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“A Good Problem to Have” by B. J. Novak

Quick Pick Banner with cover of BJ Novak's One More Thing

by Tony Blanco, STEM Read intern

This is the second post of a two-part series on incorporating B. J. Novak’s work into your STEAM classroom

We’ve all had that teacher who says things they shouldn’t in class. You know, the one who suffered the occasional Freudian slip during Shakespeare discussions. While we don’t want to be that teacher, it sure can be funny when somebody else is. In “A Good Problem to Have,” a short story by author/actor B. J. Novak from his collection One More Thing, the “old man” character is that teacher, only he isn’t the teacher. He’s the writer of the most famous math problem in the world, and he’s burst into a fourth-grade classroom hoping to stop anyone from using it without his consent or compensation.  

Novak playfully brings to life an origin story about the famous word problem that starts, “A man leaves Chicago at twelve p.m. on a train heading for Cleveland at sixty miles per hour. Another man leaves Cleveland at one p.m. . . ..”  You know the rest. But if you don’t, skim through the nearest math textbook, or just Google it. In this short story, students and teacher help the elderly math author look on the bright side of things. Although he is upset over earning a measly $35 and zero credit for his textbook contribution, he can find satisfaction in knowing that his problem has helped improve young minds.  

This story can be used as a fun introduction to word problems, or as a way of STEMing up the English classroom with some math. English students who are interested in writing can see the creative process and romantic inspiration behind a math problem about trains.  

I like this story because it combines the storytelling aspect of English with the problem-solving aspect of math. It shows readers that math can be fun and even, gulp, romantic, if we use our imaginations.