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Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us) (2000)
Brian Hamill
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for children.

This episode of Disney's Saturday Morning cartoon "Recess" is clearly a parody of the film "Good Will Hunting". I hope this doesn't lower anyone's opinion of me...but I personally liked it better than the film! Viewed in terms of what it says about mathematics and the people who do it, I found this version of the story truer to my own feelings about mathematics. (Plus, I am impressed with the nerve of the creators to include a sentence about integrals as the limit of Riemann sums on a Saturday morning cartoon!)

The show opens with "free study" time in the third grade class of our regular characters. Most students are reading comic books or quietly meditating. But, the class nerd, Gretchen Grundler, is furiously working on a problem. At the teacher's suggestion, she puts it on the board so that she and Gretchen's classmates can help. However, when they see the integral she is trying to evaluate (she describes it as starting off as a simple quadratic, but having a non-Euclidean twist) they realize they have no chance of helping.

As you might guess if you've seen Good Will Hunting, they return later to find the solution to the problem on the board. To find out who the "genius" is who was able to solve the problem, they put an even harder problem on the board.

(quoted from Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us))

T.J.: "To catch a math mouse, you need a big piece of math cheese."

The problem appears to be something from vector calculus. Again, it is no surprise to those who've seen the film that the mathematician turns out to be Hank, the janitor.

All of the kids are surprised that an elementary school janitor can do math, but when they press him he says simply: "I just like math is all!" (Gretchen is especially impressed that he could solve this second problem, which she calls "The Generalized Fermat-Wiles equation.") Gretchen and Hank form "the Mathletic Club" where the conversations are like:

(quoted from Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us))

Gretchen: "So, you're saying the formula for A is based on the definition of area in terms of a Riemann integral i.e. a limit of Riemann sums."

Hank: "AND, the formula for C uses the definition of arclength given a continuously differentiable curve."

The other kids are not interested in the math. ("No, I can't take another minute of the cold, unyielding world of numbers.") But, they understand her interest in it and leave her with Hank to discuss "abstract fractals".

Sometimes, Hank's job gets in the way of their fun. For example, Hank finds Gretchen in the lunch room and excitedly says "You'll never believe the fingerpaint spill I just cleaned up. It looked just like a Mandelbrot pattern!" But, a first grader stands up on the other side of the lunchroom shouting "I ate 10 puddings, I'm the pudding king, I ate 10 puddings...I'm going to be sick!". He runs out of the lunchroom and almost immediately Hank's beeper sounds. ("Could have predicted that one" he says.)

The kids decide that Hank should get a better job, so they post his computations on the internet. The next day in the yard, Hank is approached by Professor Rubinstein (looks like Einstein) who offers him a job in the math department at "the university". "Think of it as play, and your biggest toy will be our supercomputer!"

Then, a camoflage painted machine burrows up from under the school playground and a general approaches Hank. "Your country needs you," he says. "And if you think cracking codes and blowing things up is cool, you've got a future in this man's army!"

Next, NASA guys appear in a floating bubble asking for his help in making intergalactic transportation "a reality for the whole family."

The kids offer their advice about what job he should accept. "The glowing ball guys are way cool." "Go with the tunnel boring machine!" "No way, Hank, higher learning is pure and good!"

Hank doesn't know what to do. "Supercomputers, intergalactic travel, blowing things up...these are the things us number guys dream of, but what to choose?" In the end, he decides to stay a janitor.

(quoted from Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us))

T.J.: "I thought you like math and junk."

Hank: "I do love math, and that's exactly why I'm staying put. If I go to work for one of these fellers that would make math a job...and then what would I do for fun?!?"

Contributed by Katie R.

"I loved it! I'm doing an english project that requires finding some work of fiction that has the theme: "Failure to develop intellectually leads to a stagnant existence." Hank the Janitor was perfect! Of course, I wouldn't really say he had a stagnant existence, bur nonetheless he was the best one I could find to fit the category ( and apparently intelligent man ends up as a janitor.) Had I not discovered your review of this episode, I would have had to wait for it to air again on T.V. and that might not have happened until it was too late! Besides the fact that I had to do this for a project, I would like to comment on the way you explained this mathematical fiction. You made so easy to understand and it contained all of the content I was looking for. Albsolutely amazing (and in my case, a lifesaver!)!!!!!"

Great News! The episode can now be watched at

Bad News! YouTube seems to have taken it down. It now seems to be available at, but I cannot promise that this is either legal or likely to remain available for long.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Simpsons: Girls Just Want to Have Sums by Matt Selman
  2. Summer Wars by Mamoru Hosoda (Director)
  3. The Brady Kids (Episode: It's All Greek to Me) by Marc Richards (screenwriter) / Marc Richards (director)
  4. Good Will Hunting by Gus Van Sant (director) / Matt Damon (Screenplay)
  5. Math Curse by Jon Scieszka / Lane Smith (illustrator)
  6. Train Brains / The Runaway Train (Donald Duck) by Carl Barks
  7. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
  8. Monster's Proof by Richard Lewis
  9. Odd Squad by Tim McKeon / Adam Peltzman
  10. Sophie Simon Solves them All by Lisa Graff
Ratings for Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us):
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.85/5 (7 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.71/5 (7 votes)

GenreHumorous, Children's Literature,
MotifGenius, Prodigies, Female Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Math Education,
MediumTelevision Series or Episode, Available Free Online,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)