Math Geek Mom: Intersecting Lives

An important topic from Algebra is that of intersecting lines. Equations can be written representing lines on graph paper, and Algebra, especially Linear Algebra, helps find points that are contained on more than one line, where two or more lines intersect. I thought of this last weekend as I watched former students walk across a stage to receive their diplomas, and realized that their lives had intersected with mine. I know that my life is richer for having known them.

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May 24, 2012

An important topic from Algebra is that of intersecting lines. Equations can be written representing lines on graph paper, and Algebra, especially Linear Algebra, helps find points that are contained on more than one line, where two or more lines intersect. I thought of this last weekend as I watched former students walk across a stage to receive their diplomas, and realized that their lives had intersected with mine. I know that my life is richer for having known them.

As is usually the case with graduations, there was an abundance of speakers, each giving the graduates some piece of wisdom while they were still a captive audience. We heard from our commencement speaker and then from our college president, who summarized the details of the graduating class, including the fact that the oldest graduate was “sixty six years young.” But the speaker I remember most clearly was a priest who spoke of his experience working in Haiti, with the “poorest of the poor.”

He told the story of distributing basic necessities to people in Haiti, and expecting them to respond as he gave them water or food with something like “gracias”  or “thank you.” Instead, he told us, he heard them respond with the words “Dios y tú,” which means, literally, “God and you.” Perplexed at this, he was told that this response was a shortened version of the phrase “you will never know what good God and you are doing.” He let that phrase sit for a moment in the silence, as he addressed the graduates. And then he directed it back to them, telling them that “you will never know what good God and you are doing.”

That phrase resonated through the day, as I watched my students leave us, recalling the circumstances under which I met them and remembering their stories, some filled with hardship but most with hope. I watched the woman who had graduated a few years ago as a math major, and now was graduating with a master’s degree only to be commissioned into the Army the following day. I worried for her safety, as she put her life on the line protecting our safety. And I watched as one of my strongest students walked onto the stage to receive an award for having the highest grade point average over her time at our school. She is a mother, and as I recalled my own undergraduate years, I wondered how someone with the responsibilities of motherhood could have been so successful at her studies.

I watched as a Maronite Sister from Lebanon received her diploma. She is an amazing math student, and I made her promise me that she would pursue graduate work in math some day. I remembered how she was often able to help me out of messes when I forgot a negative sign as I presented a problem on the board. I recall talking to her last fall, when I grew frustrated at the change in the words spoken at the Roman Catholic mass. I asked her what was spoken at the Maronite ceremony, and she gave me good advice that once again helped remove negatives; “just focus on God, that is all that matters.”

I watched as my former research assistant marched across the stage, feeling great satisfaction that she had not just one, but two possibilities for jobs. I am grateful to her for the data set she assembled for us this past spring, and hope that I can enlist her to help us with some more research before she begins her life as a professional.

I watched as student after student posed with our college president to receive their diploma, and laughed when one woman was greeted with a young voice calling from the balcony “way to go, mom!” I could not help but think of my own daughter who will, I hope, some day walk a similar walk.

Of course, there were many students who graduated whom I had not met in person. While I did teach both members of the mother-daughter team that graduated that night, I did not teach either the wife or husband who received diplomas together. Nor did I meet the woman who received not one but two organ transplants during her days as a student. As I reflected on the willpower that would be necessary to go through that experience and still earn a degree, I was overwhelmed with admiration. But then, I am used to admiring my students, many of whom work full time jobs while raising children and also attending college.

I saw many others, some who took only one class from me, some who took several, and some who were my advisees for several years. As I watched them receive their degrees, I could not help but recall what that first speaker had said.

And so, dear graduates of the class of 2012, from Ursuline College and elsewhere, best of luck in your futures. May you always know what good you are doing in this world.

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