Student Essay Contest

The Limit Does Not Exist

2017 AWM Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner

By: Karen Ge Naperville North High School (Naperville, Illinois)

Walking into Room 203, all of us are filled with anticipation, a bit of fear, and mounting excitement. It is our first day of AP Calculus BC, famous as one of the hardest math courses offered at Naperville North High School. Stories of receiving the first “C” in a math class and insanely long tests fly around the room in surreptitious whispers. When the bell rings, our teacher, Mrs. Moore, dispels our fears with a warm smile then starts outlining her expectations and goals for the year. Since everyone expects a relaxing introduction to the course, we are startled when she transitions into a presentation about limits halfway through the period. “Remember pre-calc days when you looked at an expression like this?” she begins. Mrs. Moore proceeds to work out the example and give us three more to try on our own. “Yes, there is homework today. Like I said, we have a lot to cover this year.”
Today, our class sets out discussing an intuitive definition of a “continuous” function. “Well, what kinds of functions are not continuous?” Mrs. Moore inquires. My table group and I brainstorm the graphs of discontinuities. After that, we move to the whiteboards and chalkboards around the room to sketch our ideas. Mrs. Moore scans the room approvingly before asking each group to describe its drawings. Eventually, we conclude that the limit concept is hidden in our vague ideas of the function “approaching” some value. “Very good! This will be our definition of continuity, then,” Mrs. Moore announces, “the limit as x approaches c of f (x) is equal to f (c).” She explains that this equation conveys three key pieces of information: the limit exists, f (c) exists, and they are equal. I am struck by the sheer simplicity of this fundamental definition. With each new concept I learn, my respect for Mrs. Moore only grows. Even so, it was not until I got to know her story that I truly began to admire her character.
Elizabeth Moore grew up with a physicist father and an accountant mother, and she always had a knack for math. Indeed, she was the only young woman taking both Calculus and Physics in her high school. “I really like it when I see math connect in itself,” she explained. This love of intertwining concepts elucidates her passion for teaching Calculus, a subject that beautifully combines algebra and geometry. Mrs. Moore recalled that other subjects, unlike math and science, felt more tedious since numbers and their relationships were less obvious in those courses. Her parents valued education greatly, so, to meet their high expectations, she developed a strong work ethic and dogged perseverance early on. She also loved to work and discuss problems with others. However, her parents were not thrilled about a teaching career for their daughter due to more traditional Asian standards. Instead, they expected Mrs. Moore and her younger brother to become doctors or engineers. As a result, she started college with only a vague idea of what her future might hold.
Mrs. Moore attended Cornell University, beginning with a double major in applied mathematics and computer science. Soon she found that coding did not suit her, so she began exploring other options, eventually settling on Cornell’s five-year teaching program. As she finished her undergraduate education, however, she could not shake off her parents’ worries about the stability of a teaching job. Changing plans again, she started graduate school studying applied mathematics, working with differential equations and modeling in computational chemistry. As an obedient daughter, she felt limited by others’ expectations.
At last, the pressure of fate abated during Mrs. Moore’s second year of graduate school. She realized that, as much as physical chemistry innovatively applied the mathematics she loved, she enjoyed being a teaching assistant more than she liked working on research. Her parents finally conceded that their daughter was destined to be a teacher, allowing her to pursue the path that, though less common in their culture, matched her love for helping others. Although Mrs. Moore’s journey through higher education was unusual, it was not wasted. During these years, she observed, “I started discovering that there’s a lot of math in pretty much everything,” which only deepened her joy in teaching mathematics.
Today, Mrs. Moore is the sole instructor of AP Calculus BC and Multivariable Calculus with Linear Algebra, the highest-level math courses taught at Naperville North. Her dedication to teaching, her variety of resources, and her unlimited energy render the subject manageable for her students despite the lightning-fast pace. Mrs. Moore is always available to answer questions; she provides review videos and extra practice sheets for every test on top of daily notes and homework. To engage as many students as possible, she incorporates group quizzes, class time for collaboration, and a flexible lesson plan open to in-class questions. She loves getting students excited about math, and she beams when they recognize the beauty of the concepts they are studying. “That moment of lucidity, that’s the best part of my day,” she says. Nevertheless, she holds students accountable for everything they learn, expecting no less than hard work and mastery. “I set the bar pretty high,” she states, “but I don’t think it’s an impossible height for the students to reach.”
With Mrs. Moore teaching the most advanced math courses, budding female mathematicians are more confident in themselves and their futures as they look up to a hard-working and enthusiastic role model. Her passionate teaching and devotion to excellence inspire me in both my school work and my extracurricular study of mathematics. For me and all young women pursuing mathematics, she advises not letting math cut off interests in other fields. One of her favorite aspects of math is how pervasive it is, how it is hidden in so many of the secrets of our world. “Don’t give up if it gets hard–it could be that you aren’t good at one type of math, but you’re good at another type of math,” she cautions. Mrs. Moore shows me that she can push the limits of culture by succeeding as a highly regarded mathematics teacher and demonstrates that a woman in mathematics can manifest tremendous mental tenacity. She proves that, where there is passion, the limit does not exist.
About the Student:
Karen Ge is a sophomore at Naperville North High School in Illinois. She is the author of The Three-Year MathCounts Marathon and Dissecting the New CogAT. She is a USA Junior Math Olympiad qualifier and a MathCounts State Competition 1st place individual. Karen spends her weekends at the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra where she is a first violinist and at a local library where she tutors K-12 students for free.