2014 AWM Essay Contest: Middle School Honorable Mention
By: Karen Ge, Kennedy Junior High School in Lisle, Illinois
Coming into the warm Pod from the freezing storm outside feels like going home, as it always does. My school, Kennedy Junior High in Illinois, is organized into various academic teams. The Pod is a separate building that houses my team. Stepping inside, I am greeted by a John F. Kennedy quote, “True happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.” I put everything into my locker, except for a pencil and a binder full of scratch paper. Today is our first real MathCounts meeting of the season. Our coach? Mrs. Croco. At exactly 7:00 AM, Mrs. Croco calls for order and distributes a large packet of geometry problems to every student. “On the front are all of the formulas you need,” she says as she starts to write on the board: Stewart’s Theorem, Area Circumradius Formula, Point-Line Distance Formula…, the list goes on. “I want you to work on these with the person sitting next to you. These are homework if you can’t finish.” The classroom immediately begins to buzz. I flip the front page over and stare at the first problem.
Sitting there, I am motivated by the desire to succeed, yes, but I am also driven by the teaching philosophy of our coach. Mrs. Croco teaches 8th grade Geometry and Physics. She started the Kennedy MathCounts team in 1996 and has since led it to victory in the state and national levels numerous times. The 2002 National MathCounts Champion, Albert Ni, was an 8th grader of Kennedy. What contributes to Kennedy’s success? Let’s do some casework. In order to stand out in the sea of talented faces in the MathCounts state competition, the contestants and/or the coach must be outstanding. There are elite middle schools in Illinois that participate in MathCounts as well. Surely many parents would rather send their talented students to a prestigious private school or to a magnet public school instead of Kennedy, a part of Naperville School District 203. But Kennedy also has the extra edge of hosting the only middle grade gifted program in the district. So the students from Kennedy and those from other schools are about even, at least in terms of mathematical talent. Therefore the only other factor that could contribute to the Kennedy team’s success must be its coach: Mrs. Croco!
How Mrs. Croco gets here is a story, and the best kind: the story of life. Mrs. Croco grew up in the college town of Penn State, a town surrounded by mountains and teeming with academics. Her teachers gave her insight and inspiration that would guide her down the road to where she is today: a highly regarded math and science educator. Her geometry teacher showed her that a whole body of knowledge could be constructed using only a few axioms and a dash of reason. The axioms of her own teaching philosophy came from her calculus teacher, Mr. Clemson. He would send two or three students up to the board to work on a problem together, an idea that was rather unheard of at the time. The board was supposed to be a place for the teacher to lecture, not for the students to think and solve problems. This student interaction later became a central principle of Mrs. Croco’s teaching style. When she became a teacher herself, she would also have students work together and learn from each other. She would coordinate seating arrangements to allow students the chance to talk about ideas and thoughts.
In addition to teamwork, Mrs. Croco is fond of throwing challenging ideas at her students and letting them wrestle with tough questions. She gives crucial ideas and lets students fill in the gaps in the reasoning. Mrs. Croco is famous for her insanely hard tests. A normal ‘A’ student might wonder: am I supposed to know ALL this stuff? But yes, you are, because you’re in Mrs. Croco’s class. Mrs. Croco has a way to make everyone think and thus, she is able to stimulate retention and passion as the two go hand in hand with hard thinking. Like an athlete training for the Olympics, a mathlete needs to wrestle with ideas to the very limit of his/her abilities and then go beyond. “When you struggle through a problem by yourself or with your peers, you learn so much more than what you would learn from the back-of-the-book answer or from your teacher,” says Mrs. Croco.
Although she is well-known as Coach Suzanne Croco of the Illinois team in the national MathCounts competitions, Mrs. Croco does not coach MathCounts just for the sake of the competition. MathCounts is a great way for students to enter into the real world of mathematics. But it is only a bridge, not the destination. Competition math often involves the ability to do math fast, but perseverance is the key to real success in mathematics. Andrew Wiles, for example, worked hard for several decades before he finally proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. That’s why Mrs. Croco’s advice to young mathematicians is “Be willing to work hard.” She instills work ethic into every corner of her students’ minds and thus promotes perseverance. In her classes, the slackers become diligent and the procrastinators develop good study habits. Her former students told me that Mrs. Croco made them better people.
Coming out of the Pod for Spanish, I am greeted by the JKF quote again. “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence,” that’s what Mrs. Croco asks from her students and what she asks from herself. The school which bears John F. Kennedy’s name, my school, has a binding contract of loyalty to its students, ensuring that they have every opportunity to use their powers fully along lines of excellence. Kennedy Junior High serves the gifted in all areas, and the champion of these services is Mrs. Croco. She constantly seeks to uphold her own principles of teamwork and challenge. She trains champions, and is one herself. She is the true meaning of a Kennedy legacy.
About the Student:
Karen Ge is a 7th grader at Kennedy Junior High School in Lisle, Illinois. Her popular study guide Dissecting the New CogAT has helped thousands of students in more than 30 states. She is the concertmaster of Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras’ Concert Orchestra. She is also an AIME qualifier and the best summer she has ever spent was at MathPath. In her free time, Karen is a regular volunteer in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and senior residences where she brings music and joy to the infirm and elderly.