Jerome A. White
Sixteen years have passed since I last competed in a math contest. I often credit my participation in high school math contests with a tremendous boost in confidence and a deep appreciation for the subject. My impressive list of competition successes opened many doors for me during the college admissions process.
However, that was half my lifetime ago. In the academic setting, the movie cliché I resemble most is the washed up ex-athlete whose glory days are long behind him, and now maintains a low-key role in life trying to impart wisdom to young ‘uns who don’t appreciate how accomplished he once was. Melodramatic as that may be, I certainly didn’t enter teaching with hopes of reliving past triumphs.
At best, I’ve dreamt of inspiring at least a few students in the same way my geometry teacher, Mr. Halliday, inspired and motivated me. I remember him convincing me to compete in a contest when I was a ninth grader. I also remember spending the prior weeks trying to devise excuses to back out, fearing that I would fail and let him down.
I know that my PreCalculus student, Samane, had similar fears leading up to the American Mathematical Society’s “Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?” contest. Held amidst a national convention of mathematicians and scholars during the first weekend of 2007, this contest featured top math students from a handful of well-reputed high schools in New Orleans.
Born and raised in Iran, Sam moved with her family to the US two years ago while her mother studies to become a doctor. When I first heard about the contest a couple months earlier, I was to select two students to take a qualifying test. I immediately thought of Sam. I have several other students who currently possess more math knowledge; However, Sam demonstrates a genuine desire to learn, and she does so quickly. After I sent in the qualifying tests, Sam was the only Lusher High School student invited to participate in the contest.
Prior to the school’s winter break, I gave Sam some practice problems from a math brainteaser book. Intended to build up her confidence by increasing her familiarity with creative mathematical thought processes, the problems had the opposite effect instead. I received an email from Sam on the day after Christmas while visiting my mother in California:
A knowing chill rippled through my body. Twenty years later, I still wonder: What would have happened if I had fallen short in my first contest? Would I have ever attempted another one? Would I have ever trusted Mr. Halliday’s belief in my abilities again? Would I have ever discovered the beautiful elegance and order of mathematics? Two decades later, I’m still nervous about my first math competition.
I searched for words to comfort Sam, knowing that no reassurance from me would be able to completely calm her nerves:
I tunneled through the rows of dusty, yellowed cardboard boxes in my mom’s garage, eventually finding a stack of math contest problems from my “glory days.” I sent scans of some less-challenging problems with my email. Several hours later, I received Sam’s reply:
Once again, I flashed back to my early high school days. Just like Sam, ability and motivation weren’t my impediments to success. Lack of confidence was. Somehow, I figured, Mr. Halliday had overblown my better-than-average abilities, not looking deep enough to see my abundance of shortcomings.
Mr. Halliday was a veteran teacher, though. In retrospect, I’m sure he recognized my weaknesses, and simply sought to challenge me to overcome them. And he did so splendidly, offering just the right blend of encouragement, prodding, and love. Now as a second-year teacher, I could only hope to be so wise in nurturing Sam’s belief in herself.
Nothing to lose. That was becoming my mantra for Sam. She, like a younger version of myself, was obsessing more over the painful sting of falling short rather than the monumental thrill of succeeding.
Sam and I kept in touch through the rest of my vacation, and I returned to New Orleans just in time to welcome the New Year. Symbolically, I felt an invigorating rejuvenation in my role as a teacher. Focusing on a specific goal with one exceptional student energized me. No state mandated curriculum, standardized tests, or lesson plans occupied my mind at this time.
On Tuesday, the 2nd of January, I met with Sam at a local coffee shop, bringing all the contest materials that I had lugged back with me from California. We had a week left in our winter break from school, and the math contest would take place on Friday.
Over the next two days, Sam and I spent about 7 hours practicing. In my experience, contest problems often don’t require very advanced mathematical knowledge. Instead, many times they challenge one’s problem solving skills. They require contestants to use basic knowledge in clever and interesting ways. There are some skills in which Sam is not yet very strong, especially in the studies of trigonometry and probability. Rather than try to cram in too many emergency trig and probability lessons, I thought our time would be better spent just getting her accustomed to reading and interpreting “typical” contest problems, which are far different from what one finds in standard textbooks. After all, Sam possessed the requisite knowledge for many of the problems I gave her, but struggled to grasp what the unusual questions were asking. We also discussed the rules and strategy for this particular contest, which was modeled after game shows such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
We knew only eight high-performing students from the Greater New Orleans region would participate, divided equally into two separate games. In each game, eight multiple-choice questions would be projected one at a time onto a big screen for the contestants and audience to see. Each question would have a time limit, and contestants would use a remote control to secretly signal in their answers. The point value of the questions would increase gradually from 100 points to 800 points. Of course, the person with the highest total at the end of the game would be declared the winner.
An interesting twist to this game was that each contestant would get one opportunity to signal for help from an audience member – presumably, their respective math teachers. For any given question, no more than one contestant would be allowed to request the help. I reminded Sam that answering the single 800-point question was worth more than the first three combined, and we agreed that she’d wait until the last question before using my assistance.
Sam and I met at the downtown hotel lobby about an hour early on Friday, and proceeded to the ballroom where the contest would be held. She was clearly fraught with nerves. I bet she was spooked by the sight of over 100 chairs set up for an audience, facing the small stage in the front of the room. Atop the stage sat a podium, a large projector screen, and desks with chairs for four participants.
I tried to distract Sam with a few relatively simple math questions, but most of all I tried to reassure her that there was absolutely nothing to lose. By simply participating, she could hold her head up high.
“What’s the cosine of thirty degrees?”
“Square root of three over two.”
“Good. What’s the common logarithm of one?”
Sam was scheduled to compete in the first of the two games – the only sophomore amongst juniors and seniors. As we waited in the front row of chairs, one of the other contestants walked up onto the stage. I noticed Sam had been watching the other students trickle in, some with large cheering sections from their schools. I recognized the uneasy look in her eyes and the thought that surely ran through her head: I bet those other students are smarter than I am.
I discretely pointed to the boy on stage. “See that guy?” I whispered to Sam. “You can beat him.” She needed to believe, if only for the next hour, that she was capable of succeeding against any other student in the room.
Nine a.m., show time. The contest host introduced the participants. When Sam’s name was read aloud, her fans consisted of two close friends from school who she had personally invited, and myself. Unfortunately, her parents were unable to attend. I suspect this actually came as some relief to her, since she didn’t want a large crowd in the event of a poor performance. What her cheering section lacked in numbers, I attempted to compensate with raucous applause and hoots.
After a practice question, the contest began. Sam started off quite well, holding a lead after the first five or six questions. However, she missed the seventh question, which instantly dropped her into a tie for third place. I was seated in the front row with the other teachers, and hoped to get her attention at that point so I could motion for her to request my help on the last question. However, she didn’t need me to remind her what to do. Two contestants had already received assistance. As soon as the eighth question was projected onto the screen, Sam immediately buzzed her “help” button. At that point, all contestants were allowed most of the allotted two minutes to work the problem themselves, but the countdown clock would stop as soon as it reached five seconds left. Sam would then get the opportunity to discuss the problem with me for 30 seconds, and change her initial response if she chose.
Sam had played the game very well on her own, and was now using her strategy wisely. Meanwhile, I once again found myself flashing back to my contest days. The nerves, the insecurity, the fear of failure – They all came rushing back, as potent as they were twenty years ago. This time, the thought of letting my student down petrified me.
The geometry problem fell well within my areas of expertise. Any other day, I could have solved this particular problem with unshakable poise. However, on this day, my hand trembled uncontrollably as I worked the problem out on my clipboard. I shifted in my seat, hoping and assuming that Sam was too busy to look over and see her math teacher squirm. I derived an answer, but fretted the possibility of the unforgiving careless error. With over a minute of time still left to work, I tackled the problem with a different approach, and breathed an exhausted sigh upon verifying my first answer. With twenty seconds left, I continued to study the problem and try to convince myself that I couldn’t possibly be wrong.
Finally, a buzzer indicated that the time had arrived for Sam to consult me.
“What do you think the answer is?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve worked the problem, and checked, and double-checked my work,” I started, trying to convince her as well as myself of my competence. I proceeded to explain how I had determined C to be the correct answer.
Sam was now the only contestant granted the opportunity to change her response, which she did. I gulped. Just like an insecure high-schooler, my mind focused on the nightmarish scenario of me swaying her in the wrong direction, and being responsible for her losing the contest. I felt like my reputation and aptitude as a teacher rested on the answer to this one silly math problem.
Nothing to lose? I had plenty to lose!
The answer was revealed: C.
All the other contestants had answered incorrectly, so Sam was declared the winner!
I leapt out of my seat, clapping furiously and beaming with pride. I wished all the Lusher students and faculty had been present to see Sam represent the school so capably. I wished Sam’s parents had been able to attend to watch their daughter shine. I wished my own mom could have been present to witness my moment of vicarious glory.
For her first-place win, Sam received a TI-89 graphing calculator – the same model I bought a couple years ago for $140. Even more importantly, she earned a little prestige and recognition for her intelligence.
I am so proud of Samane. Too often in this job I’ve felt guilty that a disproportionate amount of my effort is spent addressing underperforming students, while my high performers are not being adequately challenged. Exposing one of my top students to this opportunity and watching her thrive was an absolute highlight of my professional career.
In the following days, Sam tried to discount her own success by citing luck and my role in the event. I knew she would do this. That’s what I used to do. A single math contest isn’t enough to completely secure one’s self-confidence. This is, nonetheless, a proud accomplishment for which I hope Sam will someday allow herself to accept credit.
I can’t help but think back to my own experiences, and dream that this brief moment of glory will help an extremely talented girl believe in her own tremendous ability and potential.
Someday, I hope Sam will never again question whether she’s as bright or smart as I know she is.