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By the Numbers

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A young girl learns the fate of people like her who have no scientific or mathematical aptitude.

Find the slope of the line y=1/2x+1

The familiar panic lodged in Allison’s gut as she tapped the answer on the screen. That one was easy, but Allison knew what was coming. Her math psychologist had taught her to think positively, but why bother? All the tutoring and positive thinking in the world couldn’t make her something she wasn’t.

Two six-sided dice are rolled. What’s the probability that the first die comes up 2 and the second comes up 5?

What was the probability she’d pass this time? Her brother did it on the first try. Thanks to a lucky roll of the genetic dice, Josh inherited their father’s math gene; once he got his robotics degree, there’d be a good job waiting for him. What would be waiting for her?

I can do this. I can DO this. She struggled for air. Relax. Breathe. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. Through the mouth. Whoosh. Four-seven-eight, four-seven-eight. Too many numbers.

Prove that from a point A outside a circle it is possible to draw exactly two tangents to the circle and …

Now comes the real math, she thought, as anxiety pinwheeled in her chest. This was her third and final attempt to pass the test.


“Don’t panic,” her mother told her the night before the exam. “Positive thinking—that’s the key. It worked for me when I took … ”

“The SATs, Mom? We both know that’s ancient history.” Ancient History. One of the many subjects that had disappeared since The Policy was instituted, and they started shutting down the liberal arts programs.

Function f is such that f(-x)=f(x) and differentiable …

Her heart pounded. Four-seven-eight. Whoosh. Time to start guessing. Josh wouldn’t have to guess. It’s not fair. “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t pass,” her mother said, but they both knew what was at stake. “Yes it is. Who’s going to want me, if I don’t pass?” Allison’s mother put her arms around her daughter and whispered, “I’m sure someone will.”

If F(x) is an antiderivative of f(x), then …

The writing was on the wall—literally. The exam room was plastered with the same slogans and statistics she’d been fed since grade school. “STEM grads get jobs.” “Do something good for your country: Study Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math.” “Nerds, your the wave of the future.” Did anyone even notice the bad grammar? Or care?

When Allison was a sophomore in high school, two of her stories had been published in national literary journals. The guidance counselor told her she had a gift and urged her to apply to all the writing programs in the country, which she did, since there were so few of them left.

By the time the rejections arrived (Though your work is impressive … so few spaces available … only the truly exceptional … wish you luck elsewhere … ), Congress had voted to stop subsidizing non-STEM education. “Those people are a drain on the economy,” said the Speaker of the House. “We need to stop flushing money down the toilet and give it to

the best and the brightest—the ones who will make our country great again.” The following year, Congress voted The Policy into law.

What would she do with her life? Wait tables? Babysit old people? The words on the screen blurred, and she swiped away tears with the back of her hand. She reread the question and guessed the answer, not even bothering with the calculator. What was the point?

A mechanical voice announced “Time,” and the screens went dark. Allison put her head down on the desk and listened as the others filed out.

“Not as bad as I thought.”

“Much easier the second time.”

“What was the answer to … ”

The upbeat voices faded, and then she was alone with the computers and slogans—alone with her four-seven-eight breathing—whooshing noisily as if each breath were her last.


Most of the chairs in the waiting room were filled with grim-faced young people like Allison accompanied by their grim- faced parents. No one spoke, read magazines or tapped away at their phones. The silence was broken only when the receptionist called a name.

When it was Allison’s turn, her mother embraced her. “You can still have a good life,” she said, tears streaking her cheeks.

“No I can’t. Not now. Not ever.”

She was crying when the nurse led her into the pre-op area and handed her a gown. “Opens in front, dear.”

All that work, thought Allison, clutching the gown white knuckled. Perfect grades except for math, and they treat me like I’m mentally … defective.

“No.” Allison threw the gown back at the nurse. “You can’t do this to me.”

She ran toward the door, but the nurse grabbed her shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Her voice was gentle, but her grip firm. “I don’t like it either, but you know The Policy.”

“It’s not fair.”

“I know, I know,” said the nurse soothingly as she helped Allison into her gown.

The smell of disinfectant and latex assailed her as she lay on the gurney and thought about the wonderful life her brother would enjoy. A good job. A family. If the Policy had been in place when Mom was my age, I’d never have been born.

The doctor had a kind face. Was this what he had in mind when he went to med school—sterilizing healthy young people who had the misfortune to be born with talents that were now obsolete?

Allison thought she’d cried out all her anger and frustration, and there was nothing left except an icy patina of resignation. But when the doctor inserted the needle and told her to count backward from a hundred, a tear trickled down her cheek, and the corners of her mouth turned up in what might have been a smile.

Finally, a math problem I can handle. She closed her eyes. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven …

Published in Wordhaus, where it won the 2016 1st prize in science fiction. Republished in Doubleback Review in 2023.

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