Mathletes road trip

Published 1:23 pm Wednesday, June 3, 2009

There I was amongst a sea of teen mathematicians, the lone token dumb blonde at a national math competition at the University of Georgia and all I knew was that as an acting proctor giving out a math test, I was in deep ‘you-know-what’ if someone asked me a math question. I would be like a deer in headlights.

Basically, if it doesn’t have anything to do with percentages off a sales price then I am a goner.

Yet, there I stood among the collection of math minded mathletes who came to represent their states in the 34th Annual American Regions Mathematics League, (ARML) an international math competition held at different sites around the country and this particular location was where all the Southern kids from North Carolina to Louisiana gathered.

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Sadly, Mississippi did not have a team. Need I say more because I feel this is a great weakness of my home state. Not to knock my home state too much, because my husband is brilliant in math and he is from Petal and my son Luke is on the math team I accompanied to ARML.

Alabama did not have a “state” team, but rather my son’s high school in Huntsville plus one lone Birmingham kid made up the team that came from the state. How did they do against state teams? They won first place in the team question portion of the competition. This is very impressive.

I have been on trips with band students, church youth groups, ROTC members and now I can add Math team and the best behaved, most responsible teenagers are the math kids.

They actually consider it fun to sit for hours and answer difficult math questions. Blows my mind that after hours of tests that I couldn’t even begin to understand, they come out saying it was fun! These are alien concepts to my blonde way of thinking.

These math kids are weird. I never had to get on to them, request a halt in any crazy behavior or even give the stern momma look. I roomed with the only two girls from our team and they were down right polite, respectful and not a bit silly. Who are these Stepford kids?

The cultural differences among our group gave for interesting discussions of religion, politics, and life in general but, as in an intellectual debate, no one grew heated or passionate because someone else thought or believed differently. It was very civilized.

I can remember my senior band trip to Jackson in which the students ran amuck, I nearly drowned in the swimming pool and no one would dare estimate the damages done to the hotel — not a bit civilized.

In Pearl River County, we have very few students that are Asian, or of Middle Eastern descent, and so this was my first trip with half the crew being “unSouthern,” lacking redneck tendencies or lacking Cajun influence. My closest Asian influence growing up in South Mississippi was my Japanese Aunt Shinko and my classmate friend who was half Korean and half American, Sarah.

The cultural blender was very interesting. I do not mean I have never been around other cultures because I spent six weeks in South Korea, but these are American students that have the perfect blend of two cultures colliding in their life, many times speaking two languages, remaining true to their culture’s food limitations and being bombarded with the lifestyles of the American student that polar opposites their beliefs.

Take “Rushil,” who rode with me on the five hour drive back home. A fast food stop was a challenge for the Indian vegetarian American youth. But, who isn’t used to having the picky teen eater on a trip that refuses to eat anything offered at wherever you stop? But, Rushil’s reasons are so cool and I admire that he can be himself in an overwhelming sea of carnivorous teenagers.

Yet, in this math world, Rushil is the norm and I as the white female is the strange one.

As the perky, ditzy blonde in charge of serious minded mathletes, I enjoyed my ability to confuse the young intellects with my witty conversation and quips. They gave the same look that Spock gives Captain Kirk. Did that stop me? Of course not, it gave me more motivation to stretch these kids’ imaginations even more!

I fear the reality of working math problems may cause one side of their brain to enlarge thereby dwarfing the personality, mischievous side that wants to watch reality TV and follow entertainment news. It reminds me of the guy who works out only one arm and has the giant bulging muscles on one side and the regular toned arm on the other. We needed some balance here and I was the loose canon.

I am truly amazed by their brilliance. I actually had the passing thought as I, with only my vivid imagination keeping me from going into a bored coma, standing over their working brains during the testing, began to write a Sci-fi thriller using the inspiration before me. What if aliens attacked the country killing all the armies and scientific leaders and I was left alone in this room with nearly three hundred mathletes? I think I would probably do okay. They could pull their brain power together and save the world in true Terminator fashion.

I may not compute math problems well, but I can write a ‘mean’ storyline… ‘cause I got some personality pouring out of my hollow math brain parts.

Tracy Williams is a guest columnist and can be reached at her website: