Short Story Sunday

So, what’s the Constant?

Constant: Continually or Absolutely Occurring.

Robin Schrank, the eccentric chemistry teacher every person should ask for.  Robin was notorious for staying late with students, having an endless supply of mountain dew, and using a beaker and hotplate to make spaghetti.  His infectious personality made chemistry desirable and his love for teaching was inspirational.

I’ve always been a big fan of anything that was science related because I excelled with chemicals and experiments. On the flip side I was terrible at math, I hoped that one day it would click for me but it never did. I can actually remember the moment when I shunned math away for good. Age 12 I had a tutor come over, my grades were getting better, my Math was improving. One day a friend came over to tell me that tutors were stupid, it was at that moment that I took his meaningless side and banished my tutor, while seemingly banishing my knowledge.

You could imagine my disappointment when I was told that Math is as much a part of Science as Science is Science.  For years I managed to get by in the Math world while somehow excelling in Science. I could never figure out why my knee jerk reaction was to shun Math but eventually I chalked it up to not actually being able to see the outcome. Without having something physical I didn’t necessarily believe it existed. Science was different, Science was experiments, and Science was explosions, a periodic table, potions, and smoke. The appeal for scientific experiments was too much to let go.

Some time after attending his class I ran into Robin Schrank, we were both sitting down to eat at a sandwich restaurant. I noticed him and introduced myself again just in case he forgot my name or face, of course he said he didn’t.

“Mr. Schrank, how are you?”

“Josh, call me Robin.”

Robin reminded me that it’s the institution and the kids who prefer to call their professors “Mr.” “Ms.” Or “Mrs.” In Robin’s world we should all go by first names unless specifically asked otherwise, he felt it caused too much of a divide. Robin was eating “The Club” I stuck with my “Traditional Turkey” I asked if he’d like to talk - we sat down to eat together.

We discussed students and teaching, life and decisions. I told him I planned to make a move west. I didn’t get into moving specifics, just the idea that I wanted to travel and experience something new. He went on to tell me about his days of moving around but ultimately he made his way back home. He started a family in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin carried the atmosphere that was most like his personality. I admired Robin’s view, he was right.

What I didn’t tell Robin is that I didn’t like this atmosphere, it worked for some but not me. I needed to make a move from this area that I felt was torturing me. I was caught in slow movement and it felt as though I was continuously doing the same thing. I touched on a few subjects but didn’t want to get into a therapy session with him.  I mentioned I wanted to travel but I should have elaborated and told him I wanted a new life. I could have told him I had plans to drastically change my surroundings and never looks back, but I felt my tone would have been almost smug, possibly insulting.

Our sandwiches were finished and our conversation was great. The feeling that you get when a conversation must end was approaching. We’ve been sitting here for an hour talking about life and it was at that moment I opened the can of worms, not intentionally but for conversation sake.

“You know, I had always thought something was very strange. I have always loved Science but I can’t really stand Math, is that typical?”

“Two not like something, of course that’s typical.”

“No, but I mean they are both so connected that I’d think I enjoy them both. Also, I’m not very good at Math. I just feel like I should know how to do both very well. ”

“What is that you don’t like about Math?”

This was such a basic question but difficult for me to answer. I had to face the facts of why I didn’t like this subject:

“I guess to be honest I don’t like it because I don’t fully understand it, I’m not good at it. I’m so uncertain about what I’m doing.”


Another basic question, again I’m having difficulty answering.

“Because I don’t know if my answers are correct.”

“But you like Science?”

“Love it. Yes.”


“I guess… I guess it’s because I can see the outcome. It’s tangible. I like knowing that if I’m doing something I will see if I’m correct.”

“Josh, you get that much more in Math than you do in Science. There are so many constants and variables with both. But if you know what you’re doing you can always see if you’re correct when dealing with Math. You can blow something up in Science, sure it may look cool but it may not be right.”

Out of that statement one thing hit me – Constants and Variables.

“Wait a second, lets be specific about what a constant is.”

“A constant? Constants are used in conversions they are the unchangeable.”

“Well what if the variable changes?”

“Then that’s the variable.”

Something hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t believe that anything is constant. I told Robin I didn’t think this was possible. How can anything be constant when so much is changing?

“Robin, I don’t think constants are possible, I think everything is always changing., maybe this is why I don’t like Math!”

“So you’re saying there are no certainties?”

What a question.

“Yes, there are no certainties, so there’s no constants.”

“Josh let me give you an example. The acceleration of gravity is a constant, do you not believe this is a certainty?”

“If something happened to our sun or the moon our gravity would be affected. If there were a black hole at the core of the earth our gravity would diminish. The black hole is a little drastic but something could happen.”

Robin stared at me and laughed. It was a playful laugh, after a moment it took it as him saying: You have much to learn.

I knew how I sounded, I was being combative, and I was objecting common rules that have been along much longer than me. However, I still felt justified in saying this, I feel accurate. I think Robin understood or maybe he was annoyed but he controlled this conversation. He left we with a parting thought:

“I can tell you this Josh. People who tend to accelerate at Mathematics tend to be better problem solvers. In school they don’t explain the importance of this. Math is about coming to an answer by knowing equations, or sometimes finding the equation when you already know the answer. If you can strengthen your problem solving skills with Math, you will strengthen how you observe situations and how you handle them down the road.”

Mr. Schrank is schooling me, I feel ignorant.

“There may not be any constants and if that’s the case then we have another variable. The question I pose to you Josh, if you are saying there are no certainties (constants) then is that your certainty?”

I was wondering if someone from the table next to us was listening. I was just dropped a word of wisdom that I may not fully comprehend. Robin was truly much wiser than I am, he’s at ease with himself, and I’m not.  I stood up, shook Robin’s hand and thanked him. I was left with more questions and I wished we could talk forever, but I knew he had to get going. Part of me had to digest everything said, and the other part wanted to dismiss it. I’m now thinking that maybe there are constants.

I sat for a moment longer wondering if I lacked problem solving and if I can solve this problem. I did come to a solid conclusion: I realize that what I’m doing is a Science experiment. I formed my belief that life is an experiment in many cases. Those who get to attain what they desire – happiness, money, fame, lust, family – whatever it may be have attained their proper equation.

Things suddenly changed for me, I constantly have thoughts of change, I never implement the unpredictable. I sat and thought that everything going on around me are variables, and I’m the constant…except I’m unpredictable so I’m the variable.