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Goth alphabet and friendly number 8s

Earlier today I strumbled upon a clip where a comedian noted how the final letters in the alphabet XYZ are like an afterthought. They hardly ever get used – well, with the exception of that promiscuous Y – leading the comic to refer to them as “the weird goth letters of the alphabet.” Extending this logic a little further, he went on to say that that Q has no place being so prominent and should be shunted along into this outsider group. Funny stuff. I hadn’t previously given the ordering of the alphabet a lot of thought, at least not since I was little and learning my letters.

Saying that, I don’t actually remember learning to read, although I do have a memory of being repeatedly humiliated in primary school for not being able to recite my multiplication tables. Some of the easier ones I could handle, but I always struggled with the sixes and sevens for some reason and had to force them into my long-term memory after which I would mindlessly recite them like a verse from a foreign language pop song. You could probably place a lot of my early years education into that same box of glassy eyed incomprehension.

A school friend taught me the finger-calculator trick for the nine times table, a life hack that was immediately outlawed by the teacher. Even with fists clenched nervously by your side while standing to attention in front of the class it was still possible to run the calculations, covertly pressing finger pads into sweaty palms until the answer revealed itself. I’m a little embarrassed to say that on the rare occasion when I need to run some nines this remains my go-to method.

Of the other multiplication tables the eights hold a certain prestige for me since it marks a period of my life when my father, a toolmaker with a wizard brain for mathematics, took it upon himself to tutor me in the dark numeric arts on alternative weeknights and for an hour on Sundays should he be able to catch me. It was a battle from the outset and nearly always ended in the slamming of doors, hysteric crying jags, bitter curses of revenge, and a general outpouring of grief about the sheer naked cruelty of making a small child study additional maths when he should be watching TV.

Dad even purchased a textbook for the purpose of dragging me into unwilling comprehension, the expenditure of cash being a dead giveaway that this wasn’t a passing fad that would go away any time soon. It was a thick, phonebook sized affair with a pinkish font that lived in one corner of the kitchen worktop beneath a pad of lined paper on which I would inscribe my shame. At the appointed hour dad would retrieve this monument to my ever deepening ignorance and call me to the table to commence the evening’s lesson. Things would start with a certain degree of civility but would quickly escalate. It wasn’t the maths so much as the fear of further disappointing my dad that caused me to automatically engage my fight or flight reflex. I knew I would fail. I knew, even with his thoughtful paternal coaxing, that I would feel stupid, more so because he was there as a witness. Even with the occasional truce, dad would heroically recommence the lessons at different times throughout my primary and secondary education. I worked at it, but my useless brain rebelled at every turn.

Round and round we would go. Long division eluded me. Trigonometry was a bust. Algebra just made me mad. He also insisted that we reverse engineer every incorrect calculation, of which there were many, to work out where I had gone wrong, an act of merciless sadism. Looking back at this now it strikes me as good teaching practice, but to my defensive little mind it was torturous. Successes were modest yet memorable, none more so than the eight times table.

For some reason my brain is receptive to eights. Perhaps their plump equilibrium helped, ably supported by their passing resemblance to Mr Greedy of Mr Men fame. But it was more than that. Eights felt…friendly, wholesome and good. My mind accepted them whereas sixes and sevens were rejected, forever blacklisted as unwelcome guests in my cerebral YMCA. After just one programming session they went in and stayed there. Why they should stick when others should so fail is a mystery, and I do wonder if others have had a similar experience.

What made matters worse was the presence of certain maths savants in my class. Compared to my shambolic efforts these kids could recite their multiplication tables at ease, some of them, presumably maniacs raised in an algebraic cult, going beyond the elevens, which as everyone knows is universally accepted as “quite far enough” by all reasonable human beings. There was one kid, let’s call him Douglass, who would be called up after I and my fellow idiots had inevitably failed. Standing before the class he would recite the thirteen times table and beyond, even taking requests, not that I ever made any. He was doing this stuff for fun and I hated him for it! I’m not sure if there is a connection here, but last I heard he was serving time.

If Qs, Xs, Ys and Zs are the awkward goth kids of the alphabet, eights are, in my estimation, the simple yet kindly grafters of the numeric world. They’re not flashy. They wear market bought jeans. They occasionally storm out of a home tutoring session with a vow to never leave home without a calculator. For their part, the sixes and sevens are the pretentious show-offs, the Douglass’s of maths class. Thankfully salvation came in the form of a giant pencil case onto which some unsung humanitarian had stencilled the multiplication tables.



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