Why math?

I graduated college many moons ago, but for some reason I still get asked “Why did you study mathematics?” It’s a well-meaning question. I don’t mean to be annoyed by it, but I am.

Why did you study math?

There are the things that influenced that decision:

  • It was the one subject where I never had to think; I just did and it came naturally.
  • I raised my hand in first grade to use the restroom, and the teacher thought I was volunteering to tutor another student. She paired me with the class troublemaker. While trying to get her attention to say I wasn’t volunteering, she thought I unhappy with who I got. Unable to change my predicament, I explained the lesson as efficiently as I could so I wouldn’t have to repeat the directions and wouldn’t pee my pants. True story. 😛
  • I wouldn’t say I have a photographic memory, but it’s close. I memorize numbers and rattle them off to my family/friends days later. It was the saving grace once, when my former boss lost her wallet in one of the two taxis we took to dinner. I knew both taxi numbers for some reason.
  • The earliest math textbook error I remember finding was when I was 9.
  • Physics was incredibly exciting because I got the chance to apply math principles to all the other things they were trying to teach me in school. I don’t know why they don’t lead with it sooner.
  • My grandmother, despite her Alzheimer’s, taught me to love numbers by playing all kinds of Solitaire variations with me.
  • When I was really little, I used to count to 100 to annoy my brother.
  • Logic is calming and clear. I may be related to Spock.
  • Probability/Statistics was a fun reason to track data and learn poker.
  • I tutored a girl failing Algebra, who asked “why didn’t my teacher explain it like this? It makes so much more sense now!” Upon taking the next test, she was accused of cheating and had to retake it under supervision. She got 100% both times. The teacher still didn’t believe she could do it.
  • Study hall was boring, so I volunteered my free hour tutoring in my favorite math teacher’s class in between his lessons.
  • I hadn’t studied Calculus yet, but when some older students were having trouble and I asked them to explain the problem to me, I was still able to direct them to the solution.
  • I could see matrices, graphs/vectors, in my head.
  • I’d do my homework in pen (even in college) along with Sudoku and KenKen puzzles.
  • In DiffEq class, I found a flaw in one of the differential equation questions, proved it both ways, and rode out the rest of the semester on extra credit. So I knew I was in the right place by then.

Why did you study math? There are the snarky retorts, I refrain from saying:

  • I had non-elitist math teachers who bothered to teach it in a way I could understand. I’m sorry yours decided to leave you behind so early and reinforced your negative perception of your own potential abilities.
  • Are you surprised because it’s considered a difficult subject?
  • Are you surprised because you hate math or because I’m a girl?
  • I’m sorry you think that something so critical to engineering, safety, medicine, the internet, etc. etc. etc. is a waste of time to study.

Why did you study math? And then, there was the one defining moment in my education that pissed me off more than you can believe:

  • Upon returning to the US after a year in abroad in foreign schools, a female mathematics teacher told me “No you cannot rejoin the honors math classes. You’re not smart enough to catch up.”

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