Monday, October 4, 2010

The Unanswerable Question

Mr. Charles Wilkes saw himself as one of the few remaining ‘true believers’. He didn’t teach because of the pay which was considerably better than many other professions. Or because he loved kids far more than adults who he saw as lacking the nympholepsy for life that children naturally possessed and which kept them in state of unending curiosity. Or because of the summers off which allowed him to continue working on his unpublishable novel while sleeping late and catching the occasional thunderstorm on the beach.

No, he taught because he genuinely believed in teaching the next generation, in the ability of inheritors to make a change with what is passed down. He taught because he honestly loved it. And it was this, he thought, that made him a good teacher. It wasn't because he was “cool” and let the kids call him Charlie. It wasn’t because he rewarded good grades with baking parties or class trips that were purely for fun. It wasn’t even because of his bonus questions.

He had devised the bonus question system years ago as a way to allow children to naturally let off the steam they needed to let off at the end of a test. After handing out the exam and allowing the allotted amount of time for the students to enter their answers he would collect them back, hand out a few blank pieces of paper to each child, and then raise the projector screen to show the hidden question on the board.

His questions weren’t brilliant, he was the first to admit. But they allowed for a great deal of imagination and creativity which he desired above all other qualities. Especially because you didn’t win by getting the question right, you won by coming up with the most creative answer you could devise in five minutes.

The student who answered “A little boy and a stuffed tiger” to the question “Who are Calvin & Hobbes?” scored no points. A student who answered “Two famous philosophers” also scored no points. No, the entry that won was the little boy who answered “Calvin was a famous jet fighter pilot who single-handedly turned the tide of the Great Indo-China war of 1741 simply because he loved the crumb cakes of a famous baker named Hobbes and didn’t want his bakery to be destroyed in the war. Oh, he really liked his black and white cookies, too.” That little boy was Alexander.

Alexander won far more often than any other student in the class simply because his answers were so intricately woven in such a short period of time and never took the obvious into consideration. He won for drawing a complex diagram in answer to the question “What would chairs look like if our knees were on the back of our legs?” He won for writing a recipe with several difficult steps in answer to the question “How do you make a flying melon?” And he won for creating a series of dance steps in answer to the question “What is an elastic conversion?”

Partially because Alexander won so often, and partially because he was a good student the bonus test points originally offered as reward became boring and Alexander asked from something different. After a brief discussion, the class concluded that in reward for answering the question the winning student should be able to ask the teacher a question in return.

In the beginning, Charlie got some boring questions like “How do you skin a cat?” and “What is the air-speed velocity of unladen swallow traveling through the forest at noon?” which didn’t require too much thought and ended up with answers that seemed to rival Alexander’s, at least to Charlie.

But one particular afternoon, after learning that he was once again the winner of the bonus question, Alexander got a very serious, very concerned look on his face. His brow furrowed, his lip tucked firmly between his teeth and his thumbs furiously circled each other as Alexander looked down at his desk and sat in silence. Charlie was enticed by this, expecting that the boy was coming up with a masterful conundrum for him to solve. After what seemed like far longer than his fellow students could possibly bear Alexander nodded his head and looked up to his teacher with a determined expression.

“Ok, Charlie. I have a real question. One that I haven’t been able to get a straight answer from out of anyone.”

At this Charlie’s heartbeat jumped and he tried to brace himself for what seemed like it would be something completely inappropriate for a class of 8th graders.

“Why,” Alexander continued, “do we die?”

The class turned in anticipation to look at the silent teacher in front of the room. Charlie considered the young boy standing at his desk. He knew the look in his eyes as it was one he’d had himself many times. When you look to an adult you respect and hope that they will be honest and tell you the truth that you need to hear. When you wait for a piece of invaluable information to be dispensed.

Unfortunately for Charlie, he didn’t know a deserving answer. He could refer him to a science lesson about how the cells of the human body break down over time or point him in the direction of a philosophical discussion or tell him to ask his parents what their religion teaches them or cite some old country expressions his grandmother used to tell him which always seemed profound. But none of those would have given him the answer he was seeking. So, he told him the only answer that would treat the question with the respect it deserved.

“I don’t know,” he said.