Very few people will know (or believe) that I was quite good at maths in school – I did my GCSE maths a year early, went on to do additional maths the year later; and then opted to do Higher and Advanced Maths for IB. (Proper nerd).
I ended up doing degrees and working in fields (writing / publishing) that had nothing to do with maths; and the only thing I do today that’s remotely related to numbers is to weigh out baking ingredients.
But I loved – LOVED – those maths classes. They were the only ones that sparked me alive, that I was excited (if a little scared) to go to. Today, more than 20 years on, it’s those classes I still (want to) remember.
Of course, it wasn’t actually because of calculus or statistics. More so, it was because of the huge energy of our teacher, Mr B. and this madly infectious, energetic zeal he had for teaching, learning, knowledge, the beauty of a perfect equation. He loved maths and he loved being able to show us the magic of these little-but-big truths. I was often bewildered, stressed to my roots that I wouldn’t/couldn’t get it. But after a few years with Mr B., you couldn’t help but learn to love maths too – no matter how hopeless you might have been at it
And let me clarify – I was pretty damn hopeless. I was always the last person to figure out what was going on and it was a real struggle keeping up with the class. In my IB mock exam – only a few months before the finals – I had a total meltdown, wrote some terribly tortured poem about defying conventions on my manuscript and left the rest of the exam blank.
I was terrified for the storm that Mr B. would surely call down upon me. Instead, he found me somewhere on campus, sat me down and talked me through whatever teenage angst I was going through. Where I thought he’d be scornful and dismissive of this silly, dramatic, wailing kid, he was kind, understanding and genuinely concerned for how he could help me get out of this funk and back on track with what he knew I could do.
I can’t really remember what he said, exactly, but I remember that it wasn’t about the maths. I guess it never really was about that. It was about recognising all of our snotty abilities and potential, and nudging us towards discovering all the other great things ourselves. (I got a 6 in the end*, and a 4 in Advanced maths, which isn’t half bad considering what a half-wit I was)
I left all my maths learning when I left school, and have since remained very safely ensconced (in both academic and career endeavours) in the arts, humanities and social sciences. (In fact, I was the only student in that maths class of would-be engineers, doctors and Wall-Street-bankers who purposefully chose an arts/hums university degree – what a weirdo).
Even so, although my entire career trajectory has moved so completely away from anything vaguely mathematical, it is Mr B’s boundless energy and love of learning that has stayed me for literally decades. He was a reminder to us that the most important thing you could nurture in/for yourself and impart to others is your own excitable passion, love and curiosity for something – anything.
Even the naive, rather dense 16-year-old that I was recognised that if he could get a roomful of bored teenagers to be excited about differential equations**, then anything is possible if you just cultivate that sparkiness for yourself. It was utterly fascinating to watch how excitable he’d get proving an equation/theory; he was so commited, so convincing, so thoroughly happy, you couldn’t help but want some of that same joy, even if it was *only* about the beautiful symmetry of a graph.
Many years on in academia, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a PhD supervisor, Dr. Ann Kaloski-Naylor, who carries much of that same curiosity, creativity and bright-alive energy (another blog post about her soon!). As a lecturer in women’s studies and with research interests in literature, cultural theory, media and the post-human, her discipline/academic background couldn’t be further from Mr B. But that deep, true love of knowledge and the wish for her students to discover that for themselves – that was the very same sensibility I first ‘met’ in Mr B.
Throughout my PhD Ann has nudged me to take creative risks in my research, to go in directions that may or may not work, to ask hard questions (and be okay with not always being able to answer them). She’s as excited as I am when I discover something new; joyful and buzzing when something she shares with me clicks and sets off new thoughts and ideas. She’s always held safe spaces for me to be adventurous, to sit with my doubts, to make mistakes and to uncover great new truths.
But to even get here, to this place where I feel encouraged and supported to proud and passionate about whatever it is that I’m proud and passionate about, no matter what it is – that was sparked alive first by Mr B.
I’ve ‘dared’ to pursue a precarious career in writing and to return to doctoral research in my late thirties (rather than to stay in the safe spaces of ‘respectable’ employment). This is largely due to remembering how that classroom would feel almost electric when Mr B. leaped through the door – I too wanted to live and work with same enthusiasm, and to share that genuine love of learning and knowledge with whoever would listen.
So this post is an ode to these great educators who create indelible imprints in the minds, lives and careers of their students, by virtue of their own lifelong love for inspiring and sharing knowledge. (And I know this sounds hyperbolic or cliched or gushy – but it’s all deep-down true).
But also, it is a reminder to everyone to seek out these teachers. If you’re looking to do postgraduate research/a PhD, take that extra time to find your own Mr Blythe or Ann. Find someone who sets the room alight when they come in, who makes you feel excited about tackling the things that most other people would find terrifying/tedious/utterly impossible. These are the people who will get you to do your best work, not just in the moment, but possibly for the rest of your life; and not just in maths, for your IB, or even a big thing like your PhD, but in everything else that you do.
So, thank you, Mr B. and Ann, for literally changing my the way I work, learn, create and live in the world. I fuckin’ love you.
*IB grades are scaled from 1-7, with 7 being the highest possible grade; a sort of equivalent to an A*/A+
**I don’t actually remember what a differential equation *is* so please don’t even ask me. Sorry, Mr B..