Twelfth standard math was hard. We didn’t have a stable teacher all through eleven and for beginning terms of twelve. Whoever took over math usually left within the year, although for no particular reason. Most of the class went to external tuitions for math. It was all the more critical because we had to clear a separate competitive examination for engineering admissions. Aral Mani’s near my house was the most famous of all. A few people went to a more comprehensive coaching program somewhere near Pallavaram. This place did twelfth coaching as well as prep classes for the entrance examinations.
Two of my friends and I decided to go to a place called Lotus academy. I don’t exactly remember how or why we picked this place, but for me, it was the best decision I took at that time. This guy who taught math at Lotus had a different approach to math. He explained the same syllabus that the schools taught in a very applied manner. One could easily see why we did the math, the way we did. Much much later, I would come to know that this teacher was a PhD in math and usually taught college kids. But if you met him, you’d think I was joking. Extremely down to earth guy. And the tuitions were quite famous for their slip tests. These tests were usually challenging to crack. We took a while before we managed to get the hang of it all. I aced all the final mock examinations and actually aced the twelfth mathematics examination as well. I do think this tuition played a significant role in that. But beyond helping me ace the exams, this was the place I really learnt to love mathematics.
I don’t remember asking many “why”s as a kid. Perhaps I was shot down so fast, I learnt not to ask them. I was blissfully ignorant of a tonne of things through school. And for the most part, math was one of them. Until I got introduced to modern algebra. Modern algebra, it turns out, defines fundamental math operations. It is a set of rules that define how one should do math in a given system of numbers. The teacher in our school tried very hard to get this idea across. She couldn’t. In fact, we dreaded this entire chapter and were wondering if we could skip this whole section and still ace the paper. Until the tuition teacher got to this subject. He started the class with a bunch of whys. Why did you add this way? Then he explained the idea of sets of numbers – real, natural, etc. Then he gave examples. Then he sealed the deal by taking cases from binary and octal systems. This is the part where I first understood what was happening. And there hasn’t been any turning back since. I think modern algebra is my single most favourite part of mathematics today. Although, honestly, I didn’t pursue it much after high school. Perhaps, I should do some work in that.
Interestingly, and I didn’t make this connection until now, Modern algebra is a lot like programming. You define a set of rules by which the system operates, implement those rules and voila, you have a functioning system. This might explain why I still love to program and to learn new paradigms of programming.