Children's story: Helena Writes #41: On explaining the infinity of numbers through children’s stories

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
1/19/2022

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 41st post, Helena shares another original children’s story that tackles the enormous concept of infinite time from the perspective of numbers themselves. Enjoy!

“Ticked Off!” That phrase went through my mind one day. Maybe I’d read it, or maybe I was ticked off about something. I can’t remember. I do remember that the phrase lingered. A working writer is a channel for stories. The door stands open. Memoir, nature, any kind of stories a writer writes.

I write children’s stories, and “Ticked Off!” captured my imagination. It felt like a title for a children’s book. I thought of a clock. Then the story opened to me. Eventually, I let go of that title and replaced it. Time Off! made the story world feel vast. Anger is anger, but there is so much more to the meaning of things.  

I love talking to children through stories, my language to share the great meaning I find in life. This story was published by Cricket Magazine exactly 10 years ago, in the January 2012 issue. It was also bought by Atheneum Books For Young Readers, by an editor who left Atheneum for Harper. Harper had just been acquired by a new owner, Murdoch. My book got the shaft, along with a lot of other titles, for one reason or another.

It was so affirming when Cricket acquired it. It was proofread at Cricket, and I read it to one of my painting classes. My student, Carol, had been an English teacher. I’d used the word infinitesimal for infinite. Carol explained the difference. I thank Carol to this day. Rarely have I read a book without mistakes, no matter how many hands a manuscript has gone through, and these days, publishers are struggling. I see many typos. But infinitesimal vs. infinite! I finally learned the difference between the two words, pretty late. The former means small without end. The latter, vast without end. I guess my editor learned, too! We are both grateful.

I’ve revised this story, again, for this blog. Stories are alive that way, as anyone who writes knows. Revision is ongoing, changing as the writer’s ear changes. 

Like any of the stories that have come to me, each one is a beloved child, someone I never give up on. I’ve read this story in schools and libraries. Children understand it. I’ve used it in workshops, to get children and adults to exploring inanimate characters. When all is said and done, it’s a story that came to me one day, from a title that captivated me. It took life from two words: Ticked Off.

TIME OFF!

by Helena Clare Pittman

 “Psst!” said a voice in the dark. “Wake up!” It was Number One.

Number Two opened an eye and yawned. “Is it morning?” asked Two.

“It’s three minutes after one,” said One. “The little hand is pointing at me. The big hand just passed.”

“It’s coming over this way,” said Two.

“I’m tired of hanging around here doing nothing!” said One.

The alarm clock ticked. It tocked. On the clock face, the other numbers stirred. They sat listening to the creak of the clock’s spring and the tock-tock, tick-tick of its gears.  They watched as the big hand pointed to each of them, then moved on.

“Time is just passing away,” said Five.

“Hour after hour,” agreed Six.

“Days, weeks, months!” added Seven.

“Years!” Eight chimed in.

“That alarm gives me a headache!” said Nine.

“I say we do something about it!” said One.

“What can we do?” asked Four.

The others waited.

“Let’s have a look around,” said One.

“Explore the place!” said Two.

“Explore the world beyond...Time!” declared Ten.

There was an awed silence. 

Twelve said, “Maybe there are others like us. If we find them, we could ask them to take over for a while, so we can have some time off.”

Everyone looked at Twelve. “Time off!” some numbers echoed. Others nodded. A few clapped.

Four looked doubtful. “I don’t know...” said Four.

“Let’s go!” said One.

Twelve moved nearer to Four. “We’ll work together,” said Twelve.

“We always do,” said Six.

“Come on, Four!” said One.

“Teamwork!” encouraged Twelve.

One jumped off the clock face and waited at the glass. Three turned to Four. Four trembled, hesitated, then moved closer to Five and linked its triangle onto Five’s flag. “Teamwork,” repeated Five.

“Three cheers for Four!” cried Six.

Then, in a circle, hip-hipping, hooo-raying, they pushed against the glass.

They pushed and pushed until, Thwank! The glass gave way.

“Free!” cried One, riding the minute hand to the shelf. The rest of the numbers followed, tumbling over one another in excitement. They stood on the shelf looking below them at the floor.

“It’s a long way down,” said Four.

“Hold on to me,” said One.

One and Four made a boat and sailed to the floor. Three inched down the wall like a caterpillar. Eight bicycled down. Ten became an umbrella and floated. Six and Nine skated. Eleven became skis and slalomed. Twelve made a sled. Two, Seven and Five hooked together, bumped and rocked their way to the floor. When they landed, the others untangled them. The clock face looked blankly on. The hands waved goodbye.

The numbers crept across the carpet until they came to a desk. On the desk sat a book. Nine hopped up to read its cover. “M-A-T-H,” read Nine. The math book fanned its pages. 

“This thing is full of numbers!” exclaimed Nine. “Some of them are bigger than we are!”

“Bigger than me?” asked Twelve.

“We’re from the clock,” Two called to the numbers in the math book. “We’re going downstairs. Do you want to come?”

“We’re looking for others like ourselves,” added Seven.

“Looks like you found some!” cried Thirty-Three.

Numbers burst from the math book. They mobbed the desktop and clambered to the floor.

Then they stampeded for the hall. They stopped when they came to the tall banister. 

“Teamwork!” cried Four.

They piled onto each other’s points and crooks until they made a tower. Then they hauled each other up, one by two by three until they all stood on the handrail. In numeric order, they slid to the first floor. The complicated fractions tumbled down the stairs, lines over pluses, minuses over multiplication signs, dots over parentheses. 

At the landing, they all caught their breath.

“Follow me!” cried One.

“Wait a minute,” said Eight. “Someone else should go first for a change!”

“It ought to be Twelve,” said Seven.

“Twelve is always last,” said Eight.

Twelve bowed. “I’m first,” said Twelve honestIy. “I begin the day!  It’s all in the way you look at it.”

Everyone was silent, thinking about what Twelve had said.

Four stepped forward. “May I go first?” Four asked.

“Come on!” said Eight. “Let’s follow Four!”

The numbers followed Four, who led the way to the kitchen.

At the kitchen door, they stopped. 

“Shh!” said Two.

Tock-tick! They heard. Tock-tick, tock-tick, tock!

“What is it?” whispered Seven.

“It sounds familiar,” whispered Four.

“Teamwork!” said someone. Together, the numbers pushed against the kitchen door. It swung open.

“What d’ya know!” said One. “It’s another clock!”

But that wasn’t all. “Look there!” cried Six. Hanging from a hook on the wall was a pad of paper ruled with squares. Inside each square sat a number. The crowd of numbers hurried across the floor to the wall and looked up. The calendar numbers looked down.

The refrigerator’s motor hummed.

“It’s rude to stare!” said the calendar’s Twenty-One. That broke the spell.

“Excuse us,” said Twelve, “But we’ve never been down here. We didn’t know there were others like ourselves!”

“We’re from the clock upstairs,” said Seven. 

“Then you’re different than we are!” said the calendar’s Nineteen.

“We number the days,” said the calendar’s Thirty-One.

“The days!” exclaimed some of the others in admiration.

One looked around at the others. “We tell the time,” said One.

“And we do math,” said One-Hundred-and-Three.

Twelve straightened its one and two. “I show when it’s twelve o’clock.”

Eleven looked at Twelve. “I tell when it’s eleven.”

“We are different...” said Twelve.

This was something the clock numbers had never considered. Some of them murmured to each other. Others pondered the exchange.

“We’ve decided to explore the world!” said Four. “Will you come with us?”

The calendar’s Twenty-Three looked coolly at Four. Then it turned to the other calendar numbers. ”What do you think?” it asked. The calendar numbers looked from one to the other. The calendar’s pages rustled.

The numbers on the floor waited.

“Do you want to just sit here for the rest of your days?” asked Thirty-One.

Nineteen and Twenty-Three looked at each other. They both looked at Thirty-One. Thirty-One stepped out of its square. Nineteen and Twenty-Three did the same.

All at once, in a great and joyous tumult the calendar numbers slid from their spiral-bound pages to the floor. The kitchen clock numbers scrambled down to join them. 

“We are many!” cried Eleven.

“A multitude!” said Three-Hundred.

“It—makes me—nervous,” said Four.

“We’re with you, Four!” called Twenty-Five from the calendar.

“You’re not alone!” cried Eight.

“Together we’re strong!” said Nine.

“Let’s go!” said Four.

The throng of numbers stopped by the telephone book, the pile of shopping receipts, and the price stickers on the food boxes and cans. Then they hurried outside and picked up the address, One-Thousand-and-Twenty-Eight, which parachuted to the porch to join them.

“Over here!” a voice called when they returned to the kitchen. “On the table!” It was the radio. It’s numbers were flashing.

“More numbers!” Twelve exclaimed.

“We’re growing by the minute!” someone called. 

The crowd of numbers scaled the table legs. Twelve switched on the radio. Three asked Four to waltz. Six and Seven tangoed. The double digits square danced. Others improvised, whirling and stomping, leaping to the music.

“This surpasses all expectations!” said Three.

The numbers changed partners and danced to the next tune. Then the radio stopped playing music. A loud voice was shouting. With a click the radio switched itself off. The numbers looked around at each other.

Five spoke up. “Haven’t you ever wanted to do something...important?”

Everyone looked at Five.

“Those sleepers upstairs couldn’t do anything without us!” said Sixty.

“They couldn’t make appointments!” said Twenty-Nine.

“Or tell time!” added Four.

“Or know where they live!” the numbers of the address said together.

Two stepped forward. “There is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Two. “I’ve always wanted to play.”

“You mean like Twenty Questions?” asked Nineteen.

“I mean—add and subtract—and multiply!”

“Math is hardly a game!” said a math book Forty.

But Sixty-Four was flattered. “Twenty-five and thirty-three are fifty eight!” said Sixty-Four.

“Twelve and twenty are thirty-two!” said someone else.

“Forty-four and sixty?”

“One-hundred-and-four!”

“Eight times Eight?”

“Sixty-four!”

The numbers added and subtracted, multiplied and divided until they were tangled and exhausted. Then they chatted, discovering all they had in common. One approached the math book numbers and asked if they could take over on the clock from time to time. 

“Listen!” said Five. “Isn’t it awfully quiet?”

“They’re still sleeping,” said One.

“Isn’t it morning?” asked Nine. “We’ve been exploring for hours.”

Three went to the window. “It’s still night!”

The numbers hurried outside to the lawn. Everyone looked at the sky.

“Look at all those stars!” said Four.

“I wonder how many there are?” said Six.

“Too many to count!” said Eight.

“They must be infinite!” said a math book Eighty-Seven.

“What does that mean?” asked Two.

“It means they go on forever,” said Twelve.

After a long moment someone spoke, “Like we do.” It was a math book Nine-Hundred-and-Four.

The numbers exchanged looks of satisfaction.

“But too much time has passed for it still to be night,” said Three.

“No time has passed at all,” said Twelve. “I never thought of that...”

“You mean time has stopped?” asked One.

Twelve looked at One and nodded.

“We’re not doing our—jobs,” said Ten.

The truth began to dawn on them all.

“We keep the time,” said Eleven. 

“And—we must let it go!” said wise old Twelve.

“Let it go!” some of the numbers repeated.

“Let it—continue on its way,” said the calendar’s Twenty-three.

One gave a long, low whistle. “We really are important,” said One.

They all looked at one another in wonder.

“We must get back!” said Three.

“But this is so much fun!” said Four.

“We’ll do it again,” said Two.

“How about next year?” said Five. 

“Sure!” said Seven.

“We’ll take turns!” said Nineteen.

“We’ll spell each other!” said Forty-Nine.

“Well,” said Twenty-Three, “see you next time.”

“Let’s go home!” said One.

Ones by twos, threes by fours, tens by twenties, minus and plus signs, the numbers moved off in their own directions. The clock numbers hurried upstairs to the shelf. They pushed and pulled each other back to their places on the smooth white clock face, which extended its hands to help them. One looked out the window, and the sun, just rising.

BRRRRRRIIIIINNNNNGGGG! went the clock’s alarm. The sleepers woke up, feeling very well rested.

One nestled between Twelve and Two, yawned, and waited for the big hand to sweep by.  

Have you ever considered what numbers, if they could reason, think about keeping time? What did you think of Helena’s numbers story for children? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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