How an abacus changed my life

The author and his least favorite math tool of all time: an abacus.

The author and his least favorite math tool of all time: an abacus.

Looking back on your life, have you ever thought of a particular event as being a turning point? An abacus, much like you see in the photo here, was part of a turning point for me.

I was introduced to one of these ancient counting devices in the second grade, in the middle of the school year, when my family moved to yet another new town.

(I lived in four towns before the end of second grade – and there would be another move after that. No, we weren’t hoboes or fugitives. It’s just that my dad worked for a national company that moved him from place to place as he worked his way up the corporate ladder.)

Anyway, back to the abacus. Not only was I plunked down in a new school, in a new town, but I was now in possession of a classroom math tool I had never seen before, one that classmates were already using with ease. Their fingers were flying over the beads as they worked out second-grade math problems – counting ones, tens, hundreds, thousands – and throwing their hands in the air with correct answers for the teacher.

Boy, did I struggle. And feel stupid. It made me so frustrated – so very frustrated – figuring out how to use this contraption and catch up with my classmates that I believe it left a few mental scars. In fact, I think it contributed to my eventual interest in words more than numbers, creativity more than logic, language more than science. And, more than three decades in journalism.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: What I am today – good or bad, complete or flawed – I owe in small part to those colorful, awful little beads.

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