This story is dedicated to the two men who gave me the courage to give math a try.
It’s hilariously embarrassing, but I started studying mathematics in college because of a man. A man I fell in love with, but a man, nonetheless. He was a math master’s student and he seemed like the classic academic in a movie. He was tall, had glasses, was so scattered and on the run all the time, eschewed a smartphone, always had a math book with him, and carried a messenger bag. He loved Germany and he loved math. He kept offering to teach me calculus, beyond what I already knew. He seemed to know so much! He would mention foreign words to me, like “topology,” and he was tutoring this man he met once about calculus on manifolds. He was well on his way to having a career as a math researcher.
He introduced me to his math friends and they would just talk about math for hours. I never knew what they were saying and I thought, One day, I want to understand what they’re talking about. I wanted to be part of the exhilarating conversations they were having. I wanted to be part of his magical world that I knew nothing about.
I had always loved my mathematics classes in school, but could never figure out why. I had wonderful math teachers, so that likely played a large role. I was on my school’s math olympiads (or mathletes) team from 5th grade until I graduated high school, simply because I enjoyed it. But I never thought that I would study math beyond high school, as I wanted to go to college to be a writer.
When I told him I had all these positive experiences with math, he encouraged me to try a college calculus class. It had been two years since I had last taken a math class and the gap seemed insurmountably large. Didn’t Calculus 2 rely on Calculus 1? And didn’t that rely on Pre-Calculus, Algebra, and Trigonometry that were so far in my past that I could never hope to recover them again without starting over? I was frightened of beginning again.
He assured me that I would do great in the class. Throughout our relationship, he would look deep in my eyes and tell me that I was brilliant. He would say that I was a gem, that he believed in me. This, coupled with a 7 hour crash course from one of his friends on Calculus 2 prerequisites, convinced me that I could conquer a math class. It turned out that I remembered quite a lot, certainly enough to take Calculus 2. That was exciting and validating to me. The crash course was not just a person trying to make me feel better by telling me that I could actually solve math problems— through it, I could see right there on the whiteboard, physical proof, that I could do the math.
So I signed up for Calculus 2 and an Introduction to Proofs class, which was lauded as the first class to introduce me to the mathematics that the man and his friends talked so frequently about. The man broke my heart before the math classes even started, but his math friend continued to help me from time to time with my math problems, even years later.
It’s clear to me now that all I needed to start my mathematics career was some form of good experience with math, someone who believed in me, and someone who helped me concretely recognize that I was capable. Thus, my great adventure began.
This story is part of a series I will be publishing on this blog.
- Here is the blog post introducing my series: https://www.vanessasun.com/2021/10/01/writing-my-math-stories/.
- Here, you can find all the stories I’ve posted: https://www.vanessasun.com/category/my-math-stories/