Sunday, April 8, 2012

Day 8: Pobject's black construction paper

For four years I spent six Saturday mornings out of every semester working with precocious third-through-fifth graders, teaching them mathematical concepts most people will never, ever encounter. Through games and other hands-on activities, these kids learned about fractals, topology, cryptography, probability, and graph theory. My class usually drew around ten kids, every one of them brainier, and thus quirkier, than most of their peers. (Helen manifested her OCD through mechanical regimenting of everything around her. Art made up love songs about dodecahedrons.)

Week One. I always started with “Build Your Own Fractal,” since it gave the kids a great chance to express themselves creatively and mathematically while they tried their damnedest to make a mess at the same time. I brought pencils, paper, crayons, magic markers, scissors, glue, tape, and plenty of construction paper, craft paper, and poster board of every color I could find. Once I even brought glitter.

Most kids stuck to the basics, drawing fractal cactuses and octopi, or mimicking the handful of fun fractals I’d shown them earlier in the class. Some kids got more adventurous. These would claim a few pieces of construction paper and poster board and a roll of tape. They’d hack out rough, jagged triangles and squares and tape them together in crosses and spirals. Sometimes they’d decorate these objects, adorning them with runic characters drawn in bold magic marker.

The black construction paper often went overlooked. The girls passed it up for bright blues, pinks, and yellows, and even the boys preferred red and green. You couldn’t write legibly on the black, and it dulled the color of any other pieces it was paired with. I’d often end the semester with surplus black, most of which would find its way into the rotation in the next term, if not simply forgotten in the bottom drawer of my office filing cabinet.

I’ve always felt badly for ill-treated machinery (overworked can openers and washing machines) and neglected objects (teddy bears left behind at hotels, towels lost by the side of the road). No thing, sentient or no, deserves a rough fate. I feel bad for the black construction paper. I know without a doubt that all each piece wants is to be made into a Julia set or an octahedron before the sun turns its dark ebony skin to a cadaverous gray.

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