Tonight I spent some time with my neighbours who happen to be friends from high school, though they are a bit older than me. They are married and have two kids, both boys. The older one, Kyle, is six, which puts him at just the right age to start kindergarten, something he did, in fact start, last September.
I love asking kids questions. Hell, I like asking anyone questions. But kids are usually the best because things which we, the grown-ups, would consider old hat are, to them, brand new. After slowly walking towards Kyle in what he called “a chase” around the back yard — I like to walk slowly rather than run. Because it’s unexpected, it tends to freak them out a little more — we sat down inside at the kitchen table to prepare our hamburgers with Caesar dressing, grilled red bell peppers, and all the other fixings. I took this time to ask Kyle what he was doing at school. “Oh, just some math. But I’ve already seen math, so it’s not hard,” he replied as a matter of fact. I smiled. Everyone in the room smiled, but no one gave it away. They didn’t know what, but they knew it was coming.
“Yeah? Sounds like you’re ahead of the game, then,” I answered. It wasn’t time yet.
“Yeah, but not always. We learned about odd numbers and I didn’t know about them before,” Kyle offered. He’s a good, helpful kid. He’s constantly trying to help his younger brother, Luke, who’s just about to turn 14 months in a few weeks, do whatever kids that age do: throw the phone on the floor from on top of chairs and rip CDs out of their cases, I suppose.
Now it was time. Kyle had given me something to play with. I couldn’t resist, so I started out, “So what is an odd number?”
He thought about it and after a moment he responded, “It’s a number that doesn’t have a pair. If it’s an even number then there is always a partner, but in an odd there is one all alone.” Hey, it even made sense, at least to me. To see what sense he had made of it, I asked him for examples of odd numbers. He gave me one and three. And the next? Five.
“Okay, what is the biggest odd number you can think of?” I thought I had won, but you can’t ever underestimate little kids. If you do, they’ll prove you wrong. Kyle pondered my question.
At last he spoke, “There isn’t one.” Foiled, I smiled and regrouped.
“You’re right, but can you tell me which is the largest one you can name?” I’m sure that we can glean some fact about cognitive development or learning theory or maybe just that people can be tricked even if they themselves have supplied enough information not to be — and in my experience most people, not just children can be fooled even if you tell them “This is a lie:” — Kyle answered anyway.
He told me that “one-oh-one” was the biggest odd number he could name. It’s certainly odd, I agreed, but which odd number came next? He quickly gave one hundred three. Kyle would be the last one to finish his cheeseburger. His was cold before I downed two. By now I was working on a Sam Adams Boston lager, which I had saved for last.
We continued in this way until we made it up to nine thousand eleven. [I stopped after only one beer, though. Kyle told me that he is allowed to drink root beer, which is like beer except that it’d didn’t have alcohol.] Not satisfied with our latest contender, nine thousand thirteen spoiled its chances, we gave up.