Last week Sean had an extra-credit homework assignment that involved investigating patterns. He grabbed the clipboard and tucked a pencil behind his ear and off we set around the house to do some research.
We walked around the perimeter of the outside of the house and took note of everything we saw that could be interpreted as a pattern. He came up with flowers, leaves, the pumpkin, the fence, the roof shingles and the bricks. Inside he determined there are patterns on the floor tile, the fabrics of the furniture, the Kleenex box and the carved Greek key motif on my desk.
He illustrated each of the patterns, as the assignment required, and set it aside, ready to tuck into his homework folder. That could have been the end of it, but I couldn’t let him stop there, there was just too much fun to be had.
Instead, I asked him to classify the patterns. He studied the paper for a moment and then said it seems to him that there are patterns that God made, like flowers, and then there are patterns that man made, like bricks. That was a pretty astute observation, and again, I could have left it at that, but he seemed open to pressing it further. So I suggested to him that perhaps there were more patterns in his life which were less obvious than those that he could see and draw.
He tapped his pencil on the table as he cocked his head and squinted at the ceiling, a posture known to all to push the thinking ions into the brain. I let him wrestle with it until I was sure he was stumped. Then I pulled the plastic place mat from under the paper upon which he had been writing, the one with the multiplication tables on it. I handed it to him and asked him to study it for a moment and see if he could find any patterns. A light bulb went off above his head, crackled and popped and then exploded into an Aha! cloud of smoke. He quickly pointed out the 5 multiplication table, the repeating of the 5’s and 0s and also the 9s, how the numbers go up on one side of the answers and down on the other.
Since we were on a roll, I had him close his eyes as I recited a poem for him. Then I took him over to the piano and played a simple piece for him. I had him clap the patterns.
He went back to the table to add these types of patterns to his homework. As he worked, I asked him if he thought these types of patterns that escape the eye but exist in the mind – were they God made or man made?
We spent the next 15 minutes at the kitchen table, bending our brains around that idea and batting it back and forth, each trying to dismiss the theories and suppositions of the other. My hypothesis was that God made mathematical patterns and man discovered them. Sean said he felt like man invented number patterns. I told him that I could be convinced of that. Maybe man invented numbers as a way to describe and make sense of his world, that perhaps math is just another language. And for the first time in my life, the aroma of math was not clinical Pine-Sol, but appealing, lilac and romantic.
And then Sean said, no, man created numbers so that he could collect taxes.
Well, there’s that too, I suppose.