Throughout my formative school-age years, my mother was very engaged in my academic career.
She expected her three boys to make all A’s and excel in everything we put our minds to. A mathematician, she worked to ensure that we take the highest levels of math available to us, believing that the knowledge and the resilience built by those courses would make us better people.
When I transferred into Lake Wales High School at the beginning of 10th grade, she advised me to take the math I needed in order to complete Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. OK, it wasn’t really advice as much as it was a statement: you will take the math you need in order to take calculus your senior year. She made it her mission to see to it I would follow through. It wasn’t easy for her or for me.
First, I was transferring in from a private school that lacked the resources or academic rigor in mathematics to give me a good foundation. I took Algebra I in 9th grade, while most of my peers in public schools who were aiming for Calculus their senior year took it in the 8th grade. I had a lackluster teacher who taught me very little of the algebraic foundational principles I would need to master in order to take advanced math courses.
Second, math was not my best subject. I made A’s in math. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do well, it just required effort. I still have vivid memories of workbook pages of repetitive math problems of long division, complex multiplication and even addition and subtraction with large numbers. It was tedious and boring and required focus I didn’t want to give to it. I can still hear Mom, in her frustration with my lack of progress on the homework in a very out-of-character outburst, “Ninny! Ninny! Ninny!” She was right. I was being a ninny. I needed to learn discipline to complete a task rather than whine about its tedium and difficulty.
Third, in order to catch up and get on track to take calculus, I would have to take both Algebra II and Geometry in 10th grade. Without the benefit of a strong foundation in algebra, this was a daunting task. Adding to the challenge was Mom’s insistence that I be in the honors sections of both courses. To her, I was an honors student and should be in honors classes. She made it her personal mission to battle the guidance counselors and administrators until they put me in those classes. To her credit, when school started and the homework piled up, she was with me every step of the way to help make up for my lack of algebra knowledge.
Fourth, I was transferring into the large public high school after spending eight of the previous 10 years in small, private schools. There was something about a big, public school that was intimidating. I had one friend who was in a similar boat who had gone to the same private schools I had from the time I moved to Florida at the start of 7th grade. I had one friend while most everyone else had long established relationships dating back to elementary and middle school. I wanted to play sports and take advantage of other extra-curricular activities, too, placing even more pressure on myself to excel in every area of teenage life.
The double math classes made socialization that much harder because I was with my on-track 10th grade peers in Algebra II and with the 9th grade honors math students in Geometry. It’s hard to say I felt like I was “left back” a year in school because, after all, it was an Honors Geometry class. The freshmen were bright and engaged students. They happened to be just as new to Lake Wales High School as I was. It was just a little socially awkward.
Fifth, although I was extremely goal-oriented, it was hard to keep my eyes on the prize when I understood the process as undergoing extreme math torture for the right to get more torture. Giving up was never an option, but my sophomore year of high school was not a cake walk. I learned in that year to trust Mom, not only for her understanding of mathematic principles, but also her wisdom in seeing this goal through to completion.
As it turned out, after earning A’s and B’s in both Algebra II and Geometry that year, it got easier my junior year. I got on track for Calculus, so I was with my grade-level honors student peers in Trigonometry first semester and Analytical Geometry second semester. With Mom’s help, I had learned the Algebra I had missed in 9th grade, and though I still had to work hard at it, my grades were consistently A’s throughout the year.
When I made it to AP Calculus, I knew I was biting off another big challenge, but I was buoyed by the knowledge I had already survived the worst. I focused on passing the AP exam, earning college credit and reducing or eliminating my need to take another math class ever again.
Mom knew I wasn’t headed to a career in math, but the wisdom of her insistence I get AP Calculus in high school cannot be disputed. I managed to pass the AP Calculus exam and earn a year’s worth of college math credit. I did not have to take another math class every again… or, at least until I enrolled in the MBA program 10 years after I graduated college. When we derived formulas for calculating risk in investments in my Corporate Finance class, my calculus came back to me — not so much like riding a bike but more like a ghost haunting me from the pages of a textbook.
Even more valuable than the quadratic formula or Pythagorean theorem was the character-building that took place. I learned resilience. I learned perseverance. I learned how to push through mental blocks and cope with frustration. I matured. I experienced the joy and exhilaration of completing difficult tasks. I experienced one of the most powerful feelings a human being can have: accomplishment.
Thank you, Mom, for the advice/command/willing it to be. Math did not kill me. It made me stronger. You deserve all the credit.