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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Evil

Values that matter.

January 19, 2017

There is a function in Math called “the greatest integer function,” which finds the greatest integer that is less than or equal to a given number. The greatest integer less than or equal to 1 is 1, the greatest integer less than or equal to 1.1 is 1, and so on, up to a limit of 2, where the process begins again, but now with a value of two for the function. If one were to graph this function, it would look a lot like a set of stairs, which is why it is sometimes called a “step” function. I found myself thinking of this recently when I learned of the death of William Peter Blatty, who is best known as the author of the book, later turned into a movie, “The Exorcist.”

It was impossible to spend time at Georgetown in the years I was there without being aware of the movie “The Exorcist.” Written by Blatty, he joins President Clinton in the collection of our more famous alumni, and was set in the same buildings and streets that we traversed in the course of our studies. As you may know, the story involves a girl who has an unusual illness. As one professor once pointed out, Blatty spends the first half of the book treating the illness as one that is either physical or psychological. Only at the midpoint of the book does he bring up the possibility that the child is possessed by a devil. And that is when things get interesting.

A priest is brought in to deal with what is starting to look like a demonic possession. After struggles that I am sure caused many a nightmare, and one scene that led to the serving of pea soup in the cafeteria often being referred to by students as “the Exorcist special,” it was clear that in this case, evil was going to win. The final scene has the priest being thrown down a set of stairs, which is why I was reminded of the step function from Math when I read of Blatty’s death. It is possible that those stairs are still there, a very steep set of stairs hugging an old townhouse. Nearly everyone referred to them as “the Exorcist steps.”

The interesting thing about the Exorcist steps is that they served several practical uses, not all intended. Aside from providing entrance to the building they served, the crew team trained for meets by running up and down them, surely a better work-out than could be found in the gym. However, the “use” that stuck in my mind for many years was the fact that, in those days of the early 1980s, when growth in many cities was making affordable housing unavailable to many citizens, it was common for entire families to huddle in the limited shelter the adjacent town home afforded anyone sleeping on those steps. I look back to those days, when my biggest concern in life was my next exam, and cringe when I remember that I often walked by people who had set themselves up as “living” on those stairs. I have to believe that, no matter what evil was portrayed in the movie “The Exorcist,” it is outdone by the fact that we, as a society, could not find a better way to help our citizens who could not afford decent housing in the richest country in the world.

This past weekend, as we celebrated the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., I was reminded of one of his quotes. “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” As I remember times I passed by homeless people on the streets of Washington, running quickly to build my resume in pursuit of my future, I realize that I am partially to blame for those families who found their only shelter on a set of stairs forever remembered as being associated with “evil.” Today, I struggle to help my daughter become socially conscious of such things. How do you, my readers, teach such values to your children?

Wishing the new administration the best of luck as they are inaugurated today. May we all thrive under your incoming leadership.



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