My sense of scale is a bit off

Teachers, much like parents, are in the firing line for everything. Any tiny inflection or misplaced comment might stay with a child, and fester away for a lifetime to come.

In 1990, my Maths teacher read out the results of the latest test – all of the scores averaging about 13 out of 16. He came to my name. “James,” he said, pausing just for half a beat, “1.” The whole class fell silent. To this day I consider myself terrible at maths, but in reality I’m probably only average. Or mean or mode or whatever.

Two years later, my English teacher read out the results of our mock ‘A’ Levels – all Bs and Cs. “James,” he said, “well, ‘Elephant’ begins with it”. The whole class fell silent.

Some of you braniacs may conclude from this that I am a stupid person. I’m afraid I’m too stupid to come up with a counter-argument, but I’m just not, right?

One ‘A’ Level history class in particular was responsible for adjusting my brain so much so that I could actually physically feel the world expanding around me. I can’t do it justice here, but, in short, the teacher explained that: The Big Bang, evolution, and the known history of the universe will be seen as little more than superstition, fable and quackery – it’s just what we assume based on what we know. The more you know, in short, the more you know you don’t know, and ever will it be the way. To grasp that with my stupid head was quite the revelation.

If it’s stupidity you suspect, get a load of this.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a conversation with a group of lads – we were all about seven years old. We were asking each other how much we could count up to. One lad bragged about having counted up to a hundred thousand, but I considered that just bravado. Another lad called the bragger’s bluff: “No way. That’s so stupid. Do you know how long it can take you to count up to a hundred thousand? Sixty years.”

I had no reason to question this claim, and it goes down as one of the most influential statements of my entire life. To this very day my sense of perspective about how long a given task is going to take has been affected. It manifests itself as a crippling lack of ambition. I’ll look at a book, and see it is 400 pages long, and just think, now way will I ever finish that. So I won’t bother starting.

A quick bit of calculator-aided maths tells me that counting to 100,000, at a pace of 1 number per second (which I think would take into account time spent sleeping and not counting), would take… Um… wait a sec:

  • 100,000 seconds divided by…60 (seconds in a minute) is 1,667 minutes.
  • 1,667 minutes divided by 60 (minutes in an hour) is 28 hours.
  • 28 hours divided by 24 (hours in a day) is 1.17

So that’s 1.17 days. Not 60 years.

It is in fact 0.005 per cent of 60 years (including leap years). So my whole life has been calibrated to an accuracy of 0.005 per cent.

What strikes me about all this conversational plankton is that —truly— no one’s ever going to have remembered saying any of these things. It’s just as horrifying how influential some throwaway or overheard comment might have been as it is how little effect the most carefully considered, adjusted and performed piece of advice might have had.

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