In a one-room schoolhouse at the end of a dirt path that wound through the too-green hills of New New Zealand, Professor Hamster pondered his dilemma. A dozen students sat before him, all but one hefty farming lads and lasses, thick-waisted and well-muscled, here to learn the basics of math and agronomy to take back to their families and help out as much as they could in the upcoming season.
It was that one who presented the dilemma. Deepa Sankaranarayanan. Four-foot-something, big beseeching eyes, ratty black hair. He could barely look at her without being distracted by something else, a fly or a cloud formation or the persistent itch in the crook of his right elbow. It was as though some higher force had designed a person whose raison d’être was to be overlooked.
Hi there. Remember Me?
But Professor Hamster could not overlook the test paper in front of him. He glanced at the answer Deepa gave for question 5, a simple derivative equation. The tiny girl was the only person in class who got it right. But she used a method to solve it that Professor Hamster had not taught the class. In fact (and he checked), Deepa’s method wasn’t even in the textbook.
But question 5 was not the professor’s main concern. It was the extra credit question, which asked the student to prove a relatively simple-looking formula.
The formula was Squirmwood’s conjecture, an unsolvable problem that had been torturing the minds of mathematicians for over 900 years. Hamster liked to assign this problem to identify which of his students actually took their studies seriously, so that he could decide who to focus on and who to avoid.
Also, because Professor Hamster was kind of a jerk.
Deepa’s cramped handwriting filled the lower half of the page, and the entire back of the paper.
And the entirety of second page.
And a third.
And on through twenty-seven pages of formulae, matrices, vector charts, and what looked like the schematic diagram of a complicated circuit.
Professor Hamster tried to read the proof several times, but he never got past page three before he began to develop a migraine. There were two possibilities:
1. The proof was gibberish, and Deepa Sankarayananan was deeply disturbed.
2. The proof was correct, and . . .
Professor Hamster could not bring himself to contemplate the end of that sentence. Hamster was ashamed to acknowledge that he did not understand the proof. His dilemma was that if there was any merit to it at all, he should send it off to one of his old colleagues at the Imperial College back on Earth. But if it was in fact gibberish, and it had to be, then such a course of action would earn him scorn and ridicule and insure that he would never, ever, leave this pastoral nightmare land.
But if the proof was correct . . .
He squelched the thought and pondered a third option:
3. Years of living on New New Zealand, with no intellectual stimulation of any kind, had driven Professor Hamster insane.
Professor Hamster pushed that possibility up to option two, as it was more likely to be the case than the proof being correct.
He couldn’t take the risk of sending the paper off. If it was wrong, it would be the end of his career. And if it was right? It wouldn’t be! But even if it was, someone else would take credit for discovering her, wouldn’t they? Would he gain any benefit at all?
But it didn’t matter, it couldn’t be correct!
Hamster drummed his fingers on his desk. He considered the odds. He drummed his fingers harder. He began to grow angry. This silly, foolish, insignificant girl had taken far too much of his mental resources with her idiocy! He slammed his fist down of the desk and the students all jumped in their seats.
It was bad enough that Professor Hamster, a man of irrefutable talents and genius, had been exiled to this . . . this . . . place. He would not compound the problem by making himself look like an idiot.
The professor took a swipe at the proof with his thick red pen and crossed it out with a giant X. Then he put an X by problem 5 as well because Deepa had not solved it the proper way. Then he found reasons to take issue with every other answer on the sheet, finally assigning her a thirty percent, the lowest grade in class.
Professor Hamster glared at Deepa Sankaranaryanan. How dare she.
“Your exam papers are here on the desk, please take yours before you leave today,” Hamster announced. He snatched up his satchel, shoved it under his arm, and hurried out the door.
After all the other students grabbed their papers and left, Deepa got out of her seat at the back of the class and crept up to the teacher’s desk. She was nervous to discover what he’d thought of her proof. Deepa had been delighted to see it on the test. After the first several weeks of class Deepa was beginning to suspect that there wasn’t anything to learn here, but she’d never tell that to her family, whom she’d begged to attend school. So the challenge problem gave her new hope.
And it had been so much fun solving it! Deepa was not accustomed to being genuinely challenged, and the five hours during which she’d fiddled with the problem were some of the most enjoyable she could recall.
Deepa’s paper sat alone on the desk, a bright red 30 scrawled across the top.
Her head felt light. Her arm reflexively swung out and grasped the edge of the desk to steady herself.
The test seemed so easy! How was it possible that Deepa could be so wrong? Was her understanding of the material so fundamentally incorrect that she didn’t even grasp how little she grasped it?
A fleeting thought told her to ask Professor Hamster for guidance, but she pushed that thought away. Professor Hamster was a very busy man. Deepa’s earliest memory, at the age of seven days, was her father telling her not to fuss.
“Don’t make a fuss” was Deepa’s mantra and guiding principle.
So Deepa took the paper and crumpled it in her hand. Perhaps school wasn’t for her after all. But then, what was?
© 2020 Ryan Kriger