The talisman arpeggio

"I'd noticed that when you were working with numbers you often wiggled your fingers."

A very simple motion, that. Look away momentarily and it is easily missed: an arpeggio played from left pinky to left thumb, and occasionally even crossing over to the right hand. What am I doing?

I'm multiplying.

Abnormally-quick absorption of knowledge during childhood often leads to learning quirks that last a lifetime. My quirks are the sevens and eights: numbers that, when multiplied, are too large to be counted off comfortably on one hand yet too small to justify whipping out a calculator.

Pinpoint: begin at seven times five. Continue to seven times nine. Start back up at eight times six, and proceed to eight times nine. Ask me those and you are just as likely to get an immediate answer as you are to see my eyes go vacant and—if you're watching carefully—to see a soft, wavelike motion flow from the left side of my left hand, stopping with my left thumb.

What happened?

The correct answer is never quite so simple as that; better yet is to ask the question, "What didn't happen?" The answer is third grade, the year of multiplication.

Proceeding directly from second to fourth grade meant a lot of things to a young girl. They were two different worlds back then—the land of addition and subtraction and the land of long division were separated by the treacherous, storm-laden Sea of Multiplication.

Most children get a year to make that crossing. I had a summer, working alone.

My memories are of what my mother calls "the living room"—the room they never used. Because of its furniture, I always referred to it as the "piano room." It opened to the front door, the door used only by salesmen and strangers in the deep South, and it held formal, red velvet couches. Couches that were generally only sat upon by me, as I waited for trick-or-treaters.

Or learned my multiplication tables.

That summer, I paced the carpet, dodging the coffee table, door firmly closed. Memorizing. Trying to make the numbers make sense. One through four—easy. Fives—easier still. Sixes—manageable but frustrating, especially once the numbers got above 42.

Nines I loved for their patterns—first digit running 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 while the second digit ran 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-0. Easy, elegant, understandable.

Sevens and eights were torture. There were no pretty patterns, and they didn't fit on one hand. Unsure of myself and my memorization, I learned to count, lightning-fast, on my left hand while writing with my right.

Originally it consisted of slow, measured crooks of fingers. My speed grew, but my confidence didn't. If I wasn't sure of an answer, a quicksilver ripple of fingers assured me of what I already knew, one-two-three-four-five-six, yes, that's the answer…

It is now a crutch, a reassurance, no more. The adult Amy knows her multiplication and worries not, but sometimes the little girl, always wanting to be right, has to take just a tiny moment to check one last time.

Just to be sure. After all, the numbers are notorious for slyly morphing and changing once registered in memory, but their dancing images and values coalesce into a single answer when faced with the talisman arpeggio. It disguised my uncertainty from legions of teachers.

Except for that calculus professor, but that's another story for another night.


[...] from addition/subtraction to full mastery of long division over the course of a summer.  ('Talisman arpeggio,' [...]