Jay in Numberland

Originally published on October 3, 2014

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat at my desk and Jay lay on his back on the guest bed behind me. His legs were crossed and he held my cellphone in his hands. “It’s 2:46,” he told me. “Now it’s 2:47.” “Now it’s 2:48.”

Just a few minutes earlier we’d had one of our first real conversations about how to tell time. It had been fun to watch him grasp the concept, but now I was ready for quiet. I mustered as much enthusiasm as I could for each update, and then offered him a tantalizing glimpse of the future: “You’re never going to believe what happens after it turns 2:59pm.” For twelve concerted minutes he stared at the phone, informing me each time the minute turned, getting more and more breathless as the hour wound down. When the phone’s digital display turned to “3:00,” instead of “2:60” as he’d anticipated, Jay nearly fell off the bed.

Jay’s road to numeracy has been long. He learned the words “one, two, three…” years ago, and for a while, he’s been able to actually count small quantities of things. But as recently as this summer, his command of numbers was spotty. He’d get tripped up turning the corner from 19 to 20 and had a hard time following what, to my eyes, seemed like quite obvious patterns. On the last leg of our drive home in August, Caroline and Jay practiced counting by 5s. He was able to hold the pattern up to about 25, but then lost it completely, throwing out “40” when he should have said “35,” and making wild guesses above 50.

But over the last month things have begun to fall into place, and Jay’s on fire with the power of a new idea.

Driving around town, he asks for nearly second-by-second updates on our speed. “29…32…33…34 miles per hour,” I told him in the span of a single block between our house and Whole Foods. The only time he ceased his interrogation was to ask, “Aren’t you speeding?” It was enough to make me wish we were back talking about whether a giant is taller than a house.

When he’s not thinking about time or speed, he’s got age on the mind. He’s especially into the idea that the age gap between two people holds steady throughout their lifetimes. “When I’m 2,000-years-old, you’re going to be 2,028,” he told Caroline last night at dinner, which of course was both true and not true.

Last weekend Jay had his best chance yet to practice his counting. We have a tree in the middle of our backyard that drops large nut-like seeds, which make the soccer ball bounce at odd angles and also shoot like bullets out of the lawn mower. I offered Jay a penny for each one he picked up. He went around pushing his dump truck, periodically announcing his total in a tone of disbelief: “One-hundred-and-sixty-two,” he exclaimed after about 10 minutes. It occurred to me that in a couple years I’ll have to worry about him cheating at this kind of activity; for now, he’s so excited to be able to count correctly, there’s no chance he’s going to deliberately skip ahead.

If there’s one place numbers come up most often, it’s during bedtime books, which recently have been about wonders of the natural world- dinosaurs, Mars, volcanoes, and the like.

Jay’s beginning to develop an understanding of place value, and whenever we read an amazing quantitative fact, his eyes go big and he repeats the number back in amazement. Last night, for example, we read that lava can flow for hundreds of miles, and that barracudas evolved 50 million years ago. Wally, who understands that his brother is obsessed with numbers more than he understands numbers themselves, turned to Jay looking for a reaction: “Did you hear that, Jay, FIFTY…MILLION…YEARS…AGO.”

We leave those books in the boys’ room after lights out, and lately they’ve been looking at them together in the morning. Jay, as into numbers as he is, will take them anywhere he can find them. This morning, when it was still dark outside, he yelled up to our bedroom, “My workbook has 321 pages!”

My eyes flicked open and I croaked in reply, “What time is it?” The words were out of my mouth before I realized I’d asked him exactly the wrong question.


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