Lighting the Way from Within
by Jada Martin (Westside Neighborhood School)
Interviewee: Cydney Bodenhamer (Westside Neighborhood School)
“Mathematics may not teach us to add love or subtract hate, but it gives us hope that every problem has a solution.” —Anonymous
A few weeks ago when National Youth Poet Laureate and activist Amanda Gorman gave a poetry reading during the 2021 presidential inauguration ceremony, I felt inspired. Her poem, titled “The Hill We Climb,” ended with these lines, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” My math teacher, Cydney Bodenhamer, or Ms. Bo as she prefers to be called, is a light for me and my classmates. She encourages us to ask questions, to volunteer our solution strategies, and to try harder to make sense of the math. Because of this light many of us have started to feel, for the first time, like math is our thing.
Ms. Bo is a proud Southerner who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee with her mom, brother, aunt, cousin, and grandparents. As a child, she recalls role-playing as a store cashier and always volunteering for the role of the banker when her family played Monopoly together. “My love for math grew because it’s the only subject that teaches you that every problem has a solution. With all that was going on in my childhood, math was the one thing that helped me feel like I had an answer, whereas in the real world, there wasn’t a way to see if my solution was correct.” Ms. Bo also recalls that her family did not have very much, but always figured out how to have what they needed.
In elementary school, she learned math as rules and step-by-step procedures. Still, Ms. Bo’s teachers cultivated in her a love for numbers and math. Math always came easy to her even though she seemed to learn differently than others. In middle school, Ms. Bo competed in her first math competition. She answered each algebra and geometry question correctly and tied for first place. “It was exhilarating,” she said. It turned out that Ms. Bo was the first Black female at her school to win this annual competition.
In high school, Ms. Bo met her favorite math teacher, Mr. Todd. Mr. Todd was passionate about math and worked hard to build relationships with all of his students. He made sure he was available to answer questions and work with students who needed extra help. These were qualities she admired in a teacher and would one day try to emulate herself. Mr. Todd was a light for Ms. Bo in high school.
As a result of her hard work, Ms. Bo received a full scholarship from Vanderbilt University. She majored in Medicine, Health and Society, and minored in Mathematics. At first, she thought she wanted to be a nurse practitioner. “I wanted to be in a field that helped others,” she says. Later on, she decided teaching would be a better career choice. College was not easy and she did not feel prepared. Ms. Bo also recalls that there were not many people that looked like her on campus and it was challenging to find study groups. When she failed her first math test, she felt unsure of herself as a college student. “I felt defeated as if this measure of my learning defined me. I dropped the course, and thought that was the end of higher-level math courses. I didn’t think I could ever step foot in a math course again,” she remembers. However, during the second semester, she thought she’d give math another try. “I signed up for the course again and dedicated myself to understanding the math and attending office hours. I passed the class with an A.” Ms. Bo learned two life lessons that day. “Anything is possible if you invest in something wholeheartedly, and that things may not happen the first time or even the second time you try, but you can’t let your failures go to your heart.” Ms. Bo continued to study hard and became the first person in her family to graduate from college. Her advice to other Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPoC) is to “not give up or let someone tell you to do something easier.”
Soon after graduating from Vanderbilt, Ms. Bo became a math teacher. She says being with students as they “piece it all together” brings her the greatest joy. After teaching math to students from all different backgrounds in Tennessee, Ms. Bo moved to California. She currently teaches middle school math at Westside Neighborhood School (WNS). She admits that teaching during a pandemic has been rough. It has been harder to be the kind of teacher Mr. Todd was to her. “I can’t just invite a student to come by during office hours. I feel as if the bond that happens organically during in-person teaching is limited in virtual learning. It’s harder to show that you care.” One way that Ms. Bo has connected with many of us is by sharing her love of dogs. She lives with five dogs, although she claims she is not a silly dog lady. One of her pups, Mochi, a light brown Yorkie, has even made a guest appearance during a recent virtual math class.
Ms. Bo’s favorite mathematician is Euphemia Lofton Haynes. Ms. Haynes was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics. “She didn’t let her identity be a factor in pursuing her dreams, and she was a huge advocate for students of color through working to improve the educational system,” says Ms. Bo. This made me realize that all people need a light. People need other people to learn from, to inspire them, and to light the way. Like her mentor teacher Mr. Todd was for her, Ms. Bo is a light for me. She also turned on a light in me so that I now see a path to pursuing a career in STEM.