The Lesson of the Singing Bowl is one of my favorite articles. Today, I will share with you another story taught to me by my Indian yoga guru — The Lesson of the First Number — where I learned about intent, self-determination, and divination.

I added some detail to make the story my own so I could share it with you here.

A group of young children were learning how to draw the number one on a blackboard attached to a giant brick wall inside a small, one-room, schoolhouse located in the India wilds. One-by-one, each child walked to the front of the class, took the chalk from the teacher’s hand, and drew the number one on the blackboard.

When it came to the last student, he refused to draw the number one.

“Teacher,” he said, “I am not ready to draw the number one.” He replaced the bit of chalk in the teacher’s hand and returned to his seat in the classroom.

“Will you try to draw the number one tomorrow?” the teacher asked.

“Yes,” the boy replied, “Tomorrow, I will try again.”

Days passed.

Each day the teacher invited the boy to draw the number one.

Each day the boy explained he was not yet ready. The rest of the class was up to drawing the number nine on the blackboard. The young boy had yet to move beyond the number one.

Weeks passed.

The boy still refused to draw the number one. The teacher called in the boy’s parents for a meeting. The parents implored their child to just go to the blackboard and draw the number one. The mother and father each took turns drawing a short, simple, vertical line on the board. The boy sat in his chair and said, “You are ready to draw the number one. I am not yet ready. I will try again tomorrow.”

Months passed.

The boy would still not draw the number one. The rest of his class was now scribbling hundreds of numbers on the blackboard. The teacher said to the boy, “You have failed the class. You may not return until you draw the number one.” The boy nodded and left the classroom.

His parents, frustrated and ashamed, banned the boy from their home. “You are a failure to us,” they shouted, “You have only been born to embarrass us!” The boy nodded, wrapped a few clothes in a length of cloth, and disappeared into the India wilds.

Years passed.

No one heard from the boy.

Time turned to tide.

The wind became the sun.

The moon propagated rain.

Soon, the teacher, the students and even the parents, began to forget about the boy.

“He was lost,” they all reasoned, “and the earth swallowed him home.”

Then, one day, the young boy — now taller, older and dirtier — appeared at the back of the classroom.

His teacher stopped mid-sentence.

The rest of the class turned, as one, to watch as the familiar stranger — now with long hair, tattered clothes that no longer fit, and a crusting of blood and dirt from the wilds flaking his skin — walked slowly up the center aisle.

The room was silent except for the calloused shuffling of the boy’s bare feet against the earthen floor.

The boy stood at the head of the class.

He took the bit of chalk from his teacher’s hand.

The boy tenderly held the chalk between his fingers, cocked his hand high in the air, and with a single, gentle, downward stroke, he drew the number one on the blackboard and split the blackboard, and the wall behind it, in two.

34 Comments

  1. Um wow! I’m not really sure what the lesson is though. Maybe that when people speak, we need to listen even if we don’t understand why they are saying what they’re saying? Maybe it is demonstrating the power of the mind and what can be done with intent and the directing chi? Maybe he could feel the power, but was unable to control it. And he only returned once he was able to control it.
    Fascinating!

  2. Hi natzgal!
    The temptation is always to explain the lesson — but when you do that then you change the reception. I enjoy the different directions the story took you and, one day, the story will take on a definite meaning for you as the rest of your life peels back the experiences.
    In my writing classes this is one of the first exercises I give my students. Then, after I split the wall with my chalk on the blackboard, I turn to them and ask them to write a timed essay on the lesson of the story. I time it so they have to write it fast without editing their gut reactions. Every single student takes away different meaning and they always back it up with facts from the story. Then we share their interpretations and the arguments begin! 😀
    I try to get them to at least take away the idea that anytime you do anything you must find a way to complete the task with every intent of your being. When you write, for instance, your inertia must be to push the pen through the paper, splitting the desk and landing on your knee. Anything else is just lazy writing.
    Then there are the students who try to turn the story around on me at the end of the semester. “I’m not ready to write my final essay yet.” I tell them that is fine — but remember what happened to the young boy — he failed the class and lost his family — if you can deal with that and then come back later and split the wall with your essay, okay then. They always hand in their essay. 😆

  3. Oh what fun David! I can understand about not giving away the lesson. I would love to see how everyone else reacts to this lesson. How long would you typically give your students to write their essays?

    …anytime you do anything you must find a way to complete the task with every intent of your being. When you write, for instance, your inertia must be to push the pen through the paper, splitting the desk and landing on your knee. Anything else is just lazy writing.

    I LOVE that! The passion. It is true. It makes life worthwhile.
    THANK YOU for inspiring me to think 🙂

  4. Natzgal!
    Thanks for the great feedback! I appreciate you very much. You have a lovely energy you share with us here.
    I give the students 30 minutes to write up a reaction. A paragraph is enough as long as they have some evidence from the story to support their conclusion.
    Some students say the lesson is to honor and obey your parents and what happens if you do not: “You can draw a one now and split the wall later.” That’s a perfectly reasonable and rational take on the story… even though that lesson is lost on most of the other students…
    Here’s an article on writing with passion and magnitude:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/10/24/blogging-with-passion-and-magnitude/
    Here’s another on reaching beyond the front row:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/09/25/reaching-beyond-the-front-row/
    Here’s my all-time favorite story about learning:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/08/25/passionate-mind-and-intellectual-heart/

  5. I think sometimes when I am typing the keys can in fact be pushed through the keyboard right down to the ground. I wonder if that’s similar. Of course if you’re on a laptop that just sort of ruins your ability to type any further 🙂

  6. Thanks, Janna. It is one of my favorite stories, too. It is rich in meaning and imagery. I did add some things to make it my own — but the intent is the same. It took a decade to be able to share it here, though. It means a lot to me. I didn’t want to mess it up.

  7. Interesting, David. Had nothing to do with his inability to perform the task. Had everything to do with his fear.
    Valuable lesson.
    Makes me think about all the missed opportunities and great things that could be accomplished . . .

  8. I was thinking the fear to be who we really are and to show our true power.
    Yes, I think he was brave; wish those around him had taken a different approach.
    But initially I thought there was fear . . . or maybe he was so far beyond what they were asking him to do that he didn’t see the point . . .
    I see where he had to leave. Sometimes one has to walk away in order to come back.
    But I’ve never been very good at interpreting these kinds of stories. I remember having to interpret a Khalil Gibran poem and I totally missed it!
    So thanks for allowing me to take a stab–

  9. I appreciate you sharing your insight, dmtessi.
    I think the story condemns the small minds around him. No one asks him why he will not draw the number. They just accept his statement and then interpret it as fear or defeat.
    In oder to realize his full potential — a pre-modeled curriculum did not suite his genius or power — he had to give up all the worldly gifts of society and head out into the wilderness on his own to self-discover the true meaning of who he was and who he intended to be in the world.
    He left a misunderstood boy and returned with the undeniable power of the gods.

  10. I agree, David. I was just going to add that this would be a great exercise for teachers, school social workers, and parents. What could those around him have done differently? Hopefully, students would come up with a variety of creative interventions.
    Yes, one of the things that social workers pride themselves on doing is “reaching into the silence.” The asking and listening part is key.
    But I thought the boy had the power all along.
    Kids have hidden talents and strengths and we as “so called” professionals need to help them hone in on those strengths and develop them.
    Yes, we have a lot of smart kids out there who would excel with more creative curriculums and flexible course selections.
    We need to identify strengths early on and plan accordingly.
    Anyway, I need to make a copy of this for future reference.

  11. That is sound advice, dmtessi. I don’t think the boy knew his power — he just knew he was different from the others and didn’t understand why.
    I always wonder if the teacher had allowed him to skip drawing the number one and move on to drawing the number two if he would have and if he would have still been able to discover the wonder of his power?

  12. Working with kids is complicated for sure!
    I can attest to that, having worked in a middle school for several years.
    Maybe it was the number one or maybe it was just numbers period! Or maybe he needed to go straight to the higher math!
    Maybe he had fine motor skill issues or phobias about writing in front of the class. Or there was so much going on at home, that writing numbers seemed insignificant!
    David, there could be 101 reasons why this kid couldn’t get up to the blackboard and write the number one.
    That’s what makes this story so interesting to me and working with children so challenging.

  13. Well said, dmtessi!
    There were lots of possibilities and no questions. Some kids, as you have so rightly argued, don’t fit in conventional boxes and they need special attention in order to realize their full gifts and potential.

  14. Hi Dananjay!
    Great to hear from you!
    The Singing Bowl is more about being open and responsive to the world and owning what belongs to you.
    The First Number is certainly darker and deeper with lessons that touch the core of us all. What is learning? How are we to be taught? How can the gifts of genius ever be realized if people choose not to inquire about them?

  15. How true, David!
    maybe gifts have a way of getting themselves found. just like the boy’s gift informed him of its presence much before, presumably, he had gained conscious knowledge of it. i felt that this story, apart from the obvious freethinking and individualist ethos that it embraces, is maybe also about learning to control the power that we all have, in one way or other. after all, if the breaking of the wall was the worst that could happen, then why did he finally write on the board? assuming it wasn’t something petty, like to “show them”, i’m guessing it’s because earlier, when he was younger, the act of writing on the board would have done a lot more damage. in his time away, the boy had learned to rein in his power.
    then again, maybe the power isn’t in the boy or in the act of his writing, as much as it lies in his understanding of what he’s writing at the moment. does the text – in this case the digit – in the context of a particular understanding/reading of it become a tangible force? a bit oppenheimer like?

  16. These are great and important questions, Dananjay!
    My feeling is the boy had a power he did not understand and no formal authority would help him discover and express it. Instead of leading a miserable life of repression, he instead chose to follow his intuition out the door and “travel back” in time to when you had to fend for yourself in the wilds to help discover the means of what makes you special and powerful.
    I think his return to civilization — but without bending to its surface tenets of aesthetic and beauty — was to keep his promise that when he was ready/able to draw the number one, he would do so. I believe he merely intended to draw the number one, but the new, unexplored, power within him is what split the blackboard and the wall. He did not return to do damage — he merely returned to draw the number one and in that resurrection of his old life, his new life exploded him into a god who walks the earth.

  17. David,
    his earlier refusal to write the number on the board, was because he couldn’t bring himself to write what he didn’t fully grasp. (which in itself, is a fine indictment of institutionalized education!)
    it also means there’s no significance to what was actually written, but that after he returned from the wilderness he felt he was ready to write on the board, and when he did, it broke. so the mystery that involves us early in the story, about the “boy” who refuses to write “1”, is finally resolved into a mystery about just the boy, and not so much about 1.

  18. That’s fine analysis, Dananjay!
    I agree his refusal was more confusion than defiance.
    I think he also needed to draw the number that he could not draw before and in the deed of connecting his past to his now, he rediscovered the power within him to change the environment around him.

  19. Yes, David, this story also connects nicely with the earlier article on labeling and context. by not providing context (is this the back-story of a heroic mythological character? What did he go on to do after the point where the story stops? What is the nature of the power that he possesses?) raises questions in our mind and in asking those questions we create our own context. it makes deviant reading(s) the only valid responses. making this a sort of post-structuralist fable.

  20. I enjoy your analysis, Katha. I also think people are fearful of the extraordinary and so they try to ignore it or press it into the familiar. The lesson in the young boy is that he was able to thwart the foul lines of society and find his own way and then return to the old context to teach those who did not believe in him what it means to find your true self and your innate power.