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Math Geek Mom: Apples and Oranges
December 12, 2013 - 7:29pm

I sometimes feel like I am trying to sell fruits and vegetables whe I teach about the concept of “Pareto Optimality” in my Economics classes. This concept, which describes an equilibrium in an economy in which no one may be made better off without someone is made worse off, can be explained by using the example of apples and oranges. If someone likes apples, but has oranges, and someone else has oranges, but likes apples, then everyone would be better off if they traded apples and oranges, thereby improving everyone’s level of satisfaction, and bringing the economy to a point that is called “Pareto Superior” to that found under the original distribution of goods. The truth is, however, that such opportunities for redistribution are hard to find, and such win-win situations are rare. I found myself thinking of this concept a recently when I ran into a former student in the produce section of the local supermarket.

It was the height of the crazy shopping season, and when a woman whom I did not immediately recognize stopped her shopping cart and peered at me closely, I assumed that I had cut her off and offended her in my haste to get to the bananas before she did. However, that was not what was driving her interest. She looked at me for a second before saying “you’re Dr. Emanuele, aren’t you?” Yes I was, I responded, and she then re-introduced herself, starting with her last name, to which I was immediately able to supply a first name and a collection of memories.

She had come to Ursuline after retiring from her first job, in order to become certified to teach Math. She was part of a small cohort of student that year, and they all muddled through Calculus and the theory classes with me in the dark days after the terrorist attacks of 2001. We were all in a state of shell shock, and I often found myself staying after class to talk to them about things much more serious than number theory and integrals. How did one woman tell her young daughter about what had happened?

Did another woman’s sister make it back safely after being stranded in Florida when all flights were grounded for a few days as the country reacted to the events? Suddenly, revolving a function around a line that may or may not be the x or y axes seemed trivial. And yet we proceeded, and eventually the country, and the world, found a new normal in which to find anti-derivatives.

My former student told me that she is teaching math at a small Catholic school on the other side of town, and is happy with her choice of a second career. She recently worked with the diocese as it revised its math curriculum to meet the new “Common Core” standards, and told me that another student from her cohort, who earned certification in both Math and English at the same time, was doing the same, but for the English portion of the new curriculum. I told her I was glad I had run into her, and then we both departed to purchase our groceries.

I had come to the store in search of food, but left with a renewed sense of purpose in what I do every day. And so, my readers, I have a question to ask you. What stories do you have about running into former students when you are out and about?

Wishing all of my readers truly Happy Holidays and a wonderful New Year!

 

 

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