On being Twelvish

Hello my friends,

Happy Twelvish Day!

Almost exactly in the middle of this Twelvish Day will come a wonderful moment when it is twelve seconds past twelve minutes past twelve o’clock on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of this century. In numbers, it will be 12:12:12 on 12-12-12.

And if you use a twelve-hour clock, then the same thing has already happened twelve hours earlier—just after midnight. So do we celebrate 12-12-12 at midnight or at noon?

Before we answer that question, let’s do some speculating. Science fiction is sometimes called speculative fiction: speculating about how a future world—or a parallel universe—might work.

Although people have been writing speculative fiction for hundreds of years, modern science fiction is less than a hundred years old. So readers of science fiction—each with their favourite authors—still debate this question: Was the Golden Age of science fiction in the 1930s, the 1940s, or the 1950s?

Peter Graham was the first person to answer that question in a conclusive way: he declared that the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.

At the age of 12 everything seems possible—even the impossible.

When I was 12, I was eagerly reading stories about going to the moon and beyond. A year later in 1957, I was delighted—but not surprised—when Sputnik went up and launched the space race.

Perhaps it’s not just science fiction; perhaps the Golden Age of everything is 12—or at least 12ish. I like adding –ish to a word. Sometimes I do it to mean “approximately twelve” as when I say I’ll meet you at twelvish.

But I’m using it now in the sense of being like someone who is twelve. And I like the way the word itself sounds like two elves being too elvish as well as twelves being twelvish.

When I was 12, I accepted one invitation and I offered two invitations. All three were life-changing. Mr. Sheridan, my Scoutmaster, invited me to become a Boy Scout patrol leader. For the first—but not the last—time in my life I was leading, supporting, challenging, and inspiring a small group.

I had forgotten the two invitations that I offered, but I was reminded of them last September at my 50th high school reunion.

As a group of us sat down to dinner, two of my friends startled me by announcing: “I’m going to tell a Walt Hopkins story.” Carol began by telling how I had invited her to come to Sunday School. She is now a minister. Then Pat told of how I invited her to join the staff of the school newspaper. She became a journalist.
Invitations—at twelve or whenever—can be powerful. Especially if you accept them and act on them.

Last year when I accepted an invitation from our local primary school, I began learning more about being twelvish. The school invited me in to help Primary 7 pupils make films using laptops.

That was because I had given the school four Macintosh laptops that I no longer needed. (I have replaced them with the four iPads that my course participants now use to make videos of their Organisational Influencing Challenges. The iPads—like the Mac laptops before them—are so much easier to use than the big old cameras and recorders.)

Last year I spent several hours at the primary school working with the pupils on how to set up the cameras, microphones, and laptops. Then they invited me back to see their delightful films.

This year, when I was invited in again for a new class, the pupils had already figured out how to use the laptops. So we created  storyboards and learned different kinds of shots—even a tracking shot using chairs on wheels.

Then I sat back and watched these twelvish pupils begin creating films about rugby players, irritated parents, and bank robbers—although not all in the same film! The twelvish combination of intense concentration and wild hilarity is delightful. They take risks and they express themselves both in physical movement and in words. They learn enthusiastically.
These children are approaching twelve—the Golden Age—and the joy of working with them inspires those of us of other Golden Ages. As I slowly approach the age of seventy, I believe that the golden glory of being twelvish need not be limited to twelve-year-olds.

If being twelvish means combining intense concentration with wild hilarity, combining words with physical movement, and combining risk-taking with enthusiastic learning, then the people I work with in T Groups and on influencing skills courses are definitely being twelvish. Even though their ages range from mid-twenties to mid-sixties.

Part of what creates these twelvish experiences is the number twelve itself. When I began teaching high school English in 1968, I had up to 36 students in each of five classes.

I just knew that I couldn’t have a real discussion with 36 kids. With the vital support of my boss, Dick Beyer, I began experimenting. First I split the classes in half and sent one group to the library to do research while the other 18 had a discussion. It made no difference.

Then I worked out an incredibly complicated timetable that formed three groups. Each group spent two days in the library and one day discussing in a circle with me. The maximum number in those groups was twelve.

So, long before I read the theory on small groups, I learned from my own experience that the optimum size for small group work is twelve.
This does not mean that you cannot work with eleven or thirteen. But those are prime numbers. Mathematicians may be fascinated by prime numbers, but trainers hate them. Have you ever tried to form small teams for an exercise when you have a prime number? How do you form trios or quartets when you have eleven participants? Even 8, 10, and 14 cause problems.

But twelve is glorious. With twelve, you can make groups of 2, 3, 4, and 6 people. Brilliant!

As the Arithmodigmaphilia date approaches each year, some of you write me with encouragement and suggestions. Jeanne Pounder suggested that I consider this question on 12-12-12: is it Noon or is it Midnight?

Certainly, given what goes on in the world today, there is a strong argument for saying that it is midnight. But perhaps one person’s Dark Age is another person’s Golden Age.

While I was pondering the question of Midnight or Noon, an image emerged from my memory: the photo I took years ago of a clock outside a building. Both hands of the clock are pointing up at the twelve and I took the photo with natural light rather than with a flash. So it looks like noon.

But I took the photo at midnight in June in a Norwegian town above the Arctic circle—in the land of the midnight sun.

The clock—or the world—may say it is midnight. But if I look at the clock—or the world—in a different light, perhaps it is noon.
Perhaps what time it is depends on where we stand and what the light is like.

Do I stand for peace and justice? Do I offer enough light of my own to join with the light of others? Do I behave twelvishly with intensity and hilarity, risking and enthusiasm? Do I work in small groups of twelve that change the world?

Margaret Mead said that we should never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world—because it’s the only thing that ever has.

Just as things are cheaper by the dozen, maybe changes are easier by the dozen. Instead of working by yourself, you could be one of a dozen people working together.

As I think about the year ahead, I have two wishes. When I was 12, Johnny Mathis was singing “The Twelfth of Never” and I still remember that chorus.

So my first wish for the days to come is to keep moving onward through each Midnight and to keep moving twelvishly onward toward each Noon “until the Twelfth of Never—and that’s a long, long time.”

My second wish began as a haiku and turned into what Piet Hein calls a grook.

My dream for each day
And goal for today
Is to do the day
In a twelvish way