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Sgt Kelly's Math Final

Master Sergeant Ralph Steven Kelly was the husband of a school administrator. After he retired from the Army he hung around the school, making a nuisance of himself. So they decided to make him a math teacher for the 3rd and 4th graders.

Most of the classes were just... Sgt Kelly telling stories. Or playing chess. Or stories about chess, or the military, or any number of things. Some of those stories were inappropriate for nine-year-olds. One time a student brought in pen shaped like a replica .50 calibre bullet. Kelly confiscated it and spent the class talking about the fire rate of the “fifty cal” machine gun and what it does to people and things downrange. How’s that for a word problem?

It all added to the excitement and the conspiracy. The students didn’t quite know what to make of the class. It was almost a parody of class. They suspected that if they said anything to the authorities, it would break the magic. Their daily dose of mental play would go away.

Having captured their full and true attention, Kelly managed to teach the children lots of math. Like that one story about how he’d read the regs carefully and discovered that the comms station he was responsible for could be called “100% operational” as long as it was never down for more than 6 minutes in a given day.

One day he had to do an upgrade that would take at least 10 minutes. The “quiz” for the students that day was to figure out how to keep the 100% uptime. The answer, of course, is to start it at 11:54 PM one day and aim to finish it by 12:06 AM the next. This was more deviousness than proper math, but we ended up doing lots of math on the way to finding it. We also had the chance to reflect on the effectiveness of being devious.

Then there was the time he had us all shake hands. Everyone had to shake hands with everyone else, but never more than once. How many handshakes does that take? Then he bet us one free hour that at least one pair of students shared the same birthday. The memory of working out the math of all that, and I mean really owning it when something valuable was on the line, has stayed with me for nearly 30 years.

Sgt Kelly lent me some of his science fiction to read. After I’d returned the books somewhat trashed, he gave me something more valuable: a list of his favorite 50 books. Over the next few years I found and bought and read each one. This was before pirate PDFs, Amazon, or even electronic library catalogs. Those books were also just… people telling stories. But along the way they taught the basics of rocketry, physics, living in space, the math of industrial production and ecological disaster, all made more vivid and memorable by the fictional humans they affected. I still have them.

Most of all I remember Sgt Kelly’s Math Final Exam: a big algebraic expression covering the entire wall, and equals sign, and a question mark. We got any number of chances to solve it. The first student to solve it correctly, showing their work, got a 100. The next got a 99, then 98, and so on.

Have I mentioned that he was a little bit of son of a bitch?

The answer, as I worked it out, was 3. That seemed too small, too precious, too obvious, for such a big honking bit of work. I ran through it again. Other students handed in their papers. Some were accepted, some sent back to their desks. I sweated. I checked a third time. Then I remembered something Sgt Kelly had said about trusting the math. Trusting the chess move. If it’s all correct, every step, you’ll know it. The feeling is unmistakable, even if it’s sometimes a mistake. Take the chance anyway.

I handed in my paper, and reflected on the effectiveness of stories.