math lessons from dad

It’s true what they say: The older you get, the more you understand your parents. You start to see the world through their eyes instead of your own rose-coloured glasses. You start to read between the lines of scriptures they’ve written for you. You step into their shoes more often.

In the spirit of Father’s Day, here are six lessons from my dad that have shaped me into who I am today, illustrated through my elaborate journey of conquering what was once my greatest enemy: Math.

When I first navigated the uncharted territories of primary school, my parents made a decision: My dad would oversee my STEM subjects while my mom would care for humanities. They were no doubt my first teachers in life, and the best too (because while I may have thrown all relative velocity knowledge to the wind, their lessons are engraved on the inside of my skull).

As all educations go, math was a required subject. Now, I’ve never fancied math; we mix like oil and water. My disdain for the subject only roared louder as I ascended through the years and alphabets were introduced to the mix, not to mention little numbers that could be suspended on upper rights.

In primary school, we’d be given math homework almost every day and there would be instances when I didn’t know how to solve a question. As a kid, when I bumped into trouble, my instinct was to go to my parents. And so, I did.

Gripping workbooks in my tiny, chubby fingers, I’d knock on my parents’ room and send an SOS signal with twinkling eyes. Every time, I’d be turned away with the same phrase: “Figure it out yourself.” I would proceed to perform the walk of shame back to my room, not to attempt the question, but to simply sit around gazing at the ceiling or reading a comic book to kill time. I had thought that if I procrastinated long enough, I would exceed my bedtime and my dad would just drop the solution into my arms. He never did.

Over and over, he would tell me to figure it out. “Work with what you have and start from there. Don’t ask for answers before you have exhausted every possible method. Don’t ask especially if you haven’t even tried.”

The man knew what tricks I had up my sleeves. He could see through me like glass and always knew if I didn’t give something my best. Here comes lesson one: NEVER SIT AROUND WAITING FOR ANSWERS. FIGURE IT OUT YOURSELF.

Life works the same way; we can’t swivel around in a chair, legs kicked up, expecting others to give us answers all the time. Dependence on others to sustain your personal excellence negates all excellence you may think you have. Work your way through problems and reap the results—the fruit is sweeter that way.

Slowly, I stopped knocking on his door. Instead, I sat on the swivel chair with my legs dangling off the ground and took apart questions like they were Lego pieces. I stared down the numbers and referenced similar equations. When all else failed, I would finally walk up to him knowing that I gave it my best shot, and he could see it too. That’s when he’d explain where I went wrong and guide me toward the solution.

My dad never gives me answers. He makes me work for it. He understands that that is key to me retaining not just solutions, but steps to figuring out the solution. He was, and still is, a strict teacher; I was, and arguably still am, a careless math student. I would miswrite carry-forwards, cross multiply the wrong values, and fail to catch my errors even after double-checks.

My dad’s ailment to my carelessness was practice sets. Lots and lots of them. A child’s greatest nightmare. Here is where the second lesson comes into play: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.

If there is one adage that embodies my childhood, it is this. In fact, my every bodily nerve would twitch when I hear that phrase because it’s been uttered to me so often.

Due to my lack of mathematical prowess and seeing as how it is a subject carried over into other STEM classes, my dad took it upon himself to make sure I got in as much practice as I could. Even if it wasn’t assigned in the day’s homework, he would scan through both textbooks and workbooks and designate a handful of questions for me to do. Sometimes, he would even formulate his own. Though fuzzy today, when asked about my childhood, I’d say it was a blend of Teen Titans, ice cream vans, firecrackers, and mathematical equations.

If he had never placed stacks upon stacks of practice sets in front of me, I would’ve never seen the results of this lesson. I would’ve never believed that practice makes perfect, or at least, near-perfect. However, this lesson works hand in hand with another like two cogs in a machine: MISTAKES ARE PERMISSIBLE. BUT ONLY IF YOU LEARN FROM THEM.

Allow me to walk you through what doing a standard practice set was like in my early youth. We’d do one round of thirty MCQs, my dad would grade it, have me explain my thought process for questions that I got wrong, figure out the correct answers, erase the set, and have me do it all over again. We’d do this for each set for however long it took me to get a perfect score—however long it took me to understand and learn from my mistakes.

It was tedious. It was a process that I harboured a lungful of hatred for. I thought: If I had gotten it wrong in the first place, I’m never going to figure it out now, why won’t someone just hand me the solution tied in a bow? This, very effectively (as if it was my dad’s master plan all along) links back to the first lesson. Round and round we rode this carousel, slowly guiding my mathematics grades uphill. My mental decision to label myself as ‘math deficient’ was overturned because of his belief that I could be better.

My dad (and now, me too) believes that nobody is inherently bad at something, only that they are unwilling to learn. Lesson four: BE WILLING TO WORK.

If you want to be good at something but you weren’t born with the talent, then clock in your hours, put in your efforts, do it over and over again until you get the hang of it. Every time you fail, learn from your mistakes. Single out strands of weaknesses and terminate them. Identify room for improvement and work on it. Similarly, a person who has extraordinary skills but doesn’t practice those skills will never improve and will only stay at the level they were born into. They case themselves under a limit instead of opening up to achieve full potential. No person in this world, no matter their background or circumstance, is exempt from work.

When you put in the work, you are investing in a future version of yourself. You are essentially believing that you can do better and with the existence of that belief, you open yourself up to growth. However, what we constantly forget is that ‘putting in the work’ entails not taking shortcuts. People do not grow through easy outs and sunny days, we grow through trials and tribulations, storms and waves. Lesson five: WHAT’S EASY ISN’T ALWAYS RIGHT, AND WHAT’S RIGHT ISN’T ALWAYS EASY.

The way math subjective questions are graded in the Malaysian education system is by steps. If a question is worth seven points, you’d better make sure you have six lines of equations that lead up to the right answer. At some point in school, I started chasing speed instead. I wanted to get to solutions quickly so I could move onto the next page. Therefore, I skipped steps. I took shortcuts. And that cost me a lot of marks. It was one of the mistakes that I’ve identified thanks to my dad’s rigorous shakedown of all my test papers.

That’s where this lesson comes into play. Just because something is easier doesn’t mean you should go through with it. It’s not just the consequences that await you on the other end of the shorter path, it’s the experience and lessons that you will miss out on from not pursuing the right course of action.

Of course, simply thinking about all those lessons imparted on me that I have to act on was tiring. I wanted to just be a careless math student if it meant I wouldn’t have to put myself through this analysis and learning all the time.

I’d give up on doing the sets and sprawl on the ground like the dramatic student that I was, but my dad has a zero-tolerance policy for throwing in towels. He made sure I knew that if I didn’t strengthen my foundation through practices, I would only fall behind and widen the gap between myself and my peers. He also made sure I understood that if I was willing to give up on a task this simple, that attitude will translate over to everything else that I do—which brings us, merrily, to the sixth and final lesson: A PERSON’S SUCCESS IS DETERMINED BY THEIR ATTITUDES, NOT THEIR TALENTS.

Perhaps I should clarify: While a person’s skills and talents contribute toward their ultimate success, it is not the determining factor. If both winners and losers of life are working toward the same goal, then the key that separates them is ‘attitude’.

I wasn’t exactly an all-rounded or talented student in primary school (and the first three years of high school, honestly). I didn’t realize my talents and skills until I grew a little bit older and started this insane obsession with all things content creation. I was your average student, doing enough to stay afloat in school, ballet, and music classes but not enough to be the cherry on top.

I was about to settle for mediocrity when my dad talked to me about the sixth lesson. He told me that while there is a difference between my peers’ skills and those of mine, while I kicked off late in the race, I have the remaining length of the track to persevere and catch up.

Though one might not always emerge as the underdog and win the race in a confetti of victory, you can be damn sure that having the right attitude and mindset unleashes more potential in you than you ever thought possible.

Let’s stick with the math example. I wasn’t born a math genius, as illustrated by previous points. Still, I knew I wanted to make my parents proud with an all-A IGCSE result slip, which of course, contained modern and additional math (along with eight other subjects, no pressure at all). That was the finish line.

My momentum in high school slightly wavered when I missed out on a year of the curriculum because I was studying abroad. When I came back, all I could see on the whiteboard were logarithms and exponentials, and my brain registered zilch. I froze up all rigid like the iceberg in Titanic, ready to wreck the ship that was my high school career.

During the first exam upon my return, I got a C. Now, if you are born Asian, you know a C stands for ‘Can’t eat dinner’ (this is a meme, I’m hoping somebody gets it). I had half a mind to stop trying in math and redirect that energy into other subjects instead, thinking that if I can’t get an A in math, at least I can redeem myself in other fields.

Then I remembered what my dad said. Sure, I’m in a class packed with Einsteins and Eulers, but feeling inferior to others isn’t a solid reason to drop out of the race. I refused to let myself fall into the rabbit hole of giving up. I readjusted my attitude. I burned the midnight oil studying and practicing when kids my age were partying. I asked questions without shame when I got confused. I spent lunch breaks in the teacher’s office seeking explanations for concepts I couldn’t comprehend (I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank my amazing teachers and friends for exhausting all possible ways of explaining basic concepts in additional math to me). I made sure I had a ‘can-do’ attitude every time I had to face math.

Lo and behold.

A shining row of A’s.

And six lessons retained.

Needless to say, there are more than six mere lessons from my dad that I keep inside this brain of mine. These six are the ones I remind myself to practice every single day because I’ve seen the person these lessons created and I want to be just as successful as that person. Luckily enough, I am that person’s daughter.

Happy Father’s Day, pa.