Mirrors, Maths and Magic!

"Certainly Anna had a gift ... at once as mysterious as it was simple. She had an immediate grasp of pattern, of structure, of the way that bits and pieces were organised into a whole. Unexplainable as this gift might be, it was always well and truly earthed in the nature of things. As simple and as mysterious as a spider's web, as ordinary as a spiral seashell. Anna could see pattern where others just saw muddles, and this was Anna's gift."

I studied Education and Psychology at University, many years ago. Beside me, livening up many a dull lecture, was my dear friend, Pauline, full of life and joy and laughter. Some of our favourite classes were in Developmental Psychology. I remember watching and discussing many entertaining films of very small children being observed in psychological experiments. Very little conclusion could actually be drawn from these experiments, the samples were usually too small to be significant, and children are so individual. But how Pauline laughed at the beautiful children, their cheeky faces and funny, funny comments.

Pauline gave me a gift. It was the gift of faith. And the idea that faith should be simple yet profound, safe yet daring, serious yet tremendously good fun. Her God was always smiling, and she delighted in His company. Pauline died almost 12 years ago. She was too young, too joyous, too full of life ... I still can't believe she is gone. Of all the people in my life, she is the one person with whom I would dearly love to discuss unschooling. I wish we could walk this path together, and continue laughing at the beautiful curiosity of small human beings. She would 'get it' ... I know she would.

A long time ago, Pauline gave me this book, "Mister God, This is Anna". I found it on my shelf and read it again recently. It amazed me how full of unschooling it is, and how full of deep spirituality expressed in the person of a very small girl as remembered by her friend, Fynn, as they wander the streets and encounter the characters of London's pre-war East End. "Anna's attendance at school was reluctant and not too frequent." Her learning and discoveries take place primarily with Fynn, in conversation as they go about life together. Her learning is not compartmentalised .... She philosophises about God as she discovers the wonders of seeds, or dismantles a radio or looks into her mirror book. It was re-reading Anna that gave me the idea for my youngest son's birthday this year - Mirror tiles, and a prism. Today, the wonder began ....

"We'd both been told that 'five' meant 'five' and nothing else, but the figure 5 reflected in the water or a mirror was the figure 2. And this fact of reflection could produce some pretty curious arithmetics, and this is what fascinated us so much. Perhaps they were not of any practical use, but it didn't matter. 'Five' meant what is usually meant by 'five' only by usage and convention. There was nothing at all special about the figure 5; you could allow it to mean anything you liked as long as you stuck to the rules once you had made them, and you could go on inventing rules forever - well almost. So you see we were wasting our time, but we didn't see it that way; we saw it as an adventure, something that had to be explored.
Anna and I had both seen that maths was more than just working out problems. It was a doorway to magic, mysterious, brain-cracking worlds, worlds where you had to tread carefully, worlds where you made up your own rules, worlds where you had to accept complete responsibility for your actions. But it was exciting and vast beyond understanding."

"'If,' said Miss Haynes to Anna, 'you had twelve flowers in a row and you had twelve rows, how many flowers would you have?' Poor Miss Haynes! If only she had asked Anna what twelve times twelve was she would have got her answer, but no, she had to start messing around with flowers and rows and things. Miss Haynes got an answer, not the one she expected, but an answer.
Anna had sniffed. This particular kind of sniff indicated the utmost disapproval.
'If,' replied Anna, 'you grewed flowers like that you shouldn't have no bloody flowers.'
Miss Haynes was made of stern stuff and the impact of this answer left her unmoved. So she tried again.
'You have seven sweeties in one hand and nine sweeties in your other hand. How many sweeties have you got altogether?'
'None,' said Anna. 'I ain't got none in this hand and I ain't got none in this hand, so I ain't got none, and it's wrong to say I have if I ain't.'
'Brave, brave Miss Haynes tried again.
'I mean pretend, dear, pretend that you have.'
Being so instructed, Anna pretended and came out with the triumphant answer, 'Fourteen.'
'Oh no, dear,' said brave Miss Haynes, 'you've got sixteen. You see, seven and nine make sixteen.'
'I know that,' said Anna, 'but you said pretend, so I pretended to eat one and I pretended to give one away, so I've got fourteen.'
I've always thought that Anna's next remark was made to ease the look of pain and anguish on Miss Haynes's face.
'I didn't like it, it wasn't nice,' she said, as a sort of self-inflicted punishment."