My senior AP Calculus teacher signed me up to participate in a math competition. I wasn’t very happy with her for doing so. I’ve dreaded math classes since my fourth grade “advanced” class, where I looked around wondering if anyone was as lost as I was about this long division thing. Our minds were being blown, and then we were given a glimpse into the future: letters. In math.

Our worlds would never be the same.

My algebra grades sucked. High Bs, if I was lucky. The whole variable thing bothered me, and I just couldn’t be bothered. TRL, Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys were far more interesting. I may have eeked by with an A on some exam, but it wasn’t without much annoyance.

All I did after the school day in Georgia was go home, turn on the telly, and eat snacks. The joke was always on the homework.

“What are you doing tonight?” I once asked a classmate.


I felt bad for her.

Mom signed me up for a math tutor in our Chinese community. It was an extracurricular class, literally, with homework and separate weekend classmates. We called our teacher “Professor.” He chided us with slapstick jokes we couldn’t quite understand and backhandedly scolded us with ego-boosting insults like, “Agh, come on, you know this!” It was surprisingly effective, the stand-up-at-the-whiteboard-and-be-shamed method. Math made sense in his universe, and he made it make sense to us. I went back to my weekday calculus class teaching the section because Professor had already covered the whole chapter in a single two-hour Saturday session.

He explained things good.

I got an honorable mention ribbon at that math competition. The one where I sat in a desk in the middle of an auditorium with the other entrants, doodling the paper with flowers when my brain couldn’t make any more assumptions about the assumptions I was assuming. It felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I just drew what I possibly, maybe, hopefully knew. I’m pretty sure I turned in several formulaic, graphical jumbles which ended on ellipses.

But I still got mentioned. Honorably.

FreethoughtShawn Li