“You’re taking what?!?”. I get this question a lot, and every time I calmly reply “Calculus 3…” as if there’s nothing odd about that, but the reality is that for high school junior, that isn’t normal. The reason for my incredibly advanced place in math? Privilege and luck. I’ve always been relatively good at math and was placed in Honors and advanced classes most of my time in elementary and middle school. It was in 6th grade when my mom introduced me to a program known as UMTYMP (pronounced um-tea-ump) or University of Minnesota Talented Youth Math Program. She explained it as a program where I could learn more math at an accelerated rate with kids who were in a similar place as me. I said it sounded interesting and she signed me up for the entrance test. A few months later we got a letter that I was accepted and I began my first of 5 years that fall. Looking back I never would have realized how much that decision and opportunity would change me, and how absolutely lucky and privileged I was to have it.
Throughout my first four years I was able to complete Algebra 1 & 2, Geometry, Pre-calculus, and Calculus 1 & 2 (though the math nerd in me insists on informing you that “Calculus 2” is really just Linear Algebra). And although completing those as high school and college credits was an amazing opportunity that I was incredibly lucky to have, it wasn’t the only, or even the biggest, thing I have gained from my unique experience with math. I was able to be immersed in a community of kids who loved to learn math and wanted to always learn more, and a teaching staff that was capable and happy to satisfy this desire. I also learned valuable skills, like how to manage large homework assignments, or deal with a class that was only two hours, once a week, skills that have served me incredibly well as I’ve begun to take more college classes. What was more surprising than that though was how I started to notice math spilling over into other areas of my life that I had never expected. Areas like being on the debate team, or solving problems. I noticed that a lot of what we learn in math really isn’t math. It’s skills like being able to break problems down into smaller steps, or to think critically, or use what information we have, to get the information we need. These skills are what I’m most grateful for and what I think is the real reason every kid should learn math, because it’s true, you probably won’t need Pythagoras’ Theorem after college that many times, or need to take the derivative of a function, let alone of a vector curve. But we need people who can solve problems, and look at those problems in new and interesting ways, and work with information and data to understand those problems better and come up with solutions. That’s the real benefit to teaching our kids math, and we need to focus on that aspect, and not on teaching them to pass standardized or multiple choice tests. Then they might stop questioning it's usefullness and embrace it for the awesome potential it can have to be interesting and even fun.