You Do Not Need to Fit Into a Mold
For this week's blog, I am going to share a glimpse into my younger years, and highlight some of the misconceptions I had that were imposed on me by society and culture. These misconceptions informed many of my choices, and proved to be unnecessarily binding, which I discovered as I got older, and which I hope you discover as well, if you already haven't.
So first, I will paint the picture of young Rich. I was a "smart" kid, in that I showed promise in school (I use the quotes around "smart" because in reality, academic performance is really only one kind of smart, and a very specific kind at that - smart at school). From an early age my teachers would compliment me and encourage me with sentiments like "Richard is a bright child who grasps concepts quickly and easily". My proud parents were of course overjoyed, and reinforced this notion regularly. I was also a very curious kid who loved to read, and I would read pretty much anything, including a set of Encyclopedia Britannica For Kids that my mother bought for me and was on display in my room. To be honest, I read it because it was interesting, and the entries were formatted as interesting stories rather than dry facts. But it earned me the moniker in our family as "the kids who reads encyclopedias", which I suppose was true. Physically speaking I was overly skinny due to many bouts with childhood asthma where I had to be hospitalized. I was also very introverted, which at that age manifests as shy to most people. So basically, the picture here is more or less the stereotypical nerd we often see in movies and television. Think Big Bang Theory when they were all kids (not just Young Sheldon), and you have a decent picture. And my strongest subject was math.
Nerds Must Only Be Nerds
This was a common theme. I think sometimes it still is, depending on what movie you are watching or what sub-culture you are immersed in. What being a math nerd meant for me was not only that I had to be smart, but that I could not be other things. I could not be an artist. I could not be athletic. I could not be "cool". Not that I didn't want to be these things - and more - but that any departure I made from math nerd was often met by my classmates with dismissal at best, and derision at worst. When I wanted to play sports, the athletes picked me last for teams, although in their defense, I was not great at sports - but the internal question for me was why? Which came first - not being athletic or not supposed to be athletic?. The "popular" kids bullied me when I tried to engage socially. When I wanted to express myself artistically people would act surprised, since I was a math guy, and often was told to "stick to math, which is what you're good at". Sad right? Because the implication is that if you are good at math then you somehow can't be good at other things. It even extended to what kind of music I was supposed to listen to. Genres like Heavy Metal, Progressive Rock, Punk, etc, were not for the nerds. We listened to top 40 music only. Not that this was bad music, but it was limiting. And although I felt compelled to draw, act, write poetry and prose, and play sports, I was cut off from these activities by a perceived category that I belonged to. To be clear, nobody was explicitly telling me that I could not do other things. But whenever I would make a foray into these areas, the surprise and resistance I met from others dictated the safer path I was destined to follow.
Or So I Thought
I admit I have painted a relatively sad picture to this point. In truth, it wasn't a sad existence at all. I do love mathematics, and the so-called nerdy pursuits like reading, being into science fiction, and playing video games are enriching and rewarding. And I had plenty of like-minded friends. So if it seems like my childhood was some sort of desolate slog, it is very much not the case. However there were things I would have liked to explore that I did not, because I was not supposed to. Or so I thought. The real truth is the only thing ever really holding us back from pursuing something is ourselves. As I got older, I began to learn this lesson, and it really is transformative. The cliché that says you can be anything you want to be is sort of true (I say sort of, because the truth is there are some things you can't be - not everyone is cut out for everything - but as you evolve you begin to realize that that's ok, because for every one thing that may not be your destiny, there are 20 things that are on the menu for you). The sentiment resonates. If you want to try something, then you should. And if you devote real effort and energy to it, you will always be rewarded with growth.
Being Good at Math (or anything!) Proves You Can be Good
So the real lesson is that when you are good at something, what that should prove to you is that you can be good at things. See, it's easy right? If you believe you can't be good at things, but you are good at something, then you are wrong in believing you can't be good at things. And so in the case of the math nerd, if you are good at math, well then, why not other things too? Just because math people aren't supposed to be able to write poetry doesn't mean they can't write poetry. One look at The Renaissance, and people like Da Vinci really should show us the fallacy of that. Personally, when I realized that, the world opened up again, just as it was open when I was a child, before artificial norms imposed themselves on my view of what was possible.
This lesson has been inestimably rewarding to me as I grew older. Today I understand that there is no mold. There are no fetters. My love of math means nothing more or less than that I love math. It doesn't include or preclude any other expression or pursuit. And so I have done and continue to explore many passions, which I hope might inspire you, the reader, to do the same. Below are some photos from different areas of my life that provide outlets for creativity, passion and expression. In each case the lessons I learn from mathematics, teaching and from the act of developing in those areas are thing I apply directly and indirectly to foster growth.
Rich the Actor
In my 40's I began pursuing musical theatre. I have performed in many shows, from Grease, to Jesus Christ Superstar, to Fiddler on the Roof (and more). The lessons I learn teaching allow me to find ways to connect to an audience, and learning to communicate with students with completely different learning styles and backgrounds have taught me how to express myself through characters whose personalities are definitely not the same as mine. I have included a few photos from these shows.
Rich the Director
I have also had the pleasure to direct a few musical theatre productions. Working as a director is about many things. An overall vision for the production, motivating cast to be at their best and setting them up to shine, and managing all the tiny details and decisions that a director is responsible for. My experience with mathematics helps me to see the broader picture, and teaches me to be detail-oriented. My experience teaching has shown me how brightly people will shine when you allow them to, and provide the right encouragement. Here is a photo of me introducing a school production of Beauty and the Beast, which I directed:
Rich the Artist
In my mid-40's, I decided to finally apply real effort to learning to draw, something I always wanted to do but never felt I could, because I was a "math guy". My math background is invaluable here in my understanding of shapes and interaction with light, as well as the value in perseverance and dedication to solving a problem. Math has also taught me very well how to spot mistakes, be grateful for them, and then learn from them. Here is a recent drawing I did of my daughter when she was young:
Rich the Bodybuilder
In my adult years I decided that it was just silly thinking that because I liked the so-
called nerdy pursuits that I could not also pursue fitness and athleticism. I had always admired physiques built with weights, and thought "why not me too?". Bodybuilding is a profound journey. It teaches the value of patience, perseverance, determination in the face of setbacks and the celebration of incremental success. But if you re-read that sentence, and start it with "mathematics" instead of "bodybuilding", it reads just as true. The lessons I have learned in the gym complement the lessons I learn studying mathematics.
In my brain there is no distinction between these or any of the other pursuits I outlined above. To me it is all just growing, following passions, and loving what I do. I would love to know that you do the same for yourself!
Thanks for reading,