By Tommy Mulvoy
It’s both fascinating and frightening that my two-year-old son, Aksel, is starting to count. At dinner, he often looks at the oven clock and yells out when he sees a 2, 4, or 9. He yells out these same numbers when the clock reads 1, 5, or 8, but I don’t obsess. I encourage Aksel’s love of learning about numbers by pointing to the number he has just screamed or asking him to count the number of pieces of broccoli or ravioli on his plate. At the same time, though, I pray that numbers are a bit more friendly to him than they were to me.
My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder came in many forms, but numbers were the one consistent category of cruelty. When I opened my eyes in the morning until well past the time I closed them at night, I counted and recounted numbers until I felt like I had reached a good number or that I had said a good number a certain amount of times. Good numbers were seemingly random when I was young, but in my teenage years, they became associated with certain life events. In high school, 7 was a good number because I wore it in football. Ditto for number 5—I wore it in hockey. Similarly, Troy Aikman, my favorite professional football player, wore number 8, so that was good, at least in high school.
In college, though, number 8 became associated with someone I did not like so it became a horrible number. Over time, number associations moved from people to body parts. 22 was a great number in high school because Mike Bossy, my favorite hockey player and prolific goal scorer for my beloved New York Islanders, wore it. But in college, my roommate wore number 22 on the Boston College hockey team and he tore his ACL. I never wanted that to happen to me, so the number instantly became taboo.
Aksel’s favorite numbers at the moment, 2 and 9, are two of my least favorite. The devastating consequences associated with 2 and 9 increase when the numbers are seen in a sequence, thought of at the same time, or, in Aksel’s case, screamed out loud. This is because they add up to 11, and the space between the two 1s of an 11 is the exact spot where the spine would be if the number 11 was a person. The negative association with anything tangentially related to the spine dates back to the fall of 1995 when Boston University’s Travis Roy tragically broke his neck eleven seconds into his first collegiate hockey game.
While I spent the majority of my teens and twenties counting numbers silently in my head, Aksel screams his favorite numbers so loud that it seems he is trying to inform his grandparents across the Atlantic that yes, he is learning to count. When I put Aksel’s shoes on him in the morning, when our dog Sierra puts her front paws on the entryway bench, or when I put my gloves on, Aksel points at each item and screams, “two.” I feign utter astonishment at his numerical intelligence while at the same time questioning why he would stop after locating just three objects with the number two. Two shoes, two paws, and two gloves add up to the number 6, and who in their right mind would ever stop counting on such a bad number? I would be looking for five more pairs of shoes so that I could at least reach 16, which is a good number because 1 + 6 = 7, one of the all-time best numbers.
I hope Aksel’s love of numbers continues, for his own learning, but I am also counting the days until he learns a few more numbers. I am partial to 3 and 7, but hope he never says them together because I hate the number 10.
Tommy Mulvoy is an American expat living in Basel, Switzerland with his wife, Vicky, and two-year-old son, Aksel. When not accounting for Aksel or keeping the peace between the family’s pets, he teaches English, not math, at the International School of Basel and skis and bikes in the Swiss Alps.
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