It was a funny thing, a surprising thing, that brought Grandad back to me. It was
I collided with algebra in my first year at secondary school, and it sent me reeling.
The very word itself seemed sinister, a word from black magic. Algebracadabra.
Algebra messed up one of those divisions between things that help you make sense
of the world and keep it tidy. Letters make words; figures make numbers. They had
no business getting tangled up together. Those as and bs and xs and ys with little
numbers floating next to their heads, those brackets and hooks and symbols, all
trying to conceal an answer, not give you one. I'd sit there in my own little darkness
watching it dawn on the faces of my classmates. Their hands would go up – “Miss!
Miss!” – and mine never did. The homework reduced me to tears.
“I don’t see the point of it,” I wailed. “I don’t know what it’s for!”
Grandad, as it turned out, liked algebra, did know what it was for. But he sat opposite
me and didn’t say anything for a while. Considering my problem in that careful,
expressionless way of his.
Eventually he said, “Why do you do PE at school?”
“PE. Why do they make you do it?”
“Because they hate us?” I suggested.
“And the other reason?”
“To keep us fit, I suppose.”
“Physically fit, yes.” He reached across the table and put the first two fingers of each
hand on the sides of my head. “There is also mental fitness, isn’t there?”
“I can explain to you why algebra is useful. But that is not what algebra is really for.”
He moved his fingers gently on my temples. “It’s to keep what is in here healthy. PE
for the head. And the great thing is you can do it sitting down. Now, let us use these
little puzzles here to take our brains for a jog.”
And it worked. Not that I ever enjoyed algebra. But I did come to see that it was
possible to enjoy it. Grandad taught me that the alien signs and symbols of algebraic
equations were not just marks on paper. They were not flat. There were threedimensional, and you could approach them from different directions, look at them
from different angles, stand them on their heads. You could take them apart and put
them together in a variety of shapes, like Lego. I stopped being afraid of them.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but those homework sessions were a
breakthrough in more ways than one. If Grandad had been living behind an invisible
door, then algebra turned out to be the key that opened it and let me in. And what I
found wasn’t the barren tumbleweed landscape that I’d imagined. It was not like that
I’d known for a long time that he was fond of puzzles. When I was younger he used to
send me letters with lots of the words replaced by pictures or numbers. They always
ended 02U, which meant Love to you, because zero was ‘love’ in tennis. He was often
disappointed when I couldn’t work them out. Or couldn’t be bothered to. Now I
discovered that Grandad’s world was full of mirages and mazes, or mirrors and
misleading signs. He was fascinated by riddles and codes and conundrums and
labyrinths, by the origin of place names, by grammar, by slang, by jokes – although
he never laughed at them – by anything that might mean something else. He lived in
a world that was slippery, changeable, fluid.
The grandfather sent his granddaughter letters with puzzles because he wanted her
to be better educated
know something new
to share his interests
understand algebra better
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he was fond of puzzles... He was often disappointed when I couldn't work them out.
Besides, all the other three are obviously wrong.
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