Boys and Math

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I sent my daughter to math camp this summer, and when we arrived that first day we were a little unsettled to see that the camp was dominated, by far, by boys, Asian boys. A bunch of us moms were chatting -- here we are, Asian moms sending kids to math camp -- and we asked the mom of this one boy: does he like math? And she shrugged and said, well, first he likes robots, then computer programming, then math.

But I just happened to have visited this boy's sixth grade language arts class during the school year. Up on the wall was a bunch of student writing about each kid's family. Many of the kids did kind of a family infomercial: "We're so great, we went to Hawaii this year, pizza, soccer and grandma's card tricks..." But this one boy took the assignment more at face value. He wrote some vignettes, both happy and sad, about his family life. He might have made them all up, but his words were evocative and stirring. Reading them, I was uplifted and I was heartbroken. And I thought, whatever else this little dude is, he's a writer.

It reminded me of hearing the father of Anne Frank talk about reading his daughter's diary. He read it several years after she wrote it, several years after she died. His comment: "I didn't know. I lived with her in this house, every day, and I didn't know she wrote like this, I didn't know her."

Why are parents so quick to sum up their boys: he's into robots, or video games, or Lego? I think he's doing this stuff with his friends while socking away material for his great American novel. That horde of boys at the camp -- all boys, all Asian, all tweens -- I have no idea who they are. Not a clue.

With a Perspective, I'm Marjorie Sayer.


Marjorie Sayer is a Hong Kong-born mathematician.