I remember the face of my math teacher when I was in third grade. Her eyebrows were almost hooked together as she got irritated when any of us in the class couldn’t recite the multiplication table. For a third grader, it was a feeling of terror and math was not just a tough subject but a fearsome one. I was fearfully motivated to memorize the table. It helped. Now, after many years, the fear was gone but the image of the table – and that of my teacher – was still there.
What was then a tough grade school math crisis continued towards high school and college. If a subject was about numbers, I always got my grades in lucky numbers: 75, 76, 77. These percentages were almost failed. As a high school senior, I was lucky enough to have friends, and count on them on subjects I have a hard time counting. One friend was good in accounting homework. She always helped me balancing credit and debit on yellow sheets that made me feel too nauseated in confusion and frustration. On matters of algebra, I always sought the counsel of another friend who my classmates found incredibly brilliant. He was such a genius that there were days our algebra teacher asked him to teach us instead!
I could easily assume that I share these past difficulties with many students. I have no way and time to do an accurate survey, but I tried to ask some of my friends online. Mathematics conjured up memories of academic suffering. I thought this might seem to be a “common denominator” for students, both past and present. And I find that ironic, using a mathematical term to denote a difficult experience. But I don’t mean to demean math, even if I asked them their most hated subject. By using the word ‘hated’, I intend to refer to provoking memories of entwined negative emotions and mental agonies on having thoughts of making a catastrophe out of school grades, or being scolded by their parents, or enduring the hardship and boredom inside any class, math or not, or striving to learn even if all the joy of learning was robbed by the fear of not calculating the right answers.
I believe that there is something beneath all these attempts to crack and calculate the mysteries of the universe.
I remember my high school chemistry teacher who one day handled our algebra class when our math teacher was absent. She didn’t start her class by writing down all algebraic formulas that made my mind bled. She started with some sort of inspirational words – that though there are math geniuses like my old friend, math is not about being a genius. It was about minding the formulas and getting them right. Her words lit a bright light in my otherwise burned out brain. I realized I could still muster all my power to resuscitate my dying interest in math.
So when I got home, I read all the formulas. I wrote all of them in a long, pink sheet of lined paper. As I familiarized myself again with the formulas, in my heart I seeded an inspiration of passing the most difficult academic subject in my life. It paid. My final exams, I got the first grade of 90%. It felt so surreal. I passed without the need to curse my teacher or the subject. And the pink sheet, well, still in my box of mementos, a beautiful memory of my old school days with math.
I still had to face math problems in college – my failed attempt to make it into dean’s list, my cluelessness in statistics, my struggle with all chemistry equations, my annoyance in trigonometry. Understandably, with all those math experiences, it is easy to hate a subject that we as students find ourselves weak and dumb. Almost all of us learned that in school what matters is to have the best numbers in a numbers’ game on a subject of numbers. And I keep on asking the question, what’s the use of advance mathematics in my everyday life? What does it mean in fulfilling my dreams or in being and becoming human? That question may not have a mathematical equation, but it is worthy to find an equal connection with a subject that is found in the existence of every minute thing in the cosmos.
In this spiritual quest, I have learned a new perspective, one that uses mathematics to measure the immeasurable sacred. Apart from discovering that mathematics is the language of God that speaks human ingenuity and rise of the modern world, and of its accurate computations to render infinity, I believe that there is something beneath all these attempts to crack and calculate the mysteries of the universe. We still count on something that we fail to count, until we find that its countlessness is the very mathematics of our soul. In an inspiring quote from the film A Beautiful Mind, Nobel prize recipient John Nash, portrayed by actor Russell Crowe, delivered these words: “And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of Love that any logic or reasons can be found.” In those equations, I’m pretty much at home.