056. Always Wanted To

tldr: like goonies, wants never say die

I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to teach.

Some people search for constants in their life, and for me, it’s always been education.

This, however, like most “facts” of life, is only a half truth.

When you ask a kid what they want to be when they’re older, a classic response is something along the lines of a princess ninja firefighter in space. After all, why can’t you be everything when you’re an adult? I was no exception.

I did want to teach, but I also wanted to be a journalist. To some extent, this was due to the fact that newsies got to wear tweed vests, and pens tucked behind ears filled me with dopamine. But I really just wanted to be like Rory Gilmore in Gilmore Girls.

Rory was an academic. She was never seen without a book, she worked hard in all of her classes, and she was a low income student. She pushed herself academically, and was able to go to a better school. That is what I wanted. Sure I enjoyed working hard in my classes, and sure I wish I was more well read, but really I just wanted to take control over my life. So much was outside of my control, but the one thing I could do was push myself. And so, I wanted to be an academic, and like Rory, I wanted to be a journalist.

In watching the show again, I’ve realized she doesn’t really write that much. Most of the time, she’s annoyed that she has to write about the new parking lot being built, or coping with an editor treating her like trash. But the plot hardly revolves around her actually writing (with the exception of the revival of the show in 2016).

So I dreamt of being a journalist like Rory was: hardly one at all.

I liked it in theory, and I loved the act of writing, but it never felt like a big part of my life. In fact, in preparing to write this blog, I asked my mom if she remembered any stories about me wanting to write but none came to her mind (besides a really bad fan fiction I tried writing where I “fixed” Harry Potter).

And so, I stopped thinking about writing and became a mathematician.

But this, however, is only a half truth.

The concept of being a mathematician was always fuzzy to me. For a really long time, I thought mathematics was complete. I thought that every problem that could be solved was solved. But I still wanted to be a mathematician, because I thought mathematicians were historians. I pictured people working through the texts of Euclid and Descartes, and taking classes because they just wanted to learn.

It’s not that I thought mathematics wasn’t useful. After all, history is useful. Knowledge is useful. I just didn’t picture it as groundbreaking. I didn’t know people did research in this field, and I certainly didn’t know anything about the Millenium problems. But I still thought mathematics was innovative, because I thought mathematicians were communicators.

I thought they spent their days in and out just thinking about how they could best explain their passion to those who wanted to learn, when in reality, it seems like most professors aren’t interested in education. But I still wanted to be an educator.

When I was in elementary school, I was a faux teacher’s aide. I helped those working on their homework from writing to math. This was my gateway drug into education.

At around the same age I was deeply struggling with existentialism. I spent many nights awake struggling with the concept of people thinking differently. I wondered if people perceived color the same way I did, and questioned if my consciousness works differently from others. And if these differences did exist, then how would people ever be able to properly communicate with one another?

You might think that teaching would exacerbate these existential thoughts.
And you’d be right.

I began to learn how other people’s minds worked, and quickly understood that mine seemed to work differently– though this doesn’t say much given that most everyone thinks in a unique way.

And I started to feel less existential. 

Even if our minds work in different ways, I could adapt. I could try explaining concepts in new ways, or ask clarifying questions. I could see these differences, interact with them, engage with them. I could communicate with people despite how our brains might work. Even if the color I perceive to be red is what you perceive to be green, we can still point to it and call it orange and move on with our day. On a metaphysical level, we might both be “wrong”, but this doesn’t hinder our ability to convey ideas from one person to another. So I loved being the faux teacher’s aide, I liked working with the other students, and I started to like education.

It was a puzzle to me.

But by far, the most interesting part of this puzzle was mathematics.

Let me try saying this in a different way.

When I was a tutor in high school, this was my favorite phrase to use. Some people find mathematics confusing or discouraging, and for any number of reasons this makes sense. We all have our own experiences with the world, and most of these experiences are, in one way or another, confusing.

But I still think most people are generally curious about math. At the bare minimum, most people seem to be interested in the puzzles math can solve.

Can I always cut a polygon using scissors and create a square? How does this game of darts work? Why does mathematics work?

Puzzles and riddles ask us to think in a fundamentally different way– a way that challenges our minds. And it’s frustrating to struggle on something that feels like it should be so simple. But sometimes, all we need is a change of perspective, a key insight into how to approach the problem. This is why I always loved the phrase “Let me try saying this in a different way.”

So let me try saying what I’m trying to in a different way.

I’ve always wanted to teach. I’ve always wanted to write. And I really, really, like mathematics.

But approaching teaching felt so much easier than starting to write to me. I could observe my teacher’s pedagogical techniques, I could tutor students from all sorts of backgrounds– hell I could even start being a fucking teacher. So I just sort of, stopped viewing writing as a career option.

And then, I started saying that I’ve always wanted to teach. But as I’ve said before, this is a half truth.

I’ve always wanted to communicate, which is why I’ve been feeling so frustrated as I try to figure out if I want to go to graduate school for mathematics.

Since coming to MIT I think I’ve done some pretty cool things. I started working with OpenCourseWare (OCW) my first year, advocating for some math classes to be updated. I created and taught a class on Metric Spaces for credit. I’ve typed up 100 pages of lecture notes over spring break, and then it got put on OCW.

I’ve been communicating mathematics.

So why should I go to graduate school to ultimately be in a position to create educational mathematics resources when I can just start doing that *now*? And what would “doing that now” look like?

Did you know there’s such a thing as a math writer?

In hindsight this makes sense– you can slap nearly any word in front of the word writer and have it mean something. But I had never thought about this before, and it makes me feel excited.

I never viewed myself as someone who held back. I’ve always gone for what I’ve wanted, and been semi-confident in doing so.

But this is a half truth.

I’ve always gone for what I’ve wanted that was on the path. I’ve wanted to teach for so long that the idea of doing anything remotely different– anything that could push me slightly away from this goal– I’ve ignored. I told myself I didn’t want anything but teaching. But I do. Or at least, I think I do, to some extent. If anything, I want to think more about what I want. I don’t know if I’ve ever truly done this.

So I’ve been letting myself dream recently. If I could do anything with my life, what would I do?

I’d be a writer and an educator.

In my wildest imagination, I picture myself working in the classroom, but not necessarily as the professor: as an educational resource *gestures vaguely* creator. I’d type up lecture notes, and problemset solutions, and I’d help the professor communicate.

The requirements to be a professor are quite weird. You don’t really have to learn how to teach– how to communicate. Some professors, the really good ones, put in the slightest of efforts to make the classroom better, but it feels like many don’t know how? Which is frustrating in that there are so many students who could give you an endless supply of ways to improve their education. But this makes sense, in some way. Professors are taught how to approach the problem, but not necessarily taught how to help others do the same.

I want to do that. I want to figure out how to help students and professors to change their perspective. A job like this doesn’t really exist, but it is interesting to think about this nonetheless. And it is something I truly want.

Yet, I’ve still been frustratingly debating whether or not I want to go to graduate school.

I had been hoping that doing research this summer would help me understand what I want but it hasn’t. I’ve actually really been enjoying research and learning more and more about mathematics. It’s a puzzle. I thought I would hate this, but I don’t.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what this means for my junior year. And ultimately, I think I’ve come to a conclusion:

I want to be an academic.

Yes, I want to teach, and yes I want to educate. Before I spend my life dedicated to things in education, I really, really, want to keep trying to understand what being an academic really means. I want to focus on my classes and do research and enjoy some hobbies. Maybe I’ll start a math blog– god knows I’ve been wanting to for a while.

But maybe, I can stop trying to be a faux teacher’s aide for a little bit. I can just try to be an academic.

I’ve always wanted to. Why not start now?

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

4 thoughts on “056. Always Wanted To

  1. hardly one at all » me being a writer. or being a math person. idk

    every problem that could be solved was solved » hilarious

    thought mathematicians were historians » some are!

    people perceived color the same way I did » https://cjquines.com/blog/2019/01/12/automorphisms/

    this was my favorite phrase to use » me too!

    a fucking teacher » a *fucking* teacher?

    had never thought about this before, and it makes me feel excited » i think one of my dream jobs was to be a textbook author, or something. to teach the undergraduate math curriculum well, because i think there’s still lots of potential to make things better. it’d combine writing, math, and design. unfortunately “undergrad math textbook author” is not really a job you can apply for, but i think if you can find a way to do it then you should. it doesn’t have the job security i want (as a person staying in the us on a visa) so that’s my excuse. but if you want to do teaching, you should pursue it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d say you’re a math person and a writer, in the same way one might say so about me. That being said, I wouldn’t believe this hypothetical person so I don’t know if this really helps

      When all you know is your times tables it’s hard to imagine the P=NP problem existing lol

      Yes! Very true. Hmm I wonder if there’s a history PhD in math specifically. Intriguing.

      A fucking *fucking* teacher I fucking am not, for *fucks* sake lol. I thought about taking out the fucking in that sentence but I like it too much. Gotta love ambiguity

      Oh my god yes absolutely right now I’ve really really been thinking about being an undergrad math textbook writer but like, be able to talk to people in the field to enrich the text. Ask questions like “is research happening in this one brief topic” and “what are you trying to get at in this problem”. But right now the biggest things on my mind are 1) job security also. Maybe this is a response to growing up low income but I do really hope one day I can have a more stable life. And 2) what if one day I want to go back for my PhD? Sure I could still do so, but would it be harder? Would financial aid be worse? And 3) how does one make a job that lacks an application? Rip do I need to take sloan classes lol


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