[IMGCAP(1)]The following is a short story I distribute to my beginning undergraduate accounting students and those graduate students who are finishing their master’s degrees. It is intended to stimulate their reading comprehension and ignite their critical thinking as to how numbers play such an important role in business as in life. It was influenced by a sermon a priest delivered many years ago at a service I once attended:

Many, many, many years ago, there lived in Egypt a very wise and wealthy man who had three sons. One day the wise man called his sons together to tell them how proud he was of each of them.

He also knew it was time to allocate his great wealth. He informed his sons that all he asked for in return for the riches they would inherit was that they always care for their mother. After allocating all of his other assets he was left to distribute his prized camels, of which there were 17. He decided to give half of his camels to his oldest son, a third to his middle son and a ninth to his youngest son. He further directed his sons, that should there ever be a dispute or a problem that they could not resolve, they should seek the advice of the town’s counter.

A short time after making his wishes known to his sons, the wise and wealthy man died. After giving their father a funeral fit for a king, the sons began to take possession of the assets pursuant to their father’s directions. However, a problem arose. The wise man left 17 camels to his sons, with specific instructions on how they were to be distributed. Unfortunately for the sons, 17 was not easily divisible by two (a half), three (a third) or nine (a ninth). After fretting for days over their problem, they remembered what their father had told them about the town’s counter.

The three sons went into the town to seek out the help of the counter. When they met with her they explained their dilemma and told her what their father had said. She immediately said there was no problem at all for there was a simple solution. She had one camel, which their father had given her as a gift a year earlier. She would give the camel to the three sons so they would now have 18 camels to allocate. Since 18 was easily divisible by two, three and nine the problem would be solved. The three sons agreed they could not take the camel from the counter. However, the counter insisted that it would be their father’s wish that they follow her instructions.

Upon arriving home with the eighteenth camel in tow, the three sons set out to allocate the camels, just as their father wished. The oldest son would get a half, i.e. nine, the middle a third, i.e. six, and the youngest a ninth, i.e. two. Then the sons realized what had happened. Nine plus six plus two equaled 17.

Their father had taught them a final lesson. All things are possible with numbers, if you know how to count.
By the way, the sons joyfully returned the counter’s camel.

Charles J. Pendola, CPA, ESQ, FHFMA, FACHE, CMC, CFE, CFF, CGMA, is director of Graduate Management Studies Programs at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, N.Y.