44 Reflects on 17

Recently, as seems to happen about once a year, a conversation or two, probably more, threads the needle of Twitter about online math community aka #mtbos.  I remember it first happening here  and here in 2013.  These conversations are healthy and rich.

Each time this thread reappears, I am overwhelmed with the desire to say thanks.

In the summer of 2011, with generous funding from Math For America, I headed to the Park City Math Institute with my husband, our two mountain bikes, my then 13-year-old step-daughter and 2-year-old son, and our Bernese mountain dog.  Though I enjoyed endlessly fun family time, the real gift was discovering myself as someone who was good at math and welcomed into a community of smart, funny, creative, serious and goofy mathy folks.  At the time I was a middle school math teacher ( I really think I snuck in the back door when I got my single subject credential), it was the first time in two decades that I had studied math.

When I was a kid, I was really good at learning math facts.   In 2nd grade I was literally kicked out of class for being too good at my times tables, forced to memorize my 13s-25s when the teacher ran out of work for me to do.  In 3rd grade I got moved to a 4th grade class and in 5th grade I walked to our local middle school to take pre-algebra with 8th graders.  I took Algebra 1 in 6th grade, BC calculus as a sophomore, followed by MV Calc and Linear Algebra.  Throughout much of this I had the most amazing teacher, John Benson, who used Mathematica in the late 1980s better than most use Desmos in the late-2010s and who never stopped believing in me, even when I had given up on myself.

But give up on myself I did.  Senior year of high school, I promised myself that as soon as I got to college, I would never take another math class.  Sadly, I kept that promise for nearly 20 years.

I had gotten to a point where I could do a whole lot, but understood very little of it.  And I hated, really, truly hated, being seen as a math nerd.  There were maybe 16 of us in my MV Calc class and 4 of us in my Independent Study Linear Algebra class.  My memories (which are probably not entirely accurate) are of me, being the only girl, with a bunch of pimply, nerdy boys who were extremely competitive, quick at math, and uninterested in slowing down for me who needed to carefully draw, model and see every new idea.  I desperately needed Jo Boaler to whisper in my ear when I left for college, but thankfully I found her as an adult.

Although I occasionally get glimpses of this stereotype in my adult life, it’s pretty darn rare.  Starting in Park City and again when I did Math For America and again now within the #mtbos community, I have found my people.  And chances are, like me, you were a nerdy math kid.  But somehow you persisted when I did not and I am so thankful to have found you.  In Park City, among many others, I met Kate and Ashli,  Sam and Tina along with the wise teaching of Bill and Darryl and Cal.  And now, as a Desmos Fellow, I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such creative, silly, brilliant people like Suzanne and Jenn (and so many others!) who do the creative work I wish I had been encouraged to do when I was 17.  THIS is the math I would have loved at 17 and THESE are the people I wish I knew then.  Thankfully, I’ve found them now along with so many more.

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