Playing Pythagoras

Writers do other things besides write. This writer, for instance, occasionally acts. And my latest gig was one of my most unusual: portraying the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras for Mid-Valley Elementary School.

I gather that Mid-Valley is a pretty innovative school. They have an “Art Week” every year, for instance, during which the regular school shuts down and all the students are assigned to study with individual artists. This, in a school system that—like many school systems—does not even have a budget for art teachers anymore.

The innovation in which I found myself swept up was “Pythagoras Day,” a school day devoted entirely, kindergarten through fifth grade, to the study of the old boy’s life and mathematics—especially, of course, the Pythagorean Theorem.

I was essentially asked to put together and perform a one-man stage show at a theater near the school as Pythagoras: three performances, for the fourth and fifth graders, then the second and third graders, and finally for the kindergarten and first graders. The students were bussed over one audience at a time.

Understand, it’s been a long time since I’ve been around any elementary school age kids and I’ve never performed for an audience like that. So my first reaction when I got the call asking if I’d volunteer to do this was, “Wow, that sounds really interesting.” My second reaction, soon after having said yes and hanging up the phone, was “Oh shit, I have no idea what I’m doing.”

But I met with the teachers and the principal, I studied the age appropriate Pythagoras material that they gave me, I read a biography of Pythagoras (which couldn’t have been easy to write, since so little is actually known about his life), and I looked at YouTube videos (yes, there are YouTube videos) of jingles and puzzles and songs about the Pythagorean Theorem for young kids.

My charge was primarily to talk about Pythagoras’s life and the Greek culture in which he lived since the teachers, along with a number of other volunteers, would be hitting the math all day. I put together about a twenty-minute monologue, including a demo of my own of the theorem, rehearsed it once in front of the school faculty and then went for it last Friday.

My costume (put together by one of the teachers) was a couple of sheets formed into a skirt and off-the-shoulder top, along with sandals and an old wooden walking stick, that actually ended up looking sort of Greek. I did have to wear my highly anachronistic glasses in order to see what I was doing, but none of the kids seemed to mind.

In fact, somewhat to my surprise, the kids had a great time—and so did I. One of the most interesting things to me was the difference in questions from each age group.

The fourth and fifth graders really were after information, including a concern about how Pythagoras could speak modern English and know current facts when he’s just arrived from 2,500 years ago. You could tell they were on the edge of adult reasoning already.

The second and third graders were the most fun. They wanted to know if Pythagoras had siblings, if he had a dog, what his hobbies were, whether he had ever had hair…. Even more than with the older kids, I was really having to think on my feet to handle the questions.

The kindergarteners and first graders had only a few questions; I think they were in awe of their famous visitor from the past. What struck me most about that audience was that from the stage it looked exactly like Brownian motion come to life. If I’d been subject to motion sickness, I’d probably have needed a Dramamine.

All in all, it was a great experience. Maybe in a few years (after there’s a new crop of kids) I can play Galileo for “Astronomy Day.”

One Response to “Playing Pythagoras”

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  1. Pennie Burns says:

    How lucky these children were to see and hear you, as Pythagoras! This will be one of the learning experiences that they will remember when so many others have faded from their minds. Studies show that very few people learn by being told about things (auditory learning) but to have it come to life makes a direct appeal to almost every other learning mode. And if they got to touch your toga, then that was even better. (Kinesthetic -Tactile learning) Bravo!

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