As a child, like most of my generation, I had to memorize and recite the multiplication tables. The singsong recitation of the times tables was a not-unpleasant soundtrack to my early schooldays. We recited them as a group, we recited them at home under our breath, we recited them in our dreams, until, on cue in the classroom—or indeed anywhere, and for the rest of our lives—we were able to retrieve the product of any given combination of numbers from our memory banks effortlessly, and at lightning speed. Three elevens? Easy: thirty-three. Eight sixes? No problem, the same as six eights: forty-eight. Twelve twelves? A hundred and forty-four (or a gross—since the old British measures still lingered).
In India we were officially responsible for knowing the answer to the multiplication of any two numbers between one and sixteen (although I never mastered any beyond twelve). It was rote learning, no doubt, but rote learning employed where it worked best. Through repetition, in a reassuring rhythm, these basic computations became second-nature to us. And in any case, there was not to reason why: it was simply what we did.
Thirty years on, Nikhil’s schooldays had a different soundtrack. By the time he was in elementary school, requiring a student to memorize numbers or words was considered something akin to child abuse, and recitation of the times tables was retrograde. In fact, they were no longer even called multiplication tables, but were now simply Math Facts. Rather than being required to memorize them in logically ascending patterns of numbers, the children were now given worksheets to take home with lists of assorted math facts on them, in no discernible order. They were expected to practice filling out these sheets faster and faster, using higher and higher numbers, until they attained their personal best in speed and accuracy.
As a parent, I was at a loss to understand how Nikhil could be expected to memorize the products of seemingly random combinations of numbers without their being organized into tables by number, and without reciting them. (Kids have marvellous memories, and before Nikhil and Eric even went to school, reciting numbers was a game for them, their minds naturally creating their own order. I remember three or four-year-old Nikhil counting by tens up to a hundred: “…seven-ty, eight-ty, nine-ty—ten-ty!”) But somehow, without recourse to recitation, he did manage to master his Math Facts; and in any case, he now has the computations at his fingertips at all times, thanks to the calculator function in his iPhone.
If the educators of the nineties considered it borderline-abusive to require memorization of the multiplication tables from one to twelve, I wonder what they would have thought of the system in my father’s boyhood? He had to memorize the tables not only for whole numbers, but for fractions: a quarter, a half, three-quarters, one and a quarter, one and a half. As my father recited out loud—in Marathi, of course—his father monitored him from a distance, while reading in the next room. Whenever he slipped or faltered, his father simply marked his mistake with a questioning grunt, and he had to start over. Before long, the answer to six three-quarters came as easily to him as the answer to six sixes does to me.
It is easy to mock today’s concern for children’s tender sensibilities from the perspective of old-school “common sense,” and I have been guilty of it above. But I can’t help thinking of an exchange I had with a classmate one day when I was eight, and we were being called on one at a time to recite a memorized poem in class. Like the times tables, the recitation of canonical poems or passages from Shakespeare plays was a regular requirement, but the experience was dramatically different for every child. Words came easy to me and, when called on, I loved showing off in front of the class. (In fact, I was no doubt one of those irritating kids who has her hand up insistently, early and often. “Please miss, please, ask me!”) On this one particular day, as I swaggered back to my desk after my performance, the hapless classmate who had been called upon next muttered to me, “It’s all very well for you—you love it.”
At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and merely dismissed his bitter tone as sour grapes. It was not until many years later that it dawned on me that what had been positively pleasurable for me had probably been torture to him. While for me, memories of “Daffodils” and “The quality of mercy” are like Portia’s gentle rain from heaven, for many they are associated with the lingering hell of childhood failure, punishment, and humiliation. I could not identify with that schoolboy from Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” speech, “creeping like snail/ unwillingly to school”: I loved school. Still, socialization, while certainly preparing us for the world, took its toll. As Nikhil used to say of elementary school, “It’s okay. But it takes up too much time.”