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

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