Kid at Chalkboard
March 2020

Unusual Bliss

BY LISA CATTERAL

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. -Joseph Campbell

Kid doing math on chalkboard

This month I am about to experience my first math competition with a student. This one student will become our school’s inaugural competitive math team. I’m very excited about this.

In college, I took a two-week seminar on photography. Suddenly, all I could think about was spending time in the darkroom. It wasn’t even a class; it was just something I found on a flyer at the bookstore. But it carried me away to something akin to bliss. I remember the teacher saying, “You seem to spend all your time here in the darkroom. Maybe this is something you should do for a career.”

I’d never considered it, and I was afraid of the idea. I thought the teacher should be saying something more like, “You have a gift for this.” Or, “You have the top grade in this class.” Therefore, it should be my career. Not simply, “I can see that you really love this.” I hope my students today, and their parents, are not afraid of bliss.
This fall, our math department met to discuss the latest research on teaching math. I learned that rather than assigning high numbers of repetitive problems for homework, I should assign just a few problems that allow my kids to really think and stretch themselves. This sounded risky; those are not the types of problems kids can usually get help from their parents on, and I was afraid of really stressing them out. But it turned out to be the best possible practice; now we have a math team!

Early on, I assigned a problem so challenging I wasn’t entirely sure how to complete it when I first read it. I told the students to simply come up with ideas at home for possible approaches, and we’d solve it as a team. One student became so intrigued that he spent lunch, study hall, and apparently the whole weekend trying to crack it. He got the entire math staff involved. I felt like we were all in a math movie. Then he solved it.
That’s when we discovered the Stanford Math Tournament. It seemed like a way for the student to have a goal besides a grade.

Watching a student find something they love is a joy. I’m fortunate to see that happen often during my school year, although kids who actually love math are rare. I’ve had many students who are good at math and like it, and many who are high achievers in the interest of another goal. But real love, the kind that draws kids away from video games and other distractions, the kind that keeps them working through lunch, is rare. Math seems to get a poor reputation in our culture. I can’t wait to see this student in a room of 250 students who share his enjoyment of math!

At least I hope they do. In the last few weeks I read that expensive academies exist to train students not only for the competition, but to earn a spot on their schools’ team for the competition. So, I wonder if the other competitors have found bliss or whether they have other reasons to be there. And I wonder, if math as a subject was freed from its reputation of being difficult and nerdy, would the competition be 10 times larger?

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