Student Essay Contest

The Posters on the Walls of the Math Classroom

2017 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

By: Katie Tam Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (Alexandria, Virginia)

On the back wall of the classroom hang a handful of unusual posters, covered in all sorts of images: fanciful Arabic script, a crew erg, a Penn State logo, an endless sea of brown jigsaw puzzle pieces, a football field. Assembled together and yellowing slightly at the edges, the captured moments coalesce into a frenzy of life – a life full of not only mathematics, but language, music, family, community, and culture.
Dr. Alouf Jirari-Scavotto, or as her students call her, Dr. J, was born and raised in Morocco. From an early age, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in academia, like her father. Sitting across from her, I point to the poster in the center, covered with photographs of dignitaries and leaders, including two I recognize as Hillary and Bill Clinton. Her father stands among them, shaking their hands. “My family is famous back home,” she brags.
But unlike her father, who specialized in literature and history, Alouf was in love with mathematics. She discovered her talents early on. “I was really good, really fast, and I was fascinated with it, so that’s what ended up happening.” And it ended up happening quickly. In Morocco, she explains, students were divided into two tracks after middle school: humanities or the sciences. She laughs as she tells me how her teachers fought over her placement – strong in both literature and science, they decided to let her choose her own path.
While in high school and college, Alouf had come to realize that the scientific papers she studied were all published in the same language – English. Hoping to pick up the language skills needed to both understand and communicate in the world of research, Alouf took English classes in the evenings in addition to mathematics at the university. Her study of English pulled her towards the United States, and she received a Fulbright scholarship for graduate study at Pennsylvania
State University. She states that this was no ordinary scholarship. The purpose was educational and cultural exchange between the two countries – a requirement of the program being that she return to Morocco after graduating and spread the knowledge she had gained to her home country.
It would be an understatement to say that she took advantage of every opportunity she had to gain that knowledge. Along with her thesis research in applied analysis, Alouf attended all sorts of school events and was deeply involved in student government. “I was very busy, but it was really a whole experience. It was great,” she summarizes. She recalls one particular time, standing with a dozen or so other students in a small office, looking around and realizing that “we had as many nationalities in that office as desks.” Peers from Poland, South Africa, China, Taiwan, and more. “What hit me there was – diversity,” she wonders aloud.
I was particularly curious about one of the posters, pasted with snippets of what seemed to be writing from a survey. I step behind the teacher’s desk to get a closer look. “They’re evaluations,” she tells me, “from my graduate school class.” Because of her abilities in English, she had been selected to lead her own class, and as I skimmed the feedback, I saw that she had been given glowing reviews. When she returned to Morocco, she continued teaching mathematics at a university – but in French (her second language after her native Arabic). “I worried about losing my English,” she says. To keep it in her mind, Alouf began a side job of instructing high school students at an English-language school. “You guys are born here and you live here, so you don’t realize how important English is in the scientific community. If you put yourself in a country that is not English-speaking, it’s a huge effort for the science community there,” she explains. I linger over that for a moment as she recounts her “experiment” with the college students: motivated by her side job, she began to teach the university class in English only – and the effort paid off. Years later, the class tracked her down to thank her, “for not only teaching us math, but also English.” It was an exchange of culture and language. The purpose of the scholarship had been well-fulfilled, and the student had travelled back and become the teacher.
Alouf returned to the United States as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University; the same year she got married and had her first child the following summer. A few years later came a second. “I became a stay-at-home-mom,” she declares. Although she acknowledges the impact on her professional career, she tells me that the time with her children was “priceless.” The idea of a stranger witnessing her children’s firsts was dismaying – “I wanted to be the one to hear the first word.” After a while though, “I was done,” she tells me. “But I didn’t want to leave it completely behind.” She taught in local high schools before becoming my teacher, at a magnet school for science and technology.
Finally, I have to ask about the jigsaw puzzle. It turns out, Alouf is a master at them. “An open box is an empty box,” she quips. And she never abandoned her talents in literature, writing poetry occasionally, in Arabic. I glimpse the pictures of her singing and dancing, looking somehow both different and the same as the teacher I see calculating integrals on the Smartboard. She tells me about her wedding, about Moroccan weddings, the family and friends all gathered around, playing the drums and making music together. She looks up Moroccan instruments on her computer and points out the ones she owns, the ones she played in a beautiful cacophony of sound that I can almost hear coming from the still images on the walls. I take a last glance at the posters and marvel at how I used to walk by them without a second look – when there was so much history, culture, and memory to be found.
About the Student:
Hi! My name is Katie Tam, and I am in the 12th grade at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), where the subject of my essay is my Multivariable Calculus and Matrix Algebra teacher. Although math is by no means my strongest subject, I love the challenge of figuring out a tough concept or problem. Outside of class, I enjoy walking my dog and playing viola in my local orchestra. I plan to study biology in college, but take math classes, too – I survived calculus, so I might as well just keep going!