I love Thanksgiving. Indeed, there’s very little I enjoy more than sharing a meal with 20 of the people I love most in this world.

This year, something was said that made me a little wistful though.

I’m not sure how we got onto the subject, but people started talking about me as a little kid. Four, five years old. Stories were shared about how I used to rattle off five digit addition or subtraction problems for fun, and how I used to impress family friends by solving equations in my head, and how I once asked for a calculator for Christmas.

I was being praised, and I know that. But in my head, I heard the follow-up question “What happened?”, and in answer to that unasked question, I could only shrug my shoulders and say to the rest of the table “I peaked early.”

See, math was my original love. Before I discovered linguistics, and video games, and history, and sports, and even before I fell in love with astronomy as a kid, there was math. I found numbers comforting because they were a constant. 2 + 2 is always 4, no matter what. I liked that. And I liked how no matter how complicated the problem, the pieces would always come together in the end. Math is nice and organized.

And I was good at it. Really good. I had addition and subtraction down before I started school. Multiplication came to me in Kindergarten. Division not too long after that.

I remember being six years old and getting my first workbook in school. Every day I ignored the teacher’s instructions to just do two or three pages and went through as many as I could. I finished the entire course on my own well before the rest of the class. My parents bought me a workbook intended for kids a year older than me, and I devoured that as well. They then bought me the book intended for kids two years older. Blitzed through it. Three years older? No problem.

And then, inexplicably, I started to coast.

I looked behind me and saw that it would literally take everyone else in the class years to catch up to me, and that there wasn’t any pressure on me to blaze ahead. So I coasted. I didn’t push forward, I didn’t try to improve, I didn’t try to get further ahead. I stopped pedaling and let my momentum carry me.

It worked for seven years. I was top of the class in math every year with no effort whatsoever. I was known to all as the smartest kid in class, and even the bullies took it a little bit easier on me because they needed my help from time to time.

The first signs of trouble were in the last year of elementary school. Algebra. For the first time ever, this was something I didn’t instantly get. It wasn’t impossible, but I actually had to think about it. That was a new feeling.

Then grade nine hit, and all hell broke loose. It was all fucking algebra, and it was hard. I was horrified. How could it be that I was suddenly struggling with math? Math, the one thing I knew above all else that I was good at. And suddenly I wasn’t that good.

I still finished with a very high mark that year, and I was still near the top of the class. But it seemed like just yesterday that I’d looked behind me and thought that no one would ever catch me. And I was wrong. It’s a classic tortoise and the hare narrative.

I cut math completely out of my academic life after high school – something that would have been unfathomable to me a decade prior. I had ample opportunity to take a math elective at some point in my undergrad, but I didn’t even consider it.

It’s not that I became terrible at math or anything. My grades were still well above average throughout high school, and my friend Matt from a few entries ago  still credits me with getting him through grade 11 functions class.

I just couldn’t stand to struggle with it.

I’m uncomfortable with struggling with school generally because school is something that I’ve always been good at. But I can at least tolerate struggling in most courses. I can tolerate a bit of struggle in an art course, or a language course, or a history course, or a science course, or an English course. But math, no. With math I couldn’t stand to be anything other than the best because that’s all that I’d known for most of my life.

When I’m reminded of how good I used to be at math like I was at Thanksgiving, it makes me think about what could have been.

I’m by no means awful at math today. I’m still above average compared with the general population. And I don’t hate math either – I particularly enjoy discovering quirky sports statistics to this day.

But if I hadn’t decided to coast as a six year old – if I’d kept going at full throttle for the next decade – how far could I have gone?

I wonder.

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