went into the etymology of the word. She was
fascinated. Some things are
unquantifiable. That’s my last ‘mathematics’ lesson and everyone mentioned
above contributed to this ‘learning’.
Mr. Munasinghe is no more. So too
Mr. Appuhamy. I’ve lost the addresses of all the others mentioned. Makes me sad.

*msenevira@gmail.com*

*First published in February 2011 in the 'Daily News'*

## 0 comments:

Post a Comment