Karthik Rajan


What First Graders Taught Me About Numbers

Imagination is child’s play

“Thirty six men standing on top of each other and sixteen elephants at the top”, was the overwhelming answer from a group of first graders in Houston, Texas. The question I posed, “What do you remember most from today’s presentation?”

I have presented to large groups but this small group was different. When I was offered a chance to make a difference, I grabbed it. The goal — open their minds to possibilities of the world- math, science, geography — you name it. I covered a range of examples. When I heard their answer to my question, my immediate thoughts, “Hmmm, this is interesting.”

Here is the origin of this story.

During the presentation, I had projected a picture of a 1000+ year old temple, famous in South India and little known to the outside world. This Thanjavur temple was a bus ride away from my grandparents home on Cauvery river delta. I had visited the temple when I was about their age. It was an architectural marvel. Standing at the base of the temple, I looked up in wonder.

My uncle proudly shared, “Yep, all granite, one of the heaviest stone on earth.” He added, “the top of the temple is a two piece massive stone weighing 80 tons.” I gaped, “Sounds big, really how heavy?” My uncle thought for a moment, “about 16 fully grown elephants”, he said. That I could phantom- really heavy!

Being the curious kind, I followed up, “How did they lift 16 elephant heavy stone to the top?” My uncle said, “we need to ask an engineer.” That was the birth of an idea in my supple mind- an interest in applied science.

When I walked into the 1st grader’s class, I wanted to create an excitement for math, an excitement for hard and applied science, an excitement for exploring the world’s architecture. In their raw, unvarnished feedback, the 1st graders reflected back to me why I became interested in the science side — the power of creative imagination– 16 elephants is the association I still relate to.

All these adult years, when I sat through presentation trainings, when I watched Apple product introductions, when I read Carmine Gallo’s earnest eloquence to present like Steve Jobs — I understood the importance of relating numbers to things we can imagine. Today, in the answer of the kids, I felt it again, just like how my uncle explained it the first time.

Collating my thoughts.

My uncle is far from the kind who would set a stage ablaze with his oratory. He was a thoughtful person who germinated a memorable thought on the gravity of a number through the power of images.

What really happened in the class, I wonder. Was I mesmerized by raised hands, elbows erect, reaching up as high as they can with bubbling earnestness to share their answer? Was I moved by the riveting attention of the young minds during the presentation? Was I blown away by the pop up of images from decades gone by? I cannot pencil in on one of them.

What I can share with certainty — memorable memories are to be treasured and many stem from power of imagery — not spelt out but crafted in our own minds on how we imagine it.

As I left the classroom, I felt something very profound — a way of communicating left brain stuff with right brain finesse — an ability to relate numbers through the power of visualization — 36 men, 6 ft tall and 16 elephants at the top! I had no elephants in front of me, no men stacked on top of each other –the power of their own imagination made it more vivid for the children to treasure.

Through them, I re-routed to the basics.

image credit: Photo by Arian Zwegers / CC BY 2.0

Thank you for the read.

Karthik Rajan.

You are welcome to sign up for my “connect the dots” short story-letter at this link.

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