Nine hundred twenty three thousand, nine hundred twenty three thousand one, nine hundred twenty three thousand two . . . nine hundred twenty three thousand fifty three.
"One, two, three, four. . . . Geez, a million already," Gary Martin shouted as he and his friends stacked bags of pop tabs against the cafeteria wall at Holabird Middle School.
But the count goes on, as 30 eighth-graders close in on a goal that has occupied them and their classmates for three years: collecting 1,000,000 tabs from drink cans before school ends June 18.
With a count of 953,694 and only 46,306 to go, everyone is optimistic.
"A couple more big loads and we know we're going to make it this year," said Richard Carl, the math teacher who started the "Save a Million" campaign three years ago after he realized that his students had a misconception of what a million meant.
"When I asked my students how many of them had seen a million, they responded that once they went to a game at Memorial Stadium and there were 'millions' of fans there," Mr. Carl said.
Actually, Memorial Stadium holds about 50,000 people, or 1/20th of a million.
"I realized students needed to visually conceptualize how much a million of something really is," he said.
So, Mr. Carl and one of his eighth-grade math classes began to collect aluminum pop tabs. They're small, easy to manage and don't smell.
"They are perfect to collect a million of," Mr. Carl said.
The collection is now a mountain of gallon bags 3 feet high and 10 feet wide. Each of the bags contains 3,500 tabs, and the pile draws attention from all who see it.
"Most people's initial reaction is 'Wow,' " Mr. Carl said as he pulled a tab from his shirt pocket and added it to the pile.
The entire school contributes tabs, but each night it is the eighth-graders who voluntarily take home sandwich bags full of tabs to count.
Students thought the project was a joke at first, but they had collected 441,000 tabs by the end of the first year. After the first few thousand, they realized that a million of even something so small takes up a large amount of space -- and that collecting a million somethings takes time and patience.
"We collected and collected these little tabs the whole year I was here," said Kathleen Reesey, now a 10th-grader at Dundalk High School, who brought in more than 100,000. She was in the first tab-collecting class.
The project is having its intended effect.
"I never realized how big a million really is," said Christina Silver, an eighth-grader. "Seeing these tabs in the cafeteria every day reminds me how much a million is and how much space it takes up."
Storing the tabs every summer in closets throughout the school was difficult, but Mr. Carl said he does not regret undertaking the project.
"It's neat for a lot of kids who are sometimes hard to motivate. They become interested in math, which most middle school students aren't too interested in," he said.
He also uses the tabs to illustrate his lessons.
"Collecting the tabs has helped us to learn place values, and it's more fun than just doing plain old math," said eighth-grader Heather Fassell, a tab contributor since she was in the sixth grade. "It's something to look forward to, because I never thought a million would be that much."
Whether they dig into their pockets for a tab or two covered with fuzz balls or bring in bags full, most of the students have developed what Mr. Carl calls "tab connections."
It might be an uncle who works in a bar, parents who bug their office mates for the tabs or the most inveterate soft drink consumers of all -- students themselves.
"After you drink a Coke at lunch, you just pop off the tab and drop in the bucket with the thousands of others," said Christina, who has bought in more than 2,000.
When they reach their goal, the students plan to load their 400 pounds of tabs onto Mr. Carl's pickup truck and take them to a recycling plant. They'll donate the $250 they expect to receive for their tabs to a charity in the community, perhaps the Dundalk Crisis Center.
Although Mr. Carl does not plan to continue the "Save a Million" tab project next year -- because of storage problems -- he does plan other innovative, hands-on projects.
But now, he's on his hands and knees, digging a tab from under a cafeteria door.
"Every one counts," he said.