November 14, 2008

Best in show

“Do your best,” they told me, day after day, year after year, both people who loved me and people who hardly knew me.

“Do your best,” they told me, day after day, year after year, both people who loved me and people who hardly knew me—my mother’s colleague, perhaps, or my father’s old friend. To me, these people meant nothing—more an inconvenience than anything else. I didn’t know them, didn’t care to, and was completely unaffected by the outcomes of their lives. And yet they all smiled upon me in the same hopeful way, always gave me the same hopeful spiel: “Do your best, son. Work your hardest, champ. You can be whatever you want to be.” Everyone, it seemed, was invested in my future. So I did them proud. I did my best.

And now, here I stand.

Surveying my surroundings, I admit the advice was not altogether worthless; I’m a student at the University of Chicago, and when I tell people, they say, “Wow! That’s very impressive!”

“I know,” I say back as pretentiously as I can, because it’s incredibly gratifying for the both of us—me, for obvious reasons; them, because they were the ones to impart the nugget of advice in the first place—the one that made all the difference.

“So why stop now?” I think, “Why stop doing the best I can now that I’ve arrived at a juncture that actually matters?” I carry this with me as I begin my first quarter.

I’m feeling bloodthirsty, ready for action. I’ll do my best work if it kills me. I devour the readings, eat the papers for breakfast—then take a sharp blow to the jaw from a surprise problem set.

Though some may mockingly refer to my calculus alternative as “fun with shapes,” it’s clear to me from the very beginning that there is no fun to be had here, and definitely no shapes. I’m asked why a ∙ 0 = 0, and suddenly “because it does” is no longer a satisfactory answer. It’s a knee to the gut, and it knocks me off my feet. I try to regain my composure and keep doing the best work I can, but when it comes to number theory, I have no “best.” No point of reference, no intuition—like Whitney Houston, I have nothing.

A week later, while nursing my injuries, I look over a manuscript of bright blue pen scribbles, which was at one point my homework. I thought this review would help me, and now I deeply regret it, wishing I could look away but remaining transfixed by the slew of strange notes and symbols my tutor has written in the margins. It’s maddening. It seems as though he’s trying to tell me something. If only I understood!

And in all honesty, it’s embarrassing. Even by a well qualified tutor, who is himself doing his very best to make sure I understand the material, I can’t be helped in the least. Rather, I keep finding myself not having any clue where to start, and so the concept of doing my “best work” goes right out the window; if I write anything down, it’ll be total BS, a cheap ploy for partial credit. And the guilt is sometimes so profound that I can’t help but confess my sins and just admit the truth upfront. “I know that answer was crap,” I write, “but I don’t know what else to do. Sorry.”

And, surprisingly, that feels good—much more so than pretending. In fact, something about it feels right.

Before I know it, my homework is looking better than ever. My proofs are no longer trailing off into nothingness, but ending decisively, when I tell them to: “First, assume that x is a member of Z and has a multiplicative inverse…. Then walk away and never look back.” All the pitfalls are avoided: “Since it’s probably implausible to assume that 2 belongs to S, I’m instead going to ask you to ‘pretend’ that it does. And look, it works! It must be true!” And no problems, no matter the difficulty, are ever left blank: “I don’t know how to do this. Take it up with my tutor.”

At last, my homework is something I can be proud of.

I, of course, don’t expect to receive credit for such obnoxiousness, nor do I expect good grades on such assignments. But I do it because I can’t stand the thought of my hard-working tutor, whom I like very much, looking at so many blank answers and assuming that I’m not trying everything that occurs to me. The fact is that I am but have nothing to show for it. So, because I can no longer do my best, I do what I do best. I write, hoping that if nothing else, he smirks as he scribbles that zero beside my quip.

It’s the best I can do, and that’s all that really matters.

Luke Dumas is a first-year in the College.