Sunday, May 30, 2004

“Lets make it into a competition” said Thom, not for the first time. If anybody was pissed off by Thom’s existence, it was his younger brother. Why, wondered Ben, is every tin can a football? Why does every ride on the sled have to be a race? And why do Mum and Dad have to judge who’s model plane is better?

“Coz it’s impooortant” whined Thom.

“No it’s not”, complained Ben.

“Yes it is”. Thom pulled Ben’s arm, trying to drag him to the living room. Ben freed his arm, grabbed Thom’s plane and threw it against the wall.

“Yours can’t fly”, he said, as the pieces landed on the floor. They fought, and by the time their Dad was there, Ben was already back in his room, crying. It wasn’t fair: he didn’t want his plane to be in a competition, and Thom would only win anyway. And now he was the one who’d be in trouble. It was always like this: everybody preferred Thom.

And it was sometimes true. Ben hated sport, but he hated hearing his teachers ask “Why aren’t you like Thom?” even more. He got picked on just because his brother was clever. At least he could hit Thom, which he sometimes did. Although he was a couple of years older, Thom was small for his age, and Ben won as many fights as he lost.

In fact, size was a problem for Thom. He thought he was alright at football, but he kept getting pushed off the ball. He was only substitute for the school team, but it was a good team, and they won promotion in Thom’s last year at school. Despite that success, Thom had given up his ambitions to become a professional footballer by the end of the year. This wasn’t because he was so obviously average, but instead because of what was so obviously in the averages. One evening Thom’s dad sat him down and asked Thom if he thought he was good enough to be a footballer.

“I don’t know. Michael is.” Michael was the best player at school. “And Dwane.” Dwane was the second best player, and team captain. “Darren?” He didn’t know the required standard, what the cut-off point was. He was listing names in the order they were normally picked at playtime, hoping his Dad wouldn’t stop him before he got to himself.

“How many professional footballers are there?”, asked his Dad.

“Umm, there are 92 professional teams” said Thom, proudly. He had learnt that from his Shoot! Annual, 1986.

“Ok”, replied his Dad. He knew he could talk Thom through this; it was a puzzle, after all, and a mathematical one at that. “And how many players are there at each of the teams?”

“11. But there are reserves as well.”

“So... 25?”. Thom nodded in reply. “So how many footballers is that?”

Easy, thought Thom... 25 times 92... 25 times 10 was 250... then do 9 times 250... 2,250. Then 2 more groups of 25 was 50 so... 2,300. This was definately a Large Number: there were Lots of professional footballers.

“Right,...”, said his dad. “..now, how many 10-year-olds are there?”.

Thom knew that, if he was going to be a pro, this number had to be as small as possible: “Girls can’t play football”.

“Ok: girls don’t play professional football. How many 10-year-old-boys are there?”

Thom stopped. He searched for a reference point... school... cubs... the family... but none seemed to work. “Er, how many cub groups are there?”.

“I don’t know”, replied his Dad. Thom wondered how he was supposed to work out how many ten-year-olds there were without any numbers to start with. Not fair. His Dad helped out: “There are 60 million people in Britain”. That was ok, thought Thom, but they didn’t all die at the same age. Some lived longer than others. He pointed this out. “Yes...”, said Dad, “..but we can assume they die at 60”.

“Grandad is 72.”

“I know. But, for this, lets assume they all die at 60. That makes the figures easy, and it’s a good average.”

“Does that mean Grandad is going to die soon?”

“No. Now, 60 million people living to 60 years of age...”.

“..is one million people each year”, interupted Thom. Easy. Now... 1 million 10-year-olds. Half of that is 500,000. Thom couldn’t really interpret these numbers, get a feel on how big they were; but they were numbers, and he knew how to use them. 500,000 divided by 2,300 was... he needed a pen and paper... “217.39”, he declared. “So that means...” Thom’s brain was excitingly trying to interpret this number into a fact; he was sure it was about to confirm that he was going to be a professional footballer: “..one in 217”. He’d said this without really thinking what it meant, so his dad waited whilst Thom thought... there were only 28 kids in his class, and half of them were girls. Most of the boys were better than him. But... to be a pro he had to be better than 216 other boys.

Thom cried himself to sleep that night. He carried on playing though, and carried on studying. He did both for fun, and, like most ten-year-olds, never with any thought as to where they might go. He would occasionally listen to friends saying they were going to be a doctor or a fireman when they grew up, but then he thought how unlikely that was, seeing as, y’know, how many 10-year-olds there were and how few doctors there weren’t. And soon he realised he could apply this logic to almost anything. He looked at his teachers and his cub leader and his uncle’s jobs and his auntie’s jobs; “Well, I’ll never do that,...”, he thought. “..it’s just so unlikely.”

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