# The Answer | Black Sheep Fiction

### "I’m afraid I’ll end up like you—obsessed with making up nonsensical equations to justify an outcome I can’t prove."

*This column is usually reserved for Black Sheep Poetry, but today’s weekly reflection along the lonely road away from collective chaos comes from a short story. Standing tall in a culture pushing us to make our individuality second to the group doesn’t just require intellectual strength, but emotional fortitude.*

*Share your black sheep moments with us. Write a poem or short story and submit it to: submit@wetheblacksheep.com.*

### The Answer

“Quick, now’s my chance!” The teacher had just left to refill his mug with more burnt lounge coffee and as soon as the door clicked shut Francis spied his salvation—a red, 3-ring binder lying conspicuously on the teacher’s desk. It was the answer key. Francis hopped up and tip-toed toward the front of the class.

He arrived at the desk, glanced around nervously, and, after a moment’s hesitation, flipped open the heavy cover. His finger ran down the index page, searching by year, grade, and section. The finger stopped. *Advanced Algebra 4306, Wed. 9 AM - EXM_FINAL – pp.72-73.* “Bingo.” He frantically swiped the pages aside. “There’s no time to check everything,” he thought, “—I just need to get the last problem.” His eyes skipped across the page. “There it is.”

Francis instantly teleported back to his seat, radiant with new hope for his future. After all, the final problem on the exam was excruciating. It required multiple equations and incorporated everything the class had studied so far. Even worse, it was worth more than half credit—enough to flunk the entire exam. His despair evaporated. Now that he knew the solution he just had to show the steps on paper. Simple reverse engineering. He began to feel a warm equanimity verging on smugness as he watched some of his classmates scuttling toward the teacher’s desk to imitate his crime. Just one tiny thing annoyed him: Bobby.

A gawky kid with Walmart glasses occupied the desk to Francis’ left, oblivious to the scandal unfolding around him. He worked intently, eyes transfixed on a paper littered with smudged carbon and eraser debris. If the whole class got busted, only Bobby could deny any knowledge and it not be a lie. That needed to be rectified.

“Psst!”

As Bobby looked up a drop of sweat fell from his nose, leaving a tiny blot on the messy paper.

“Want to know the answer?” Francis asked, his smirk barely suppressed.

“No thanks. I’m almost finished.” He lowered his head again. Another droplet began accumulating in place of the previous one.

“Are you sure? Because I can tell you, you’re off by a mile. Not even close.”

“Well, I *am* having a lot of trouble with the third step. But I don’t want to know the final value.”

“I get it. You like to see the foreplay but not the money shot.” Francis took a pencil case out of his bag. “Here, I’ll cover the last part.”

Bobby wiped his nose on his sleeve and leaned over, squinting. His eyes scanned the page. “You got the order of operations wrong. …this value is incorrect. …and this one. And you should check the arithmetic here. Did you use your calculator for this part?” He leaned back.

“Ok smart ass,” Francis snorted. “What is your solution?”

#### “I couldn’t figure that part out,” Bobby confessed. “But I’ve worked through most of the equation correctly and I’m sure I’ll get at least partial credit.”

#### “You little hypocrite!” Francis jeered. “You don’t have the answer either and yet here you are criticizing my equation! Why should I listen to you? You don’t have any solutions of your own to offer!”

“That’s not true. See here? You made an arithmetic error. And here you made another one. I might not have all the answers, but I can tell you that those are mistakes and your equation is definitely wrong.”

“My equation isn’t wrong. I have the answer and you don’t. I looked in the answer key. It’s sitting right up there. All you have to do is walk up and look in it. Have you looked in the answer key yet?”

“No, I don’t intend to. I think it’s better to work through the math to see where it leads, without trying to force it to arrive at some preconceived outcome. Besides, how do you know the answer key is correct? It could have a publishing error. Or the teacher could have left a misleading answer up there to catch cheaters. So even if you happen to have the correct outcome, you don’t really know it. You didn’t do the work of thinking it through for yourself so you can’t be sure.”

Francis faked a yawn. “Your problem is that you don’t WANT to know the answer. Because if you had the answer I have, it would prove that your equation is full of errors. And then you’d have to rework everything! Your equation doesn’t lead to the answer I found in the answer key, so it can’t be right. If you fail the test because you refuse to look at the answer, it’s your own fault. The answer is sitting right up there. Just look in the answer key like everyone else.”

“No, I’m not going to. I’m afraid I’ll end up like you—obsessed with making up nonsensical equations to justify an outcome I can’t prove. Frankly, the mental corruption I see it visited upon you is terrifying. You are completely unfazed by any criticism. When I pointed out that 6 times 6 does not equal 35, you didn’t even blink.”

“Oh yeah, well how about your equation? All the other kids in the class just finished peeking in the answer key and they are now persuaded of the true answer. The effect it had upon them is miraculous, really. No one is looking at your lame equation and suddenly becoming inspired to copy your answer. You don’t even HAVE an answer.”

“Yes, they all think they know WHAT the answer is, but none of them agree on HOW to justify that answer. All their solutions are different and they are all chock-full of basic errors. And now they are forming factions and bickering.” Bobby ducked to avoid an eraser thrown from somewhere in the fifth row. “See? The left side of the classroom is insisting that the true answer can only be found if you divide by zero, and now they are becoming violent with the right side. This is all very troubling!”

“Their equations and behavior might not be flawless, but that’s not what counts. All that counts is that they are pursuing the right answer. The fact they can have zero understanding of math or decent human behavior and still get The Answer right is a GOOD thing. It means you can have it too. But decide quickly. The teacher will return soon. And if you don’t have The Answer then, you’ll be stuck forever.”

#### “This is your whole problem. You think you know the answer. You’re sure of it. And you will justify anything to support that one answer. This is why nothing fazes you. I haven’t yet found the limit of how far you will go to deny the reality right before your eyes. This obsession has destroyed your ability to think.”

Francis rolled his eyes. “Ultimately it comes down to this. Something is not true because of your equation or my equation. The Answer can be revealed to you, but you have to seek it. If you are too proud and insist on proving it through your own calculations, you will never find The Answer. You have to be humble enough to WANT The Answer and to look for it. If you don’t find it, it’s a you-problem—not a problem with The Answer. If you refuse to walk up to the desk and look, it’s not The Answer Key’s fault. But the desire to know if you are wrong must first be there. You have the choice.”

Bobby scanned the classroom, disconcerted. Rival demagogues, their desks upended to form makeshift pulpits, loudly orated on opposite sides of the room. A third luminary had managed to unlatch the window. Insisting his calculations proved gravity to be nullified, he stood upon the sill and attempted to persuade onlookers to join him in soaring blissfully to another world. A brawl spilled out into the hallway, and in the commotion the original answer key had vanished. Differing transcriptions of dubious authenticity circulated, fueling contention among those who had never seen the original. The *Negative B Squared* sect incontrovertibly authenticated their version by curing a girl’s asthma. In an equally compelling testament to the veracity of their transcript, the *Y Over 3 Cubed* denomination pulled coins from the ears of astonished devotees (though their leader had been expelled for sexual impropriety a moment earlier). Congregants shoved aside their desks and danced jubilantly, holding aloft a small pit viper retrieved from the biology lab in the next room. Others wept, shaved their heads, and attempted to ensure a passing grade by abstaining from blinking or going to the bathroom. Coffers heaped with wads of cash made the rounds. Left-handed students were cautious to pass the dish with the right hand, as their existence had been declared a danger to the entire class—a rare consensus among the factions. In the back corner, a lone heretic encircled by outraged zealots was gradually being pelted to death with erasers.

Bobby straightened himself and exhaled slowly. “The desire to know if I am wrong is precisely why I’m not going to look in the answer key. Good luck.” He returned to his work, ignoring the violent clamoring around him.

Great story! It reveals some of the internal conflicts that we all have faced at one time or another.

Another thought provoking article, with themes of integrity and the pursuit of true understanding versus the allure of easy solutions. Francis represents the temptation to take shortcuts and the ensuing moral corruption, while Bobby embodies the principled, albeit more challenging, path of genuine effort and critical thinking. This narrative underscores the value of earning knowledge through diligence rather than succumbing to the deceptive ease of cheating, and it critiques the chaos that ensues when superficial correctness is prioritized over thoughtful accuracy.

Unfortunately sounds too familiar with people in my own life. But I still can’t say I don’t understand the temptation.