The Circle of Zero
“The horizon of many people is a circle with a radius of zero. They call this their point of view”(Albert Einstein).
“Who wants to lead the class in our Arithmetic practice?” Sr. Mary Francis emphasizes the question by waving her pointer around like a wand across the crowded rows of alphabetically seated second graders. Eager to maintain my championship status in Arithmetic, I gleefully thrust my hand forward. She rewards me with her usual toothy grin, then asks me to stand in front of the room and begin counting.
“1+1=2,” I chant, before pausing to allow my peers to join me as a chorus; then, together this time, “2+2=4; 4+4=8, and so on, all the way up to 64+64=128, before Sister gives the signal for me to return to my seat, our Arithmetic lesson already behind us as we move on to diagramming sentences. During these early years, well-practiced formulas committed to memory present readily accessible answers.
By high school, though, memorization is not enough, and I begin to become suspicious of numbers. Arithmetic gives way to Mathematics and what once seemed so practical suddenly is incomprehensible. Algebraic sets such as (a + b)4 = a4 + 4a3b + 6a2b2 + 4ab3 + b4 are not easily resolved through memory or practice; they also require a theoretical understanding of what the letters and numbers abstractly signify, and while letters work wonderfully for me in English class, in Algebra, they’re often unfathomable. What happened to all those carefully prescribed, neatly formulaic numerical calculations? Why all the alphabetic substitutions? Why so much abstraction in a discipline that prides itself on definitive conclusions?
As a scholarship student at a private high school, I learn quickly that in order to succeed, I need to play to my strengths, so I reluctantly navigate the maze of Advanced Geometry and Trig, then take pleasure in immersing myself in intellectual pursuits supported primarily by words; words that hold meaning to me, those most often found in literature and history classes.
True, words, too, are signifiers, but unlike mathematical figures, words inextricably relate to the objects they signify within a given culture and context. And while their meanings rely on the historical evolution of a particular language and on specific cultural norms, abstractions such as these make sense to me. I can lean into them with confidence, and I do, so much so that I decide to major in English while in college and graduate qualified to encourage others, through teaching and writing, to embrace the wisdom found in words.
When doing so, I encourage them to consider themselves, the readers, as equal partners in making meaning by fully committing to developing a transactional relationship with the written word, after carefully considering context. This is the beauty of reading critically, yet responsively. Readers matter. They count. Without them, words on a page hold little significance; the page might as well be blank. And even more significantly, though the historical and cultural contexts may differ, the potential impact of using words wisely and interpreting them judiciously remains a constant prerequisite for an informed citizenry.
Without such skill, individuals and even large parcels of a citizenry are vulnerable to inadvertent manipulation, or even worse, willfully ignorant complicity. Just as citizens rely on established norms when interpreting public values and policies, words, too, rely on norms. Even on the micro-level, where each is located within a sentence dictates intent. Does the word signify action, as verbs do? Does it signify agency, as nouns often do? Even second graders in Sr. Mary Frances’s class knew as much. They knew that when she asked them to count, for instance, she was requesting that they take action, in this case, that they recite a set of numbers in a particular sequence, and when requested, to add them up.
This is not the only meaning of the word, “count,” but it’s the one the good sister used most often within the context of 2nd grade Arithmetic lessons. On a warm spring day, though, when she would appoint monitors to lead the class down the hallway to the water fountain, she’d likely choose a different context for the word. In this case, she’d subtly admonish the student hall monitors not to disappoint her by advising, “Now don’t forget,” I’m counting on you to make sure your classmates keep their fingers on their lips while in the hall.” No need for her students to rely on their fingers to count out this task. We all knew we’d be busily using them to zip our lips!
Fast forward to the year 2020, a year when counting is back in fashion for reasons lamented across the globe and where almost half of our own citizenry is in chronic denial that they mean anything at all. Excuses abound for ignoring numbers and defying safety measures that would protect one another from further exposure to the deadly disease that runs rampant through our nation and beyond it.
“It’s the testing,” an indignant neighbor exclaims, even while she creeps across my front lawn and approaches my husband who’s so busily occupied pruning our front shrubs that he doesn’t hear her approach from behind. Waving her mask in her hand instead of locating it over her nose and lips, she moves closer my husband, while spewing spittle every time she mentions the letter “t.” “If they didn’t test so much, our infection rates wouldn’t be so high!”
Even as I fret and fume from behind my kitchen window, I feel her frustration. After all, I too, was once a mathematical skeptic. Not so, anymore. A lifetime of experience has taught me that world is much too complex for any of us to clearly comprehend all of its abstractions, but this doesn’t preclude acknowledging that they are valid. It may be viable to claim that even the simplest numeric iteration is in itself, symbolic, and dictated, in part, by its cohort group; it may also be viable to assert that while numeric data is definitive, it is not always reliable.
Neither stipulation, though, need prevent us from accepting that whatever we may call them, numbers exist for the purpose of tracking indicators until we arrive at a logical quantifiable result. The dilemma we now face, despite this, is that almost half of the U.S. citizenry no longer believes that numbers logically add up, unless it’s convenient for a particular constituency and cause that they do so.
Nor do some of us believe that the words uttered from formerly reliable sources signify any real meaning. Instead, those who doubt the veracity of mainstream news casts, scientific analyses, and the testimonials of medical experts and health professionals only assume their proclamations are accurate only if they align with particular assumptions and beliefs.
True, statistics are capable of being co-opted; true, too, that rhetorical appeals may be compromised, as may highly accredited institutions and the professionals who represent them, but in this case, the stakes are much too high to equivocate and call all bad news “fake,” or worse yet, to argue that in a diverse nation such as ours, individual rights trump scientific data, as though we’re simply playing a game of Monopoly and any attempt to land on someone else’s property is suspect.
The truth is that our nation isn’t the only stakeholder invested in this game of probably causes and consequences. The world is. And people around the globe are counting on the U.S., until now, an unparalleled global power, to lead us ALL toward progressive solutions with regard to a nearly insurmountable pandemic. Yet, instead of focusing on pro-active plans for vaccine approval and distribution, we’re now obsessed with presidential ballots already counted and accounted for. The result is a dangerous distraction; rather than thinking ahead, we’re examining the rearview mirror when the road behind us is clearly a dead end.
By tying our collective futures to past policies that have not produced satisfactory results, we’re denying ourselves the opportunity to find a more promising direction, one that does not enable those in power who have access to promising treatments to decide what’s best for those who cannot afford the same. In a democracy, our most vulnerable citizens count, too. In a democracy, we don’t endorse the right to hoard what we garner as beneficiaries of a particular economic class or status, or collectively, as a privileged nation, simply because we have the economic and political capital to do so. In a democracy, every human being counts equally, and we are all accountable to one another. This isn’t Broadway or Marvin Gardens. It’s the United States, a nation built upon abstract democratic principles that we claim to embrace as our central tenets.
0+0 = 0. This is the numeric equation we need to embrace if we hope to eradicate the deadliest virus the world has encountered in over one hundred years. Zero infections equal zero casualties. Zero unvaccinated equal zero infected in the future. Zero disenfranchised from the process equal zero more inequitable distribution. Do you want to see our children live in a more stable, generous, united, wise and hopefully prosperous world? If so, become part of the circle of zero. Zero obstructionism. Zero divisiveness. Zero cynicism. Zero bigotry; elitism; sexism; racism. Zero: in structure, so similar to the circle. The circle, a universal symbol for wholeness and oneness, with no beginning and no end.
Perhaps Sister Mary Francis had this in mind when she cautioned her class to stay silent on their daily walk to the water fountain to quench their thirst. Perhaps it wasn’t just about respecting other classrooms along the way, but about becoming a collective engaged in a common goal, even one so modest as enjoying a few sips of water without crowding one another out; pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line; or rushing one another once we arrive for fear that there won’t be enough to go around.
And the trip back to our common classroom? It was a full circle: the same respectful silence, the same understanding that for anyone one of us to matter, we need to respect that the world is much larger than one classroom. What’s more, we need to count on other classrooms to do the same. We need the entire system to adopt a collective, inclusive viewpoint and for its leaders to establish fair and just norms so that each person who’s yet to visit the well doesn’t find it depleted upon arriving there.
Laura Iodice, a Bronx native, has resided with her husband in Syracuse, N.Y. for the past forty years. She is a veteran educator, has taught classes in literature, composition, rhetoric and cultural constructions of race and has published professionally about these subjects. Her creative work appears in Syndrome Magazine’s anthology, Show Us Your Wit, The Furious Gazelle Journal, Conclave Magazine, Litro U.S. and Litro U.K., Metafore Magazine, Crack the Spine Literary Journal, Vending Machine Press, The Write Launch, Indolent Beast and The Poet’s Choice anthologies. She also recently published her first middle school illustrated chapter book, Where the Heart Lives.