The school’s all-time record-holder got up to a whopping 635.
Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
There’s no limit to the competitive nature of middle school boys. This timeless fact was proven once again Thursday by three Philly preteens who recited from memory — and with genuine enthusiasm — hundreds of digits of pi.
Yup. Now 11 to 14 years old, these kids practiced for literal years to master the mathematical constant. It’s a task most would find either A) impossible or B) mundane. But as soon as their teacher offered a prize to the one who could rattle off the most digits in correct sequence, the Chestnut Hill middle schoolers got into it.
This year, as per the rules of Philadelphia, the underdog took the grand prize. Up against two eighth-graders, a sixth-grade student named Josh remembered a whopping 191 digits of pi. (Don’t worry. We got it all on video.)
Luckily for the runners-up, all top three contestants got a reward: a pie — flavor of their choice — gifted by math teacher Andrew Wolf. The winner made the bold choice of chocolate cream.
The competition is hosted annually on March 14 (3/14, get it?). It’s been something of a tradition at the private, all-boys Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. That is, ever since Wolf joined the staff 15 years ago.
In the beginning of his Springside career, Wolf would lead his students in mini-pi-reciting competitions, asking them to spend just five minutes memorizing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
“From there it just took off and became a full middle school thing,” Wolf said. Take off it did. The in-class exercise has evolved into a major event that requires hours of practice each day.
So how do the kids do it?
Each finalist offered a different approach. One groups the digits into threes, another into fours. Other times, the numbers themselves evoke meaningful figures — making them memorable enough on their own.
“In the first 30 digits it has my mom’s birth year and the last four digits of my phone number,” said eighth-grade student Mason, who took second place. “Sometimes you find little devices.”
In Wolf’s eyes, committing pi to memory is like learning a new song: At a certain point, the repetition of the numbers is just muscle memory.
Whatever they are, these methods are clearly effective. The all-time champion, now a senior in high school, managed to rack up 635 digits in memory back in his day.
Also cool: The first, second and third place record-holders are all brothers — which either proves that memorization of pi is a genetic skill, or that the ambition of middle school boys is enhanced only by the presence of competitors in the immediate family.
If you’re watching the video, a disclaimer may be in order. This competition is low-key terrifying. Looking at the boys as they do their recitation, it’s almost like you can see the life leave their eyes. These preteen brains seem like they were reborn as robots, temporarily overtaken by a task that should, inarguably, be performed only by machines.
In their own adolescent way, the kids seem grateful — and for more than just the acquisition of a new party trick.
“At the end of the day it’s an exercise that builds your brain,” said Michael, eighth-grader and third place winner. “And if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it.”