Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Road to Perdition

Mr. Thompson teaches social studies, and, perhaps as a result, is relentlessly curious. For example, twice a year, after parent teacher conferences, he wondered why he had to fill out a form stating how many parents he saw. He usually guessed, and figured he saw maybe 24 parents. He'd write that down, figure it was a good night's work, and forget about it for six months.

One winter night, Mr. Thompson decided to see what would happen if he doubled his estimate. He wrote 49 on the form, handed it in, and nothing happened. So the following fall he decided to up the ante. After all, they probably took his form, copied it to another form, and then sent it to the central board, which added it to yet another form that no one would ever look at. So, Mr. Thompson claimed to have seen 75 parents that night. Nothing. So that winter it went up to 102.

A school aide was in charge of copying the numbers. She marveled at how many parents Mr. Thompson could see in just a few hours. How much time could he have spent with 149 parents? He really couldn't have spent much more than a minute with them, and the next semester, when he saw 198 parents, she couldn't figure out how he even got them in and out of the room.

Mr. Thompson wondered whether anyone would say anything when he claimed to have seen 249 parents. He briefly considered a somewhat more realistic 24.9, but decided that he'd started down this road, and that 249 was indeed the next step. So he submitted it, and nothing happened.

The next parent-teacher night, Mr. Thompson took a deep breath, and wrote 305 on the form. He was beginning to think they simply took him at his word. But that Monday, the assistant principal's secretary, who frightened virtually every teacher who crossed her path, stormed into his classroom. This was a momentous occasion, as no one had ever known her to come out from behind her desk.

"Mr. Thompson,"she trumpeted, "Are you really claiming to have seen 305 parents last night?"

"Oh," said Mr. Thompson, "I must have made a mistake."

He erased the zero and made it 35. Thus ended one of the great social experiments of our time.
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