Jan and Math by Brian Conlon

Jan went straight to the registrar and broke the news to math, taking care to let it down easy, making it a minor.

She was a sophomore and had been slowly falling out of love with math since calculus. But math had been good to her; from first grade addition to third grade multiplication tables, to the acute angles of ninth grade, math had allowed her to demonstrate just how much better she was than everyone else. Math assured her of this, it said, “Jan, you are the fastest. Jan, you are the smartest. Jan, you show your work so clearly. Jan, you are right more than 19/20 times and you and I both know that’s pretty good. Jan, you are flawless at every step. Jan, that is the most symmetrical triangle I have ever seen!” An awkward little girl with unimportant brown hair, whose parents forced her to wear either a bow or a dress every day, but never both, needed reassurance. A withdrawn teenager with a pretty smile, who never even needed braces, but could not afford fashionable clothes, needed to know, though the boys didn’t care, that she was, in fact, better than them. Math had been there, math would always be there, it was as simple as two plus two.

"Math Class" (photo by Flickr user attercop311)

“Math Class” (photo by Flickr user attercop311)

Then came calculus and just as Jan was becoming more accepted amongst her peers, math started playing games with her. Math stopped praising her the way it once had, becoming less emphatic and insinuating a preference for other students. It said, “Jan, nice job. Jan, you missed a step. Jan, double check your answer. Jan, be more precise with your data. Jan, you were right 32/40 times and you and I both know that you were wrong eight times. Jan, compare answers with Jake, he understands me better.”

Jan arrived at college, and it seemed as though she and math were going to make it after all. Her advisor extolled the virtues of a math degree: “A long-term relationship with mathematics can lead to any number of exciting fields. From medicine to law to empirical research, you’ll always need math.” Jan was pleased that her passion could lead to so many opportunities. But there was still something amiss, math was becoming more and more deceptive, finding new and unimaginable ways to fool her.

On September 4th, Jan walked towards Gaither 104 in anticipation of Professor Zucker’s class. About fifty feet ahead of the door she saw a tall, lanky, completely bald man with a top hat, twirling a cane. The class was called “Step Right Up: The History and Anthropological Significance of the Freak Show”. It took years for Professor Zucker to convince the history and anthropology faculty that his barely publishable book, which consisted of grotesque pictures and really seemed to have little to do with anthropology, could be turned into a class. While neither department was willing to sponsor the class on its own, they agreed that cross-listing would limit the potential wrath and indignation of the Dean.

Zucker yelled, “Step right up, Step right up. Come one, come all and see the freaks!” It was love at first sight. Jan laughed as Zucker performed a dramatic bow as she entered the room. There were only three other students in the class, which made Zucker’s display that much more extravagant. The class consisted entirely of a power point presentation of photos of freak shows through history.

At one point Zucker presented a photo of a man with an indent in his forehead the shape of a golf ball, and immediately followed it with a man who had a protrusion the shape of a golf ball sticking out from his forehead. The next slide was a hideous amalgamation of the two faces, crudely fit together like puzzle pieces. Zucker asked the class, “What is the significance of this?” Jan replied tentatively, half joking, “It shows the symbiotic nature of the human condition. We all need each other to become truly whole.” Zucker was floored. He removed his top hat, his forehead wrinkles pulsating with glee, “That’s the best answer I have ever heard! Perfect, Jan, just perfect!”

The class proceeded and Jan answered many questions with various and even logically inconsistent answers. No matter what her response, anthropology reassured her, “That’s exactly right, Jan. Very deep, Jan. That’s an interesting way of looking at it, Jan.”

She loved math no longer, anthropology was the wave of the future.

Brian Conlon is a short story writer from Spencerport, NY. He holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School (’11) in, you know, law, a B.A. from the University of Rochester (’08) in History and Comparative Literature, and a high school diploma from Spencerport High School (’04) in Euchre. He knows the following very famous mammals: Sean Conlon (bass player); Kurtis Archer (entertainment mogul); Johnny Cash (black lab mix); and Anthony Iacchetta (Italian). His work has recently appeared in The Greenbag, Prime Numbers, and The Montreal Review. He currently resides in St. Louis and can be found on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/brian.conlon.161.