“It is allowed on all hands that there is no known connection between the sensible quantities and the secret powers; and consequently, that the mind is not led to form a conclusion concerning their constant and regular conjunction, by anything which it knows of their nature.” — David Hume (1737)

Arnold Simmons lived in a group home in Cumming, GA. He lived on disability. Unfortunately, he did not even control that. Because he was “mentally ill,” the management of the group home controlled it. They made sure he had food and shelter, and of course plenty of meds, but nothing else. He was required to go to Maddox Center every day to do all kinds of pointless activities, such as sitting in groups talking about his feelings and cleaning the kitchen after lunch. Arnold tried not to participate in these activities, preferring to play video games in the computer room.

He also liked to use the Internet. He would always try to beat Forsyth County Mental Health’s censorship software so he could look at porn. He could usually do this. If he only had some money in the bank, he would have longed to watch live webcam girls. But for now, and most likely for the rest of his days, he would have to be content with masturbating to porn videos. After he got off, he would also check out some political stuff, and he also liked to watch math videos from the Khan Academy.

Arnold had no job and would not be allowed to get one. It was determined that he did not “take responsibility” in the group home, so going to work outside of it was out. They told him, “If you can’t take responsibility in here, how can you do it anywhere else?” Arnold had nothing but contempt for the responsibilities the harpies who lorded over him imposed on him, but to be fair, they had a point. Arnold was fired from a job at a local McDonald’s a few years ago for absenteeism. He did not have a license or a car, so he had to ride a bike. He just didn’t have the motivation to bicycle so long for a part-time job that paid so poorly.

Arnold did poorly on all of his subjects in school. By some standardized tests, he seemed to have some ability, but his grades proved otherwise. His favorite subject, however, was math. He performed just as poorly on that subject as he did any other, but he was still capable of getting the answers correct. He got poor grades as a result of his failure to “show his work.” He still liked the subject, though, and since he had nothing better to do now, he decided he would learn it.

Arnold had a typical millennial childhood, but without Internet access. His mother was just too worried about what he might see online, and of course—like all others of his cohort—he was watched all of the time IRL as well. When he asked his parents why he wasn’t even allowed Internet access like the other kids, he was given the same answer as always: he wasn’t responsible enough. Arnold was eccentric: every eccentricity he displayed brought another visit to the head shrinkers by his worried mother. Every time he got defiant brought another trip to the hospital. That was his life.

Being an adult was even worse. He flunked out of a community college where he intended to study business. He tried to become an apprentice to a small engine repairman, but he was merely told to clean by his master until one day the master decided he was no longer needed because business became too slow to afford an assistant. Much to the chagrin of his mother, he would often sneak off and get online anywhere he could, just like when he was a teenager.

His parents eventually had him put in a group home because they just had enough of him. They had a successful daughter studying at Emory University Medical School they had to support; his sister wanted to become a doctor so she could help people like him. He was no longer their responsibility; he was a ward of the state. In practice, this meant the harpies who managed the group home wielded power over him that was absolute, yet like his mother before them, they still complained all the time about his unwillingness to comply, and most especially his attitude towards the situation. They always phrased this as failure to “take responsibility” on his part. Houseparents they were called, and they were made of the same feces as his real parents.

And so his days went.

When Arnold was 26, the group home hired a new houseparent. He was a shoo-in for the job, despite having zero qualifications in the mental health field. “Sergeant Jackson” was a black man whose leg was injured by an IED in Iraq, or so he told everybody. (There were discrepancies between the time he said he was injured and the zenith of the action in Iraq, so his stories seemed questionable.) Between the color of his skin and his status as a disabled veteran, he could get any government job he pleased. The job as a houseparent seemed both easy and natural for him. Unlike the army, he really had to exert no effort, but like the army, he could still bark orders at subordinates like Arnold. It was an easy job where he could get paid in addition to his government check and still have plenty of money and time off for booze and whores. Life was lousy, but a bit more exciting.

“Get this crap up!” Jackson yelled. “And go get your medication.”

“Fuck you, asshole!” Arnold yelled back as he complied slowly but surely with Jackson’s request.

“When I was in the army, I put my foot so far up the asses of maggots with not half the backtalk of you that they would be on their way to the moon. Those who stay alert stay alive!”

“Fuck off, you piece of shit.” Arnold yelled back. “This ain’t the army and there is no enemy. There is no nothing. Nothing matters here. We get up. Stuff our faces with food and medication. Shuffle around from here to Maddox Center and repeat the process until we die. So just shut the fuck up. I know the drill.”

Jackson raised his fist as if to hit Arnold.

“Hit me, asshole,” Arnold said. “They’ll fire you the next day!”

“The van is coming, so move!” Jackson replied.

Arnold eventually got up, got in line for his medication, swallowed it, and moved into the van for yet another day at the center. Most days were like this. On weekends, Jackson took the group home out to eat. Arnold was usually barred from this due to being punished for insubordination or other infractions. He didn’t care. He preferred to stay at home if there were no people around. He liked peace and quiet.

And so his days went.

As much as he hated Jackson, at least Jackson was a change from the maudlin, sentimental harpies who were hitherto his stewards. At least Jackson was a man who yelled at him, making him fun to hate, unlike the twits with psychology degrees who controlled him with metaphorical velvet gloves. He rarely cursed the women out; it was as though he would be the bully if he did that. Jackson he could yell and swear at all day long and still feel like the righteously aggrieved rebel.

Since he had no computer at home, Arnold would sometimes check books out of the library across the street from his apartment complex to read. Since he was studying proofs by induction at the center, he was reading Polya’s How to Prove It. Jackson came to his room while he was perusing this text and asked him if he wanted to come downstairs and watch a movie with the rest of them.

“No thanks, I’m reading now.” Arnold said.

“What are you reading?” Jackson replied.

“This.” Arnold pointed to the book.

“Hmmm,” Jackson said.

“Is that against any of your fuckin’ rules?” Arnold replied.

“No,” Jackson said.

“Then why don’t you piss off,” Arnold replied

“Sure,” Jackson said. “It’s just that I can’t understand that stuff. Can you?”

“Yep,” Arnold replied and Jackson walked away.

This was a half-truth. In fact, it had just dawned on him. Arnold now realized why he had to show his work. His teachers probably did not understand why any more than he did when he was in school, but now he did. You need to prove things in mathematics. You can’t just get answers. Of course, no connection to the idea of proof as mathematicians since Euclid described it had ever been taught in school, but that was the substratum of meaning that lie in the injunction to “show your work.” Arnold laughed as he thought about this.


For all installments of “Show Your Work,”click here.