Answers at the Back of the Book

By JIM NICHOLS

This anecdote may step on some toes, but I will blame it on my mother. When I was growing up, she and I had a running joke or discussion about the way she sometimes read a novel. Mom was a reader. I am not sure when this realization came to me because I suspect she did not want me to know this secret. Somehow, sometime, however, it came out that she read the end of the book before she read the first of the book. That is, after starting the book, she would skip to the last few pages; after that, she would return and read from the front to back.  I have realized since then that this is not unusual; maybe it even describes you.

At the time, I realized that this was one temptation in which I had no interest. One of my favorite reading activities was finally approaching the end of a book and finding the characters and events earlier in the book now connecting and what was mysterious or difficult to understand at one time now making perfect sense by the end. I might not have liked the ending, but now I could see the whole thrust of the book.

A more important insight that my young mind needed occurred in my junior year in high school. I can almost remember exactly where I was sitting in the Algebra II class, the first day of the new school year. As an aside, this was one of the more interesting teachers I have had. The number one athletic rival of our school was the Shawnee Mission East Lancers—the SMEL. On a game day, many of us students brought cans of aerosol air deodorant and, during the passing from one class to another, sprayed and filled the hallway with various odors. Our day’s motto was, “Eliminate the SMEL.”  It is what you do in high school, right? This algebra teacher apparently was quite allergic to this overwhelming mixture of odors, so she wore a face mask all that day. To our 16–17-year-old brains, this was quite strange.

The insight came that first day when she distributed the textbooks for the algebra year. As she put my copy on my desk, I opened it up and thumbed through it. I quickly closed it, however, when I realized that my book had the answers to the algebra problems in a section at the back. I had the teacher’s copy! I had the answers to all the problems in the book! It was a gold mine!

As I watched other students receive their copies of the book, however, I noted that theirs, too, had the problem answers in the back. In retrospect, of course, this is not an unexpected situation, but it was a true academic revelation to me. Apparently, my training had been that the goal of education was to get the correct answers. Now, since I was being given the answers, what was the point?

This trend continued in some other classes. My Latin class textbook had passages translated for me sequestered in the back. The chemistry book had equations balanced already. It became obvious to me that, perhaps, the goal was not necessarily to derive the correct answers, but to develop skill in solving the problems or translations in the first place. Having the answers or translation sometimes helped me see the patterns I needed to follow in order to work on an unfamiliar problem or phrase. The process was more important than the final answer.

This realization applies, of course, not just to educational challenges. Many of us deal with life (and our faith) as a series of problems that require us to solve with an acceptable answer at the end. Unfortunately, we have realized that many of the most vexing life problems do not yield themselves to clear answers. We have found that the ability to consider alternatives and consequences sets the stage for at least acceptable answers or decisions. More importantly, those of us trying to follow God have found that we live under His grace even when we make poor decisions and come to bad answers. I suspect God does, indeed, desire us to solve the problems accurately, but His love for us does not depend on consistently correct answers. He is more interested in process than results.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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