Sunday, May 6, 2012

Day 30 (at last!): Pobject's blackboard

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to writing this last piece for the project. I think it’s a little bit of “I don’t want this to end” and a little bit of “this one’s really close to home,” given that much of my life has been spelled out on blackboards for the past god-knows-how-many years. As a mathematician, it kind of comes with the trade.

There was a time when I would have told you that the blackboard was a sacred space, and every symbol placed on it a hieroglyph with deep and recondite meaning. As the classroom itself exuded an aura of numinousness, the blackboard, if you leaned near enough to it, would smell of ozone, would pulse and vibrate, would be hot to the touch.

I once write several draft chapters of a magical realist novella in which the central figure was a fair-to-middlin’ mathematics graduate student who experienced a blow on the head after falling from a table he’d climbed upon at the front of class. After the accident, he acquired the ability to simply see to the heart of any mathematical proof, like Will Hunting on a peyote trip. The story was narrated by another grad student, not quite so bright as the first, who struggled mightily to understand everything, and he was enviously aweful of his friend’s new talent: everything mathy came easy to the guy. However, the savant soon lost his passion for doing math because it was now an effortless enterprise, and he envied his still-normal friend’s dedication to the craft.

A morality play about the dangers of truth manifest?

Maybe I’m making too much of it.

I don’t feel that energy, that electricity, when I’m at the board these days. (And I spend less time at the board, and write less on it, than I once did.) It’s simple surface, a clean clay slip. It receives only what it’s given, and has no inherent mysteries of its own. It’s pure potential. In this it mirrors us, little mirrors ourselves, giving and taking as we bounce around the world trying to make sense of it all.

No energy, no electricity, but something stronger, truer, real: if I put my face on the cold fake slate, I can hear echoes of myself, and echoes of my students, and of anyone else who’s ever put their thoughts there. Murmurs of meaning, nonsense, insights, epiphanies. It’s all there. It’s all inside of us. At the end of the day, we are all we have.

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