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Dodd Middle School math teacher Mary Cabrera cringes when she hears people admit that they “aren't good at math.”
The statement is as absurd as saying a person isn't good at English, or at vacuuming their home, says Cabrera.
“It isn't a thing. It isn't something to hate. It is a language, that's all,” says Cabrera.
However, the veteran educator knows that, by the time she gets many of her students in middle school, the die has already been cast. A good percentage of them are already either intimidated by the subject, or don't believe there is a “point” to studying it in depth.
That's why Cabrera's math team, made up of about 100 students, is so special to her. These talented, intelligent youngsters don't view math as anything to fear, and certainly don't disregard it as a wasted endeavor. Instead, they thrive on solving problems, working through equations, and seeing what lies hidden under the numbers.
“These kids see way beyond 'why do I want to do this?'” Cabrera acknowledged. “They see it as that language, and they reach beyond themselves. It is tremendously rewarding to work with such students.”
The club is called MathCounts, which is connected to a national organization that promotes MathCounts groups to all schools around the country. The club is open to students interested in applying their interest in the subject in new and challenging ways.
One of those ways is competition, in which the Dodd club competes each year. In February, a team of both members of the group competed in the regional MathCounts competition, where it took first place overall, and had two students, Shanga Xu and Shuang Guan, finish first and second individually. It was an impressive display against formidable regional competition, but the club was not done. In the state competition in March, the team finished 10th while Xu took home second-place honors.
“We would have liked to place higher at states, but it was still a great showing, and Shanga was amazing,” Cabrera stated. “I couldn't have been prouder.”
The competition involved three rounds — speed, target, and team. Student scores were tabulated individually and as a part of the Dodd group. In the end, Xu was the only member to qualify for the final round, where he ended up finishing in the runner-up position.
“When we were at (regional) I knew Xu was in the top 15, but I didn't know he had come in first,” remembered Cabrera. “I got the sheet and just kept staring at the one next to his name. I was elated for him. I couldn't even begin to describe that feeling.”
For Xu's part, the youngster never expected to win at the regional competition, let alone come in runner-up at state.
“I really didn't believe it when they said it,” he recalled. “I had to pinch myself.”
Xu is one of only a few boys in the club, and he had a little bit of a transition period getting used to interacting with the other students. However, he now feels right at home and admitted that the club has provided an opportunity to make new friends.
“I really like meeting all the people, and they all like math, so that's fun,” he said.
One of those new friends is Guan, who finished second to Xu at regionals and just missed being included in the final round at the state competition.
Though her accomplishments are impressive in themselves, and have established the student as one of the best young math minds in the state, her failure to make that final round with her friend Xu was all that occupied her mind.
“I wasn't really happy I missed out on the countdown,” said Guan, referring to the final round. “Actually, it stunk.”
That competitive edge is something Cabrera has seen almost all of her students exhibit in the club, even outside of formal MathCounts competition. On mini-tests held during club meetings, she'll routinely find her students, especially Guan and Xu, trying to be the best.
“If one gets it right and the other doesn't, you'll seem them working it out in their head, and going back over it to see where they went wrong,” said Cabrera.
Guan, like the rest of her fellow club members, loves the subject, and had a very simple reason as to why.
“Well, I'm good at it,” the youngster admitted, with a wide smile.
Yet, when it comes to outside competitions, Guan finds herself more attracted to the team rounds than the individual ones. “There, we all work together and that's a lot of fun,” she said.
Xu's second-place finish at the state competition has punched his ticket to the national event, to be held in Washington, D.C. later this month. Xu actually lived in the Washington, D.C. area for a part of his young life and knows it well, so the spectacle of the nation's capital doesn't promise to excite him all that much. However, what does excite him is the prospect of winning, and meeting some new people along the way.
“It is going to be great,” he said. “I'm a little nervous, but excited to go.”