When I was in the fourth grade, I had the most difficult time with multiplication of multi-digit numbers. Prior to that, learning multiplication was just about memorizing rules. In class, we would recite mathematical equations in unison. “One times three is three. Two times three is six. Three times three is nine…” No one ever explained that multiplication was just like adding one number to itself over and over again. Then came the biggest challenge of all… I had to multiply one two-digit number by another. I learned an algorithm on how to do this, but I rarely applied it correctly. I struggled and cried and agonized over multiplication. As the end of fourth grade neared, I worried about what would happen in fifth grade, as the fifth grade math teacher was much tougher and the material was much harder. Looking back though, if I had discovered or if someone had told me that multiplying a number by 22 was the same as multiply that number by 2 and then by 20 and then adding the two products together, I might have been more successful at applying the algorithm.

Fifth grade math was all about fractions and suddenly I got it. I’m not really sure what triggered this understanding but as I reflect on this experience, I feel it was the process of learning was much more investigative than anything I had ever experienced. Granted the questions asked me to find the greatest common multiple of two numbers, but I had to break each number down to its prime factors. Through this I was able to explore the makeup of numbers just as chemists study the makeup of compounds. I did not think I was the smartest kid in the class, but was always among the top. I really liked it there and enjoyed learning from my colleagues.

This experience in fifth grade put me on the path as a mathematician. In sixth through eighth grades, I was in the advanced math class, taught my a wrinkly, old nun. She beat ratios and proportions into my head and at the time I thought they were useless. As I advanced in my studies of math, I soon realized that when in doubt on how to solve a given problem, find ratios, build a proportion and solve said proportion. From this, I would be able to solve the problem. This helped me on the SAT and the GRE, and it was something that I learned in grade school.

In high school, I was clearly the best math student in my grade. When I graduated, I received the math award for the highest GPA in mathematics. It meant everything to me, representing how hard I worked in school and celebrating my natural talent. When I arrived in college, it was a different story. I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst. I was average, but I still enjoyed learning, especially when I was able to find the mathematics in computer science. I was on my way to “do math” every day as a grown-up with a career and an office.

Now that I am back in school eight years later and plan to teach math every day, I constantly reflect on why I loved math (and continue to love it) when I was younger. Quite frankly, I’m still not the best in my math classes, but I still enjoy it. So do I enjoy it because I am naturally good at math? Is it because I have to work hard to understand it? Is it because my teachers are enthusiastic? I’m pretty sure it is a combination of all three and that’s probably how it has been through my career as a mathematician.

This entire experience beginning in the fourth grade has shaped how I see myself as a mathematician. Sometimes, I am the best and most times I’m just an average student, but all the time, I really enjoyed math because of the challenge it presented and the enthusiasm many of teachers had. For me, it’s really about the journey of learning mathematics instead of one particular course or day in school that has made me the student I am today.