Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2 + 2 = 4: A Memory

Bored on a bench in the hallway of the Federal Courthouse, I am 5 years old, swinging knobby knees, ankle socks and fuzzy black oxfords. My older brother is running in the lobby near the elevator with our cousins, killing aliens or super criminals. Eleven adult children with spouses plus baby bumps, and about 20 grand kids aged 17 and under,  we are one huge tribe impatiently crowding around the heavy, closed doors of justice. We are waiting for Grandpa to become a US citizen. We're trying to keep it down to a dull roar so the bailiffs don't make us all move into the lobby with the aliens and super criminals.

My Uncle Ali, skinny with bushy kinky hair and black horn rimmed glasses sits down on the bench with me. Probably he's come to rest his feet but to be polite he strikes up a conversation with me.

So how old are you? Kindergarten? Yes? Reading yet?
A little.
What about counting?
Counting? That's for babies. ( look of disdain)
Really- so how high do you go?
100, even more.
And by 2's and by 5's, also to 100.
Honestly? You must demonstrate.
2, 4, 6, 8, 10 (and so forth.)
Very impressive. So what of arithmetic?
(Eyes rolled.) Easy peasy.
Demonstration? 1 + 1?
1 + 2?
1 + 3?
4. That's too easy ( boring, for babies, etc)
I see, something harder, then?
2 + 2?
(frown, scorn even, sigh.) 4
(Question mark frown) Why what?
Why are 2 + 2 = 4?
(Deep concentration. Fingers produced. Two on the left hand, two on the right)
Here, see? because they are four, not three or five, four.   Look.
(Indulgent smile, some self-satisfaction) No, four is the answer. I want to know the reason why the answer is four. Explain why 2 + 2 = 4, and not 3 or 5.
Because they are 4 and not something else.
But that doesn't explain why. Everything has a reason, everything can be explained why it is what it is. Even 2 + 2 = 4.
(frustrated waving of fingers)
It's never enough to say it is simply so. You have to know why. Think about it. If you find a reason, come tell me.
(Twinkling eyes, kind smile, slight chuckle)

And he got up and walked away having planted the seed of a concept that formed the rest of my life.

It's never enough to say it is simply so; you need to know why.”

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