Solving the Unsolvable Problem . . . in Secret

My eighth-grade algebra teacher, Mr. Edwards, a cheerful, enthusiastic guy with a mop of straight sandy-blond hair and a thick beefy mustache, was in his mid-fifties when he taught my class.  And Mr. Edwards loved numbers.  Now, being a math teacher, you would expect that.  But he really loved numbers.  He would spew out facts and figures like a flesh-and-blood computer, and he’d do it with gusto.  You never knew what mathematical morsel he would divulge on any given day.  One such tidbit that stuck with me was that, when you turn on a light, the room temperature increases by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius.  So, later, whenever I’d turn on a light in summer and my brother or sister would complain about the heat, I’d fire back, “Yeah, but it only upped the temperature by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius!”  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, indeed.

 

Mr. Edwards would also give us special, multi-layered problems to solve–not necessarily as required homework or on quizzes, but for fun.  Math fun.  He’d go to the blackboard and frantically write out formulas and numerical scenarios for us to iron out in our spare time.  Since these exercises weren’t required, few students made the effort to conquer them.  But some of us did, at least every now and then.  And I’ll never forget the day of the Unsolvable Problem.

 

It was at the end of class on a dreary, cloudy, raw early December afternoon–the kind of early-winter day in western New York State that makes you want to curl up in a ball and nestle beside the furnace, snug as a napping cat.  We’d gone over the lesson for the day, the homework was assigned, the quiz had been lethally administered.  And now, with a few spare minutes remaining in the period, Mr. Edwards smiled and made a grand announcement.

 

“Today,” he said, his smile widening, “we have the longest mathematical problem in junior-high history!”  And he wasn’t exaggerating.  Mr. Edwards proceeded to write a War and Peace-length equation on the blackboard.  And then came the challenge: “Solve this mystery, and you’ll be awarded high praise and class distinction!” he said, the exclamation point audible for all to hear.  “But fair warning.  It’ll take an hour, probably two, to get to the answer.  Anyone brave and motivated enough to solve the unsolvable can raise their hand tomorrow in class and share their genius with the rest of us!”

 

I glanced over at the student on my left, a girl named Tina.  She rolled her eyes.  Yeah, right, she seemed to be saying.  Like I’m gonna waste my time on math when I don’t have to.  And yet, for some reason, I decided I would take up the challenge.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I was just a glutton for algebraic punishment.  But that evening after supper, I sat at the table and tackled the problem, step by painstaking step.

I can’t tell you, all these years later, what that algebra problem entailed.  I honestly don’t remember any of the details–just that it was akin to wandering through a maze–only in this case, it wasn’t a maze of walls and tunnels, with a few funhouse mirrors thrown in for good measure; rather it was a maze of numbers and formulae and odd mathematical symbols, of figuring out what to multiply, what to divide, what to add, and what to ignore.  It took me well over two hours.  And when I finished, I felt like a balloon that had been popped with a jagged-edged saw.

 

Just as with the problem itself, I cannot remember my answer–not specifically, anyway.  But what I do remember is that it was large.  Very large–so large, in fact, that I needed to count the digits, one by one, to figure out the value of the number.  Suffice it to say, it was in the hundreds of billions.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had spent all that time, all that effort, only to arrive at such a ridiculous answer?  There was no way I had it right.  I had convinced myself, for some reason, that the answer would be a more manageable number:  6, maybe; or 3; or 45; or zero; or maybe even a negative number to throw us off.  But a number that required half the width of the page to write it out?  Not a chance.

I tried watching TV for a while after I had finished.  But I couldn’t get into it.  After channel-surfing for a few fruitless minutes, I went to bed.  It took a while before I managed to drift off.  I kept replaying the problem, over and over, in my mind’s eye.  I had gone through the equation slowly, methodically, had double-checked my work.  It all felt right.  But my answer was simply too absurd.  I saw mathematical equations, laughing at me with exposed fangs, in my dreams that night.

 

The next day, in algebra class, Mr. Edwards went through the lesson, not even acknowledging the unsolvable problem from yesterday.  Good.  Maybe he forgot. But then, near the end of the period, he closed the textbook with a flourish, smiled at us, and said, “Ah ha!  We’ve arrived at the big moment.  So who’s done it?  Who solved the equation, crossed the Rubicon, won the prize?”  No one ever accused Mr. Edwards of understatement.

 

I remember my heart rate, and how it accelerated then.  This was my chance.  After all the work I had put into the problem, shouldn’t I at least raise my hand and give my answer, just in case I was right?  A boy named Greg volunteered, reaching for the ceiling.  “The answer is zero!” he said when called upon.  Of course, I thought.  I knew it.  And he probably hadn’t even worked on it–he’d just called something out on a whim.

 

Mr. Edwards, however, shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Greg,” he said, maintaining his smile.  “That’s not the correct answer.  Anyone else?”

Sandy, a studious girl who always brought three thick spiral notebooks to class (these were the late 1980s, after all, long before the advent of smartphones and tablets), dared to raise her hand.

 

“Yes!” Mr. Edwards beamed.  “Sandy!  Share with us!”  But she, too, gave the wrong answer.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe I was right.  Maybe I should . . .

But I didn’t.  Even as Mr. Edwards asked again if anyone else wanted to take a stab, I held back, afraid of being laughed at.  I mean, yeah, Greg had gotten it wrong, but no one laughed at his answer of zero.  And Sandy, too, had given a reasonable number as her answer–I can’t remember what it was, only that it consisted of far fewer than 18 digits!  I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  My arm felt weighted down with dumbbells.  I would just let Mr. Edwards provide the class with the right answer, and that would be the end of it.

 

“Well, okay,” Mr. Edwards said, though he didn’t seem disappointed.  He maintained his smile.  “The answer is . . .”  And he wrote it on the blackboard.  The first few digits matched mine.  No, I told myself.  Then the next cluster of digits matched.  No way.  And then the next, until, finally, the correct answer was there, displayed for all to see.  And it was the same result I had arrived at the evening before, at the dining room table.  I had been right.

Wait a minute, I wanted to shout.  I got it!  I got it.  I worked on it for two hours, and . . . I had it nailed.  But of course I didn’t say anything.  Who would believe me now?  I felt sick.  It was a small thing, really, an inconsequential blip on the journey through junior high.  Who really cared?  And yet . . . it was a significant thing, too.  Something I regretted.  Even today, I can recall how I felt, sitting there, wishing, angry at myself for backing down.  I had it.  I had it!  Don’t you all see?  But no–they didn’t see.

 

They didn’t see at all.

******************

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.  Ryan Swinton and Mitchell Brant experience similar hesitations in The Singularity Wheel.  Can they trust the outcome of what they desire to do?  Can they believe in themselves enough to do what must be done?  It’s a struggle, and it doesn’t end with the completion of junior high.  It follows us into adulthood like an inescapable shadow, a personal black hole that threatens to suck us in and snuff out our potential like a parasite.

 

Have you written a song, crafted a story, a poem, an essay?  A blog post?  But you’re not sure if it’s “good enough” or “right enough” or “brilliant enough”?  Is there a job opportunity you’ve worked years to apply for, but now, as you stand at the doorstep, you doubt your talent and abilities?  Do you have something to say or do or inspire or create, but you’re not sure if you should bring it forth into the light of day?

 

I am confident Mitchell and Ryan, and old Mr. Edwards, would join with me and encourage you to do it.  Write that poem.  Paint that picture.  Ask that question.  Make that speech.  Risk that rejection.  Sing that song.  Finish that story.

And then share it with the world.

No equations, once solved, should remain hidden in the dark.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

41 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Jul 24, 2018 @ 18:33:51

    Soooo, Mike – if I turn on 18 lights does the temperature go up 1 degree C? 🙂 Now I’ll think of you every time I turn one on. Great story. And wonderful words of encouragement! Sometimes we’ve just gotta step off that cliff…if only to find it’s an inch high. Be well!

    Reply

  2. The Eye-Dancers
    Jul 24, 2018 @ 18:54:35

    Thanks so much, Donna! You know, I never thought about that with the bulbs.:) Now I need to turn on 18! Always great hearing from you.:)

    Reply

  3. kutukamus
    Jul 24, 2018 @ 19:15:43

    Very much well laid down, Mike. Still pondering upon it.
    And surely thanks for the dangerous little knowledge! 🙂

    Reply

  4. rmcalzada
    Jul 24, 2018 @ 22:31:49

    I bet Mr. Edwards would be proud of you even now! Self doubt is such a persistent demon. I know I used to struggle with it quite often in the past. Now here I am, working hard on my post-apocalyptic book and its sequel, and I couldn’t be happier or more engaged.

    Thank you for your words of inspiration! Let’s write on.

    Reply

  5. Ste J
    Jul 25, 2018 @ 01:07:21

    None of my blog posts are ever written to satisfaction but stuck out there in the hope that they will be appreciated by the reader. We aren’t always the best judges of our own work but it pays to be reminded that others will.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 25, 2018 @ 18:50:41

      That is definitely true–we are almost always our own harshest critics. In some ways, that’s a good thing. In other ways, it can be crippling if we allow it to be. As with so much in life, it seems, a middle path is probably the best approach . . .

      Reply

  6. joannerambling
    Jul 25, 2018 @ 01:11:43

    Back in high school I was really good at algebra now days it is or x & y’s to me and would give me a massive headache

    Reply

  7. ellie894
    Jul 25, 2018 @ 02:39:15

    Wonderful encouragement Mike! Makes me want to go write. 😊 I’m so enjoying The Singularity Wheel 🌷

    Reply

  8. Trackback: Solving the Unsolvable Problem . . . in Secret — Eye-Dancers | Fantasy Gift Sources: Book Reviews, Article Resources, News
  9. ritaroberts
    Jul 25, 2018 @ 12:46:42

    It’s all a matter of confidence in ones self don’t you think Mike. However, this confidence seems to come much later in life but depending on what you decide to do with your life. As a young girl I was very timid, I hated walking into a room by myself ,all those things which go with lack of confidence. But like you, I became an author. Also an archaeologist and a linguist. If your teacher is still alive I hope he sees your post, he would be well proud of you.

    Reply

  10. Lyn
    Jul 28, 2018 @ 06:43:09

    I hated Maths at school. Well, no; that’s not exactly true. I liked it well enough, it just didn’t like me. 😦

    Reply

  11. A. Guanlao
    Jul 29, 2018 @ 06:50:39

    Although it has a sad ending, I enjoyed reading your story about Mr. Edwards and the math problem the world did not know you solved. How disappointing that you were not able to get the credit that you deserved!

    Your post made me think about some of the odd things teachers told me when I was a kid in school. I still remember the advice that my history teacher in junior high school gave to my class: “If you want to live a long life, stay out of bars and don’t go to the bank on Fridays.”

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 29, 2018 @ 22:10:00

      Hi Arlene! That was some interesting advice your history teacher provided.:)

      Reply

      • A. Guanlao
        Jul 31, 2018 @ 06:10:55

        Hi Mike! I know! 😀 Now that I think about it, he was one of my high school teachers, and I think he also mentioned that Friday was the day of the week when most bank robberies occur. I don’t know if that is true now.

        I think he was also the teacher that told me and the rest of the class that if someone tries to kidnap you from a parking lot, you should fight them there even if you get hurt. You could get help if you are in a public place, but you probably won’t be able to get help if you are taken to a remote location. What grim advice!

      • The Eye-Dancers
        Jul 31, 2018 @ 17:33:29

        Wow–that was some advice! And very smart. And, well, now I kind of doubt I’ll be heading to the bank on Fridays anymore.:)

      • A. Guanlao
        Aug 01, 2018 @ 18:16:26

        Yes, I have to say that his advice is grim but sensible. I go to the bank on Fridays but not very often. 🙂 And thanks for liking “Happy First Day of Summer.” 🙂

  12. jjspina
    Jul 31, 2018 @ 03:11:21

    Wow, Mike. I think we have all been there at one time. I never was good at math like that. But I did excel at languages. I was too shy and insecure to raise my hand to answer questions though, afraid to be wrong. I would try to hide behind the student in front of me and make myself disappear. Sigh! We all learn in time and as we age see how silly we had been. Another exceptional post, Mke!
    I look forward to reading your book. Hugs

    Reply

  13. Sue Dreamwalker
    Jul 31, 2018 @ 09:47:22

    I think we have all been there Mike. in one form or another as for algebra I never did grasp why we had to learn it, and never really understood it either.
    Enjoyable read..
    Take care
    Sue

    Reply

  14. Carol Balawyder
    Jul 31, 2018 @ 17:27:25

    That was a bitter lesson for you to learn and I am certain it has served you well in your writing. Anyway, it did show you how good you are in math…and persistent too and I hope by now, much, much more confident. 🙂

    Reply

  15. Karina Pinella
    Aug 01, 2018 @ 04:23:11

    Don’t back out even when in doubt, if you spent a lot of time toiling over something. That is indeed a lesson. Fear of humiliation keeps us from just putting it out there, regardless of age, as it really is about self-acceptance, isn’t it? If one truly accepts oneself, warts and all, then one wouldn’t worry about being humiliated because one knows it’s okay to make mistakes and not look at it as being a failure or a fool, but one who is daring and game for anything. Life is an adventure after all.

    Reply

  16. The Eye-Dancers
    Aug 01, 2018 @ 17:39:05

    Perfectly said, Karina!:)

    Reply

  17. Patrice
    Aug 09, 2018 @ 19:30:49

    This reading so resonated with me!
    Because last Friday I entered a juried Photo Show and so fought with myself that the 3 photos entered weren’t good enough.
    Finally that little voice spoke to me saying ‘They hold meaning and feeling to you, what’s not to say they won’t to others?’
    So entered they are.
    Thanks for another wonderful writing 😀

    Reply

  18. K E Garland
    Aug 13, 2018 @ 01:43:35

    Well that sucks! I think I’d be kicking myself for the rest of my life if that happened, or I’d probably over correct and always say what the answer is from that point on lol

    Reply

  19. Dragthepen
    Aug 21, 2018 @ 23:26:13

    I love when you share these stories.

    Reply

  20. mistermaxxx08
    Oct 23, 2018 @ 20:20:11

    Very moving reflections and puts things into perspective, ☮️

    Reply

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