How I fell in love with math?

How I fell in love with math?
Image credit: Jason

In my high school, I was good at Math. At least according to the school exam standards. I was consistently scoring high numbers in exams. My math teachers used to encourage me to participate in other math exams and competitions that are not related to my textbooks. I also liked exploring. I had topped one of such exams at Rajkot science center. I started participating in more exams.

One of those exams was called ‘Regional Mathematical Olympiad (RMO)’. I was in 11th grade at that time. I attended some training sessions for that exam. However, no new concept was introduced in the training. It was all pre-calculus math. Things we studied before 10th grade. I liked those training sessions because they were filled with a lot of math puzzles. Other students attended many more training sessions. I started a bit late. Anyway, I gave the exam. RMO normally has 6 questions. I could barely answer two of them and made a little progress on some other questions. I was not used to this type of situations. I was used to scoring above 90-95 in a 100 marks math exams. This was new. The questions were hard. Wish I had started training for this exam earlier.

A few weeks pass by. I was back to my normal school studies. Preparing for the competitive exams and board exams. Suddenly, one day I received a call from a math teacher saying that I am selected to participate in the ‘Indian National Mathematical Olympiad (INMO)’. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t do so well in the RMO exam. That means that the other students also couldn’t do so well. The exam was indeed hard. They select about 30 students from each state to participate in INMO. I was one of them. I now had to go to Ahmedabad to train for INMO at Gujarat University every weekend. I couldn’t hide my excitement. It turns out that the letter for my official invitation wasn’t delivered. So, the math teacher had to call me. This was all happening at the last minute. I got to know about my selection just one day before the start date of the training.

I somehow made it on time for the first day. I met the other students who were selected for from Rajkot. That is the first time I get to read the invitation letter. Although it wasn’t mine. I got to know my score. It was 40 out of 100. My school exams had a threshold of 35 marks for passing a 100 marks exam. So, according to that standard, I barely passed. I was still not the last. I was somewhere in the middle. A few 9th grade students had scored higher than me. Got to know them as well. Over the next few weeks, I was travelling and staying with those brilliant students, and we became good friends.

RMO was hard. INMO was obviously going to be harder. When the training started, we experienced that. For the first time in my life, I was not a star student. I was average, that too in a subject I liked the most. We solved many problems during those training sessions. The problem with being average is that I could understand what was going on. I could understand the solutions. But most of the time, I couldn’t solve the problems. This is worse than being a typical back bencher, who has no clue what’s going on, and can safely ignore the class and focus on the far more important last page doodling. I couldn’t do that. Something was still keeping me engaged.

This time we were learning new things. There was still no calculus. I can’t imagine how hard it would become if they included calculus and other higher level topics. Some of those training sessions were conducted by prof A. R. Rao. He was very old at that time. He couldn’t even stand. He would still come to help us. Other teachers were doing the board work for him. He mainly focused on geometry. A subject that is too hard for me. Obviously, like other teachers, he also gave us harder problems. Compared to the other teachers, he was way too hard to impress. I particularly remember the time when I solved one of his homework problem. A big deal for me. I was weak at geometry. Solving his problem somewhat boosted my confidence. However, my solution used trigonometry. The next day, he presented a solution without using trigonometry. I told him that I have a solution of that problem that used trigonometry. He didn’t even see my solution and discarded it, saying that trigonometry was derived from geometry and my solution could not be simpler than his. My happiness flew away. He was right. His solution was much simpler. He wanted us to develop that higher level of understanding of basic geometry.

Finally, the day of exam is here. Unlike my other exams, I am not very confident for this. Yes, I had attended all the training. But I wasn’t yet solving those harder problems with consistency. The exam begins. First shock: It is in English. My English is not good at this point of time. I learned all the math in Gujarati so far. There is a back side of that paper where the same questions are written in Hindi. Which is no better. Even though the language is easier to understand, the terminology seems weird in Hindi. It is rather easier to do the exam in English.

Before I could recover, here comes the second shock: the first question is about geometry. What a start! The second question was from number theory. Okay, I get to breathe a little. I can start answering that question. The first step is obvious. I write that down. And I am back to being blank. Other questions, I don’t even know where to start. I see a student getting up and submitting the paper. He scored the second highest in RMO. What a genius. Finished the exam before time. I decided to stay in the exam room even though I am not making any progress at all. Anyway, if I leave the room, I will have to wait for my friends to finish the exam. So, better wait inside the exam room. The longest wait ever. The clock and my brain are both not moving.

Finally, exam is over. For the first time, I haven’t solved any question. I am expecting my first zero in a math exam. Some of my friends have managed to solve one question and are happy. They should be. It was a hard exam. My mental bubble of being good at math is broken. In just a few weeks, I have experienced the transition from a topper to an average and then to a poor student.

A few weeks later, the results are declared. Aha, I haven’t score zero. The examiners gifted me 4 marks for making some progress (although trivial) in the second question. There are 8 students with score zero. This includes the topper who left early. Turns out he had a bad day. As far as I remember, he cleared the INMO exam next year. Well, I am having mixed feelings. On one hand, I am not happy with my performance. But, on the other hand, I am happy to see the scoresheet, where only 13 students scored higher than me. I am not last.

This one exam made me more interested in math. I believe this was the key reason for me choosing to convert my single degree engineering program at BITS to a dual degree program with M.Sc. Mathematics as my second degree. Number theory and discrete math are still my favorites.

Special thanks to Ajay (a friend who also gave those exams and scored higher than me) for finding the results PDFs that helped me recollect these memories.

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