“Really,” I’ve been asked, “a calculator?”
Taken out of context, no one can be blamed for his incredulity. At the oddest times—at any given moment, actually—someone who rummages through my bag will always find my 6-year-old TI-34 II scientific calculator. Yes, even during my best friend’s barbecue party for her thirteenth birthday and my first beach outing in three years and that six hour hiking trip in ninety-something-degree weather at the Mount Holyoke Range two summers ago. It is just too incredibly dorky.
Then, there is the disbelief that comes from the other end of the spectrum. At intense problem-solving sessions, most of my peers who are also hardcore mathematicians pound away furiously on sleek hand-held gadgets with full keyboards and color displays with jaw-dropping resolutions. They cannot help but look at the pixelated black-and-white characters, eagerly blinking cursor, and simple buttons of my calculator with scorn. Borderline “old-school” for the technological junkie.
“It’s for calculating the tip,” is my excuse even though both my inquisitive friend and I know that it would be improper to do that under the watchful eye of the waitress and mental math might actually be more efficient. Besides, with the advent of smartphones, simple calculators are becoming a thing of the past. To my math-loving, hating, and neutral friends alike, my habit of always having my calculator is just another one of my innumerable idiosyncrasies. To my parents and brother, it’s just another manifestation of my neurotic subconscious which always over-packs and double-checks.
To me, it is one of the most beautiful balances of simplicity and complexity, youth and maturity, transience and concreteness.
Foremost, in a way that I will not admit to my brother, it is a reminder of our close friendship and his unfamiliar absence. Now that he’s attending this first year in college, the truth is that I miss him quite dearly. On the user’s manual attached to the cover of the calculator, my name is written in a thick red Sharpie. Often when I think about my brother (and when no one is looking), I pull out the manual and pretend to read the back side of the card. However, I am not consulting the manual for instructions—I’m looking for something else. In a thin black Sharpie, his name is written in a tall, skinny handwriting that has a careful neatness explained by the classroom number beneath it; my brother had owned the calculator when he was in seventh grade. There is an odd, soothing comfort in recognizing such familiar lettering over the impersonal typeface of the manual instructions. It is a reminder of having lived a moment in a way that’s much stronger than the nostalgia that arises from looking at old photos or paintings. The calculator is not a deliberate memento that was altered to one’s liking. Rather, it is a practical object that had taken part in my brother’s daily life until he gifted it to me. It had been touched and used and so often needed that it had become a natural part of life, like a favorite pair of shoes. Now it is has become a natural part of my own life—a purely practical electronic device for day-to-day use but a sentimental cup of hot chocolate when I need it the most.
The calculator is also a personal reminder of my non-mainstream teenage passions: mathematics, science, and engineering. I can still remember the miserable years I’d spent in elementary school looking forward to the daily math lesson but also always feeling unsatisfied at the end. I was the often the awkward child who sat in the corner trying to think of other ways to solve a problem or trying to come up with a visual interpretation of a combination of numbers. I did math problems for stickers and was proud of my collection but always wondered what was next and if there was more. The day my brother brought home the scientific calculator, I was excited beyond words. Looking at all the buttons, I realized with much relief that math was more than just fractions and elementary operations. There were factorials and trigonometric functions and statistics and there just had to be more—there was a way out. In efforts to satisfy a curiosity which grew into a hunger, I joined the math team. There, a single hour of problem-solving became a commitment that persisted through an academic migration to Hunter and will undoubtedly continue to be a healthy obsession for the rest of my life.
Now that I’ve gained more experience and have more resources available to me, the calculator is no longer a source of wonderment. In a positive way, in fact, it has become quite the opposite. I have become so familiar with the device that I have memorized nearly every sequence of buttons that must be pressed to access a function. Moreover, I also write a lot of my own programs for more heavy-duty computations using relatively sophisticated integrated software development environments. Nevertheless, the primitive nature of the calculator inspires me to maintain awareness of the effortless and intuitive beauty of mathematics that is sometimes lost when advanced technology consumes the bleary-eyed user. The simplest ideas should be appreciated because they are the pillars on which complexity stands.
Whenever I am pushed to confront the raised eyebrows of the general public, I remember confidently that individual standards should never lie in the hands of the masses. There is a common belief that sincerely pursuing mathematics or the sciences will put a tragic end to one’s social life. My own experience has proved contrary to this—not only have I met some of my closest friends through math-science events, I am also capable of functioning on sports teams, concerts, and birthday parties. Furthermore, there is usually a relatively small population of females who are zealous about math, science, or engineering. While this could potentially be a recipe for discomfort, I find that such a demographic has helped me discover many long-term female companions because there is a mutual understanding that the other should be valued, there are few others like her. The calculator is a token of my genuine interests and a source of courage to battle overarching stereotypes that I will not allow to conform me.
It’s often said that there is more than meets the eye. That is particularly true in the case of my calculator which is sometimes the reason why I am the victim of salty but good-willed comments. It is not just a calculator. It is a nostalgic personal reminder of simple beauty and my family, where I am from and what is supporting me. I am a serious and dignified mathematician. In shameless self-promotion, mathematics has given me not just an enduring passion but the courage to listen to myself. Being different is more than just a possibility.
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School