The Math Test

- Justin Lo -






To tell the truth, I'd never really been particularly interested, or disinterested for that matter, in the elegance of proofs or the beauty of a single number. For me, such silly personifications undermined the transcendental nature of those words of aestheticism by applying them to such concrete inventions of the human mind. It was the law that was elegant, not the proof; the value that was beautiful, not its digits.


With that mindset, I just sat down and scribbled incoherent notes, not attempting to feel the "rhythm of the numbers," as my teacher put it.


One day - and I have no idea when this was - I noticed the boy sitting in the desk in front of me. It wasn't that I'd never seen him before, since he'd never been absent a single day (though I can't testify about his presence on those days when I was not in class), but I never considered him before. My friends sat across the room; my group partners were always the two people to the left and to the right of my desk. Simply put, his life and mine never crossed.


For some reason, I felt that there was something inherently wrong with the fact that two people who spend one of every twenty-four hours within a meter of one another never meet face-to-face to exchange greetings.


Sometimes, I would go on for a week without seeing his eyes or nose, but merely viewing the back of his head, which was covered in neatly trimmed red hair. I had to lean to one side of my desk or the other, for his telephone pole-like torso always managed to block my view. There really wasn't any way to avoid his back at all. His broad shoulders, which never slouched down, seemed extremely wide when compared to this rest of his upper body. Over time, I gradually began to pay more attention to the nuances of his back than to the teacher.


The fall semester soon drew to a close, and it came to be time for exams. On the morning of the exam, we filed into the classroom, staring blankly ahead, hoping that by limiting our intake of the current environment, we would retain more of our precious fleeting memories from our cram-sessions the night before. The boy in front of me only brought a small pencil pouch that contained his calculator and a pen. No matter how many times the teacher insisted that he bring a pencil, he always brought a pen. With a determined look, he gripped his pen in his fingers tightly enough to make his fingertips turn white and froze in his position as he waited. The teacher casually began passing out the tests, looking only at her pile of papers as she strolled down the aisles. The boy looked infuriated at the teacher's leisure, and he watched intently as she neared his seat. With his right hand, he twirled his pen about his fingers; with his left, he shifted his small stack of blank scrap paper. At long last, she handed him his test.


In one passionate swipe, he drew out a ruler and began to draw something, though I dared not peek lest the teacher catch me cheating. I looked down at my own examination and carefully wrote my name in the top right corner.


'This test doesn't require a ruler,' I thought to myself, wondering what the boy in front of me was trying to do. Perhaps he had taken horrible notes and had to resort to graphing all the integrals to estimate their value. For five minutes, I stared at the first question. In my mind, I already knew what to do, but I could not seem to concentrate enough to actually carry out the required actions. Instead, I kept looking up at the boy in front of me. His red hair bobbed up and down as he continued to draw lines with his pen and ruler.


I glanced at the clock, looked back at my paper, and slowly wrote out all my work for the first question. Proudly, I circled my answer. But then I raised my head and was mesmerized by the rabid fever with which he marked his paper. One piece of his scratch paper drifted down to the ground, and I impulsively leaned over to look at it. Promptly, the teacher visited my desk, wrote an enormous 0 on my paper, and told me to leave the room.


Completely taken aback, I nearly began to cry on the spot, unsuccessfully trying to articulate my reasons for looking at the boy's work. The teacher even ventured to accuse the boy of purposely dropping the scratch paper (which he had not yet picked up) when he suddenly threw another piece of paper on the ground. I quietly began to pack up my belongings, wondering what I'd say to my parents when they found out about all this.


On a whim, I suddenly blurted out, "I wasn't cheating! That paper on the ground was a love letter and I thought itd be interesting to peek at." My teacher actually chuckled, amused by the absolute lameness of my excuse. It came as a complete surprise, then, when she actually bothered to pick up the two pieces of scratch paper. Having already flunked the exam, I decided to take a look at what they really said - after all, I had a right to know what I was trying to get through cheating if I were to be kicked out for it, right?


The teacher looked pale, and she paused to push her glasses back up. I looked over her left shoulder and saw the papers, criss-crossed with hundreds of lines, with polygons scattered across the background. Neither of us could speak a word. The lines evoked a sense of raw chaos, some of them with varying widths, a few halfway erased. Either it was a joke - and if so, the boy was quite an actor, for his face had the violent countenance of a demon, his brows furrowed, teeth clenched in a vicious grip of a rope of some sort - yes, either it was a joke, or this was a proof. The class, having spread the news via whisper to the far reaches of the room, began to giggle, a bit stifled at first, but then bursting into raucous laughter. No one really knew what he or she was laughing about, but the whole situation apparently seemed hilarious. I suppose it simply didn't make sense, for comedy always concerns the misunderstood.


The teacher tapped the boy on the shoulder, asking, in an inconsistent voice, "W-what are you doing? If you don't want to take this exam seriously, just don't take it at all." The boy acted as if he didn't even hear her. By now, the third page of the proof had been completed, and the lines of this latest installment were thicker than ever before and curved at the ends. A few students had gathered around him, and the teacher made no effort to make them shoo, herself absorbed in watching the creation of the fourth page. The boy folded the paper, tearing it along certain lines that he had marked, and then placed the paper in his mouth for five seconds before spitting it out onto the back of the seat in front of him. Now, he began on the fifth sheet. He swiftly and efficiently gave himself a papercut with the page, and he used the single droplet of blood that emerged to smear with his little finger what looked somewhat like a tiny circle. Below the circle, he wrote, in plain capital letters, "QED." Quod Erat Demonstrandum.




Without grace, he let his head drop to the desk, his hands relaxing and releasing his pencil. When no one could seem to make him wake up, the teacher phoned 911. I collected the third, fourth, and fifth pieces of paper, handing them mutely to the teacher. She sat down, thinking to herself.


What can be proven, what can be shown, what can be bled?


So it was, yes, like no other day; passive; the children played with glee. Quietly, each day slips by, and we forget its delicate elegies. Questioning the sun / moon / ourselves (pensively), the rhythm of numbers, yes, we found it.