In my opinion, the best way to learn anything is to take an example of what you’re trying to learn and do the whole process backward. This way of thinking originated from my first day of first grade at Bryn Mawr Elementary School. But, before I get into any detail, you have to take a step back to know what you want or how you want to do it. For instance, when you magically find a random amount of straws in your backpack.

As I was heading to my first day of school at Bryn Mawr, in order to get to school at Bryn Mawr, I would have to take the school bus. As a kid, I wanted to make sure that I brought everything that I needed to be prepared on the first day of school, so I began to open my backpack and check if I had all the materials that I needed. Then, I began to name off all my items on the bus, “Okay, pencils, binder, paper, eraser and my bus pass.” Then I go silent, for some reason, there were straws in my backpack, with random amounts in each pocket of the backpack. Furthermore, under closer inspection, the straws seem to have been cut up. While I was confused, I began to think, “Why are their straws in my backpack, I don’t remember packing any straws in my backpack”. Embarrassed, I started to shove the straws deep into my pack, making sure that no one saw that I brought straws on my first day of school. After school was finally over I rushed home as quickly as I could to ask my dad why there were straws with me on my first day of school.

When I finally arrived at the doorsteps of my house, I entered to see my dad at the kitchen table doing some paperwork with a knowing look on his face as our eyes met. Once I entered the kitchen, my dad asked, “Hi son, how was school?” As I looked at him, I said, “School wasn’t bad, but dad why was there straws in my backpack? I was so embarrassed.” The conversation began to expand with me telling him how I found the straws in my backpack, and it ended when I finally asked him, “It was you wasn’t it?” At that moment, my dad nodded his head and gave me an explanation of what he wanted me to do with those straws. He explained that he expected me to be curious about why there were straws and how many of them were in my backpack. He also said that he wanted me to know how much was in each pocket. I kept looking at him with a befuddled look on my face, but as he kept explaining my face slowly changed from a puzzled expression into a smile. I thought of this as a game with some reward at the end of it, because knowing my dad he always has some reward at the end. After this talk, he told me that he now expected me to count the straws every day and to know how much was in each pocket by the time I come home. The next day came with me finding a new game to play with the randomness of school in play.

 cut up straws

When day two began, I got on the bus looking at the new amount of straws in every pocket of my backpack. In the outermost pocket that usually holds my pencils and erasers now held an extra seven straws, the middle pocket holding ten straws, and finally the pocket that held my binder and papers had nine straws. I finished the task of counting by the time the bus arrived at school. As a child, I was a student who was very shy and did not like to ask questions, which led me to be too scared to ask my teacher to double check if the amount I counted in my backpack was correct when we were on the subject of math. But as school ended I boarded the bus and got off on the stop that dropped me off near my cousin’s house, the place where my parents would usually pick me up. Then, I entered his house and was soon exposed to a new form of math that I never even knew existed.

Upon entering the house, I saw that my older cousin, Azariah, who was in the eighth grade at the time, was working on his math homework which included multiplication and division in his problems. As a kid, the math terminology looked like magic. While he got the answers so quickly, I could only watch him come up with what seemed like random numbers at the time. Before I could even remember to ask him if the amount I counted for the straws were correct, I was mesmerized by this type of math. When he got to next problem, I stopped him before he could write another number and shouted a random number, “Twenty!” He then looked at me with a laugh and said, “The actual answer is twenty-five, you were pretty close though.” I look at him with a confused look, similar to the one I had when I initially found straws in my backpack. While he continued to do his homework, I kept stating random numbers to every problem he moved on to, “Ten, twenty-five, sixteen, thirty!” Right before I could say another answer he stopped me and said, “Thirty, that’s right, you should help me with my homework more often.” With a smile on my face, I remember that I needed to ask him if he could check my work on a number of straws in my backpack, but before I could, I heard a beep outside, signifying that one of my parents came to pick me up.

The parent who picked me up was my mom and she was in a rush because she had work soon, so I ran to the car with a new thinking of how can five and five with an “x” in the middle equal twenty-five and how six and five with an “x” in the middle equal thirty. When I eventually got home,  the first question my dad asked was, “how many straws were in my backpack and how many were in each pocket?” I gave him his answer and he nodded before telling me to do my homework and as we’d do it together, he would count the straws with me. He would occasionally subtract a couple straws and ask me how many are left. Each time I gave him the correct answer. However, my cousin’s more complicated math problems were always in the back of my mind. With my dad next to me I asked him, “How do you do these problems?” I showed him the two problems I saw on my cousin’s homework, and he was surprised that I would be learning these concepts so early. He then went into the kitchen and got my cut up straws and brought them to the table.

Shortly after this, there were thirty straws on the table.  He then divided them into five categories with five in each of them. He explained that when you have five multiplied by five you get twenty-five because of what he was showing me. At first, I was confused, until he showed me six groups of five straws in each saying, “This equals thirty, do you see why?” As I kept thinking I began to see that when counting them individually, it all added up to be thirty straws. I then began to understand what the “x” meant, it meant to take the number five and add six other fives and get the number thirty. He then showed me that five times five equaled twenty-five. I understood how to figure out answers to a problem by taking a step back and looking at the answer to dissect the problem to grasp an understanding of what multiplication was. 

Throughout the school year, my dad began to add even more straws as well as multiplication questions to our math sessions at home on top of the initial addition and subtraction questions. As I kept going to my cousin’s house, I began to see him do his multiplication problems, but this time I saw him do something with his hand. It was the trick that only applied when multiplying by the number nine. After I learned this loophole, I began to try to find new ways to make multiplication more efficient. This natural interest in math caused my brain to become more geared towards the subject. As I graduated each year, I always excelled at the subject faster than most kids and have gained an affinity towards math.

Throughout my childhood, I was always exposed to mathematics and was taught that there was always more than one way to finding the solution to any given problem. This was achieved by working backward to find out how that answer came into existence. With this new way of critical thinking, I now know how to excel at math at an incredible rate because of early exposure to math and critical thinking at a young age. This ability now has now branched out into many types of math, such as algebra, pre-calculus, calculus, and my favorite subject, statistics. Through my own experiences, the way to learn math was to take a step back and try to understand how the solution came about, by being curious and asking lots of questions, as well as through the support of my dad and cousin. Learning anything is hard and confusing at first, but as time passes you can slowly gain an affinity to any subject, which in my case, was mathematics.