The Kindergarten Existentialist
I’ve managed to fit 17 years of school memories into a blue tub in the back of my closet. As I placed my recent acquisitions into the tub (my (sweaty) graduation gown, tassel, cum laude ropes, and cap), I found a short story that I wrote for my pre-calculus class in the 11th grade.
Ah, 11th grade pre-calc… I had an adversarial relationship with my teacher. So adversarial, that we had to have a mediated meeting with the head of the upper school and the dean of students. Our relationship has a few redeeming qualities: on high school graduation day, my old math teacher gave each student a bound book containing each of the stories she had us write about mathematical concepts. I wouldn’t have remembered the class or what I was like in the 11th grade without this book. I chose to write a short piece about existentialism – I discovered satire and existentialism in the 11th grade (I liked the fact that I could rebrand my ‘smartass’ comments as ‘satirical’ and my intellectual highmindedness as ‘existential’).
The Kindergarten Existentialist
A short story
Life, society, and math held no mystery for me until that fateful day in Kindergarten when my teacher thought it was time for her students to understand nothingness as an existential truth. Zero.
She drew a circle before the numbers 1, 2, and 3. She asked us if we knew what the circle was. Being the “smart kid” in the class, I raised my hand and confidently answered “it’s a circle!!!” The class nodded in agreement. The teacher said that I was “almost” correct. Me? “Almost correct”? – that in itself was a new concept for me. She said that this “circle” had a special meaning behind it. I was right and my mind. Clearly, she was wrong. I was never “almost correct” until I met her. She was the problem. I stared out of the window and let my classmates deal with this mystery “circle”.
She gave us a simple math problem: 1+1. The answer was not new news to me: 2. I doodled anti-teacher cartoons on my paper. She put a new problem on the board: circle + 1. Silence from the peanut gallery. She told us that the circle was called “zero”. Good hint. Without raising my hand I boldly answered: “zero 1!!!!”. She ignored my outburst and told us that this was an easier problem than “1 + 1” because zero means nothing – so, whenever we see “0+number”, the answer would be the number next to the zero. The rest of the class nodded in understanding and relief. This was much easier than the algebra homework they saw their siblings doing at home. The math lesson was over for the day. My blissfully ignorant peers rushed out of the classroom and onto the playground. I stayed behind.
I always had many questions and my teacher prided herself on her ability to answer any questions asked by kindergartners. We had a good relationship. I asked her to explain zero again. She did it the same was as before. Zero is nothing. I asked “if zero is nothing, then how come it is something we have to learn during math time?” I continued: “Why does zero need a symbol if it represents nothing?”. I violated the terms of our relationship. I asked questions that she could not answer. She could no longer pride herself on being able to answer the questions of kindergartners. She told me to go outside. I went outside and started playing because there was no point in wasting a break.
I think all of my problems with math, life, and society stem from this moment. I drew the shapes on the playground with chalk. My classmates had no answers for me. They lived for shadows on the wall. I had seen the sun. I was Plato’s enlightened prisoner. I’ve realized that the questions I have about life stem from zero: As human beings, how can we rationalize nothing as something? What is nothing? Do we just call it ‘nothing’ so that we can dismiss it? Does empiricism make us prone to naivety? Does existence come before essence? How can something have no value if it exists? Are my feelings of nausea indicators of the existential anguish I feel about my place in society?
The existentialist does not lead an easy life. Existentialists violate the terms of healthy relationships. Have you ever met an existentialist who did not believe that they were a cut above the rest? Have you met an existentialist who didn’t use the word “existentialist” at least 20 times per day to convey their superior position in the cave of shadows?
All of my social inadequacies and math issues could be easily cured if I understood one thing: the essence of nothing (which is obviously something).
This math assignment is interesting – I wonder if I can adapt it for future lessons.