Although I now spend the majority of my waking hours doing something mathematics-related, this wasn’t always so; mediocre high-school teachers and an unstimulating environment led me to discover my affinity for mathematics much later than the vast majority of my peers at university.

My first memory of maths was when my grandparents locked me in a room and said I could have dinner if I slid a completed multiplication or addition table under the door, I think I was 6 or 7 at the time. For most of my school years I wasn’t the fastest, probably because I rarely practised. I hated repetitive activities like the drills necessary to become fast at elementary maths.

My first positive memory with maths was in Grade Three when we were taught that a pair of numbers, coordinates, could represent a point on a grid. I found that fascinating and it reminded me of the game battleship I had been playing recently.

Now fast forward to high school, I continued my lack of studying, while I read many books for pleasure, all of them non-mathematical, I almost never studied what we were being tested on in class.

I was usually an average performer in the top maths class at my average high school. Near the end of Year 11 we had to choose whether to do the highest level of maths in Year 12, the teacher handed out some worksheets for interested students to teach themselves complex numbers, which I took and found very interesting. However, the teacher said that we should do very well in the final to do the highest level of maths, which I didn’t since I didn’t study. This teacher only wanted students who he thought would get the highest grade to do the highest level of maths, even though even the best high schools don’t have everyone getting the highest grade. So I wasn’t part of the two-person class (out of the 160 students in my year) which were taught the highest level of year 12 maths in my state. That I didn’t stand up for myself and ask to be in the class was one of the greatest regrets of my life.

At the time I wanted to be an engineer, so I needed to be OK at maths, so from then on I did a modest amount of studying and started to get the highest marks in the school for the lower level maths, when I noticed that it was too easy I taught myself the highest level in less than a month and progressed to reading university textbooks. I then decided that I wanted to study maths not engineering at university. Now in my higher level maths classes I’m almost the only student who wasn’t the top student from an elite high school, students who have been going beyond the syllabus with maths camps or Olympiads since before I even decided that I liked maths.

Pavel Stoilescu
Australian National University

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