Have you ever felt like you’re the only one who’s different? Growing up as the one Japanese boy anyone had ever seen I often felt like I was the only one and in that way I was the only one. This sense of difference led to isolation and was the breeding ground of alienation.
But fortunately, I began to see that other kids felt different for their own reasons. Some of their reasons were visible, like a physical disability, while others were harder to see, like having an abusiveparent. Some children feel like they're the only one a lot because other kids notice the difference and point it out, often in ways that are hurtful. Others live privately with their secret difference. Either way a feeling of difference can make children feel isolated and alienated and they can become lost in an illusion of separateness from others. Feeling that no one understands you is terribly lonely.
I’ve realized how important it is to overcome this awful sense of estrangement from life and am always looking for ways. I found one in an unexpected source—numbers. In Yoko Ogawa’s touching novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, the elderly math professor presents the housekeeper's son with a list of all the primary numbers up to one hundred and asks him what he sees.
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97
The boy, Root, who always feels different and notices the one who’s different, points out, “2 is the only one that’s even.
"The professor says, “You’re right. Two is the only even prime. It’s the leadoff batter for the infinite team of prime numbers after it."
“That must be awfully lonely,” the boy says.
“Don't worry,” says the professor, “if it gets lonely it has lots of company with the other even numbers."
Many children might understand Root's feelings when he sees that 2 is the only even number and assumes it is lonely. They have felt like the number 2, as if they are the only one, with the difference glaringly, uncomfortably, or even painfully obvious. We all desperately want to be like others. But a challenge that we all face is to recognize and accept our uniqueness. Though others may tell us that this is bad we have to accept that it is who we are and therefore it is good. We can assert our right to be there, and may find that others accept us for who we are, one of them but different.
We could discover that there are others in the group who also feel that they are the only one, for completely different reasons, like the number 3 right next to 2, who is the only one who follows an even primary number. This common feeling of difference can bond us. The discovery of unanticipated and unexpected connections can be a liberating experience as we see how borders between us and others can sometimes be self constructed and an illusion.
The one who is "different" can even fill a special role in the group as 2 does by being the "leadoff batter." The group may come to see that the uniqueness of all of its members can allow each to fulfill a special role.
I know that it’s not easy for children when they feel that they are the only one who is different. I think that many children are like the boy Root in the novel and almost always notice the odd man out. They too would feel that 2 was the loneliest number—its difference is striking. But if they use their imagination they can see that all children feel different in some way because we are all unique.
And if they try hard they will find that there are multiple connections with others. They can realize that while it might look lonely there, 2 is not helpless, why it’s even out front as theleader of the pack. And as the professor tells Root, if 2 is too lonely, he can look outside the group and he'll find lots of company.