Math Problems: Stories about struggles with math

This week, we present two stories about the struggles of "math people."

Part 1: Lew Lefton tries to succeed as both a math professor and a math comedian.

Lew Lefton is a faculty member in the Georgia Tech School of Mathematics and the Assistant Dean of Information Technology for the Georgia Tech College of Sciences.  He also has the role of Assistant Vice President for Research Cyberinfrastructure at Georgia Tech. Lefton co-founded and is the acting executive director of Decatur Makers, a family-friendly makerspace in downtown Decatur.  He is on the board of the Southeast Makers Alliance and has been involved as a co-producer of Maker Faire Atlanta since 2014. Lefton has a bachelor of science degree in math and computer science from New Mexico Tech, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Illinois. He moved to Decatur in 1999.  Lefton is also an accomplished and experienced comedian who has done stand up and improv comedy for more than 30 years.

Part 2: Vanessa Vakharia faces her first day as student teacher of a math class.

Vanessa Vakharia is the founder and director of The Math Guru, a super cool boutique math & science tutoring studio in Toronto. She has her Bachelor's of Commerce, Teaching Degree, Diploma in Graphic Design and Master's in Math Education. She specializes in teenage engagement in mathematics education, with a focus on encouraging young women to pursue STEM related fields as well as reinventing media representations of females as they intersect with math. She travels globally engaging audiences with her workshop, “Imagining a World Where Kim Kardashian Loves Math,” encouraging teenagers, teachers, and EVERYONE to re-interpret and re-invent traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a “math person.” She is also a founding member of Goodnight, Sunrise, a rock n roll band where she plays the keytar and belts lead vocals. Yes, she totally wants to be a rock star, who wouldn’t?  Mindy Kaling is her idol and Vanessa believes that she should be yours too.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Lew Lefton

My first time was in 1983.  It was in Champaign, Illinois, on the outskirts of town.  There was a nondescript cinderblock white banquet hall, about a hundred people inside.  They were taking off their winter jackets and milling around.  The loud corner, you could tell where the bar was.  They were serving old style and big glass jugs of almond and burgundy.  The event was the University of Illinois Department of Mathematics holiday party. 

After the dinner, which was, I’m sure, chicken and corn in some form, there was a talent show.  And I, as a graduate student there for the very first time, decided to get up and do a stand-up comedy set. 

So this was not my first time doing stand-up comedy, but it was my first time doing an entire stand-up comedy set consisting only of math jokes.  I had been doing stand-up for about a year in graduate school and I've had some success doing local clubs and open mics.  This was an intentional effort on my part to kind of reinvent the shy nerd who had come to graduate school to study math. 

As I was writing jokes for those shows, I often found myself writing a math joke and thinking, “A mathematician is the only one who’s gonna get that one,” so I'd throw it out.  This set was an opportunity for me to collect all of those jokes together in front of a crowd that would get them.  I was excited, a little nervous, but I was pretty sure my material would resonate like the eigenvalues of a linear operator, if you know what I mean. 

To an outside observer, the crowd looked probably engaged but subdued, but for us mathematicians this was energized.  We frankly don’t have a lot to do on a Saturday night on the central Illinois prairie. 

The emcee brought me up. “Ladies and gentlemen, our next performer, Lew Lefton.  One of our graduate students gonna tell us some jokes.” 

I bounded onto the stage.  I was ready to own the room. 

“So my algebra prelim, I was a little confused.  They asked me to prove that every principal ideal domain is a unique factorization domain.  I mean, it’s pretty basic, right?  Everybody knows every PID is a UFD.  But I misunderstood them and I proved that every IUD is a UFO.  Which is also a theorem, but the proof is very different.” 

“Hey, why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?  To get to the other side.  That doesn’t work.  Möbius strip is a manifold with only one side.” 

I did pretty good.  I got some laughs.  I was engaged.  I was really actually enthused.  I thought maybe if this math PhD doesn’t work out, I've got a fallback plan.  But when I thought about math and comedy, I realized that I really should only be picking one, and I chose math.  It was the safe choice and it made sense. 

It really wasn’t a surprise.  I had always loved math ever since I was a kid.  I'd never realized that it was a profession for a long time, though.  In my sixth grade class, Mr. Norman Schide, my sixth grade teacher told me that mathematics was actually a job option.  Because at that time I thought mathematicians were like blacksmiths.  They were jobs from the 1700’s but certainly not useful anymore because everything had already been figured out. 

Lew Lefton tells his story at the Highland Inn Ballroom in Atlanta last October. Photo by Rob Felt.

Lew Lefton tells his story at the Highland Inn Ballroom in Atlanta last October. Photo by Rob Felt.

But he said, "No, mathematics is actually an active, flourishing, modern science.” 

At that point I thought, “Sounds great.  That’s what I wanna do.” 

The comedy came a little later.  I was in high school when I realized that I was curious about jokes.  I started to write them down.  I mean, I would listen to George Carlin and Steve Martin.  I'd watch Monty Python, listen to National Lampoon, but I started writing jokes down.  These were just story jokes people told at parties and I realized that I could tell them better than others by focusing on brevity, word count, tone of voice.  I was teaching myself delivery techniques with well-vetted material. 

So at that point I had figured it out.  After that banquet, my two childhood interests had found the perfect balance.  Math was my profession and comedy was in the hobby zone, which is the professional equivalent of the friend zone.  I mean, I liked comedy, but I would never consider her for a career. 

The next time math and comedy collided for me was in 1988.  I was at the University of California, Riverside.  I had done a postdoc.  After a couple of years there, as I was finishing it up, my mentor, Vic Shapiro, asked me I would do a colloquium.  This is a big public lecture that they have and I was pretty honored. 

I was like, “Sure, I'd love to do a colloquium.” 

He said, “I want you to do a colloquium with just your math jokes.” 

I was a little disappointed that people were more interested in my jokes than my research but, hey, a colloquium is a colloquium.  And so I did it, and I killed.  I had an entire auditorium full of academics laughing their elbow patches off.  I mean, there were pipe takes.  It was awesome. 

So at that point, when I thought about math and comedy, I thought, “I can do these both.”  I've got a niche that is untouchable.  I even had business cards printed up – Lew Lefton, Mathematician/Comedian.  He's funny and he can prove it. 

I was on the move.  My next stop was New Orleans.  I went to the University of New Orleans which, by the way, is not a strong research math department.  They don't even have a PhD program.  But that was where both my wife and I -- my wife is also a mathematician -- that was where both my wife and I were able to get two tenure-track positions, so I continued to do my work there. 

But my mathematical and academic career at New Orleans was just not really taking off.  I was teaching classes, I was writing proposals.  I was doing papers and getting administration done but it just really wasn’t clicking.  I would have probably been pretty depressed and full of self pity had it not been for the fact that, in New Orleans, my comedy career was flourishing.  I was probably writing more jokes than equations at that point in my life.  I even found a way to move some of my math joke material into some place that my regular nightclub sets would work. 

“Hey, I was in the mall the other day.  I saw a guy with that big X on his hat.  You know, those Malcolm X baseball caps.  I thought, ‘Cool, a variable.’  So I had myself a baseball cap made with a square root of X on.  It was awesome, except where people started to avoid me and I didn’t understand why until I overheard one of them as I was passing.  ‘Stay away from him.  He's a radical.’” 

The comedy scene in New Orleans was great.  I got a chance to work with some really great talent.  I became good friends with Ken Jeong, who you may know from his TV shows like Community or movies like The Hangover.  Ken was actually in New Orleans at that time as an M.D. working on his residency and he and I were both trying to sort of find the path between a traditional professional career and a show business career.  Although my mathematics and academic career had more or less approached an asymptote at that point, my comedy career I was pretty sure could be leveraged.  I could take my writing and my niche material and really take this into a professional direction. 

One night in New Orleans, I had a super good opportunity to perform at Storyville, which was the A-list club in the French Quarter at that time.  It was a well -known national headliner.  The club owner called me up asking me to do a whole week worth of sets.  This was, you know, they called me instead of Ken or any of the other local comics.  I was really excited.  This is my big opportunity.  I’m going to get a good tape, I’m going to hit the road. 

But this was already the mid-‘90s.  I had three kids and a mortgage.  I was looking at the schedule for just that week: I had to be there every night; there were two shows on the weekend, and my wife and I talked about it and we couldn’t even get the babysitting coverage to do it.  At that point, it really hit me.  I’m just not going to be able to be a professional comedian.  I can’t even get on the road across town let alone around the country. 

So there I was thinking about math and comedy and, at that point, there was no choice.  I couldn’t do either one.  It was difficult because here I am at the age of thirty-five and I felt that my professional life had, more or less, hit a dead end.  But I kept going because math and comedy were still part of who I was and I couldn’t get rid of them. 

Years passed.  I got an opportunity to come to Georgia Tech.  It was a really good opportunity.  It was not the tenure track position but it was IT administration and computer work, and it was in the Math Department.  And the opportunities in Georgia Tech were much better for our family than for the opportunities available to us at New Orleans at UNO, so my wife and I both gave up our tenure and came here. 

I continued to do math.  I worked on a few papers, I published a textbook, and I continued to do comedy.  I would do some shows at professional societies.  At that point in my life, I realized that I was actually doing both math and comedy but it was not at all what I had expected.  They didn’t look like what I was thinking they would.  Somehow, my blend of these two professions and pursuits had become something more uniquely me.  I mean, I’m teaching a class at Georgia Tech called the Humor Genome Project which is computational approach to humor.  Think big data and jokes.  I've published papers on the use of humor in STEM education and the use of improv in technical engineering design, but it’s still not quite a traditional career in either field. 

I have realized, however, that mathematics and comedy are much, much closer than I first thought.  Mathematics is the most abstract of all the sciences.  Mathematicians work with things that you can’t directly experience, the infinitely small, the infinitely large, higher dimensions.  But mathematics is logical and clean and unequivocally true.  It’s absolute. 

Comedy, on the other hand, feels very different at first.  It’s a complete mess, right?  What might be very funny to her is extremely offensive to him.  It’s messy.  It’s illogical, but still based in truth.  Good comedy always comes from truth. 

And like mathematics, comedy transcends languages.  It transcends cultures.  Laugher is something we all do.  Comedy, in its own way, is an absolute as well. 

So when I now look at math and comedy, I really realize that I ended up doing them both but it’s very different than what I had imagined.  The end result was that now I’m a high-level administrator at Georgia Technical, occasionally I tell the dick jokes at night. 

And my adviser always told me, “Anytime you do a talk about math, you should always include a theorem,” so here’s my theorem.  Math and comedy are two sides of a Möbius strip.  Proof?  Me.  Q.E.D.

Part 2: Vanessa Vakharia

I want to kind of preface this by saying it’s so funny because the past two stories have really been about the passion behind science, about, like just as Dan said, science hops in when we’re enthused about it, when we really foster it.  Like when you think about the next generation, we have to get people invested in science, we have to show them it’s important, and we have to be enthusiastic about it.  That’s why my story is about my first day of math class, because that is the language behind science. 

This is my first day of math class not as a student but as a student teacher.  I’m going to start by saying, first of all, I failed grade-eleven math twice.  So I sucked at math.  I hated math.  I was uninspired.  I totally was not into this whole, “Oh, my God.  Science.  Everything’s great.”  I was like, “I wanna be an actress and marry Keanu Reeves.  Get me the fuck out of here.”  That was my thought. 

So anyways, years later, though, after an amazing teacher that inspired me after all these amazing experiences, after people helping me prove to myself that I could do something I never thought I could do, a.k.a. solve a quadratic equation, there I was, my first day of math class. 

So I’m a student teacher and I walk down the hall of the school and I basically have the air of a B-list celeb.  I’m like, “I’m gonna change the world.  Like all these kids don’t even know what’s gonna hit them.” 

And then you know that smell, like the school smell of like gross varnishy balls and all the like gum the kids have stuck under the tables.  Eww, gross.  I’m like, “Yeah, okay.  Right now it smells like that, but when I’m done here it’s going to smell like vanilla and spice and cigarette smoke.  This place is gonna be cool.” 

So I walk into the math department and I’m like, “Okay, I’m ready.  I’m ready to meet my student teacher.  I’m ready to meet the head of the math department.”  And there he is, Mr. Nellman, this old Russian man.  He has like tufts of gray hair sticking out of his ears and he smells like smoke.  Spoiler alert, I found out later he actually used to smoke cigarettes, stick the butts in his pocket and then put the pants in the laundry for his wife to do.  This guy was just gross. 

Anyway, it’s fine.  I wouldn’t hate on him so much if this didn’t happen. 

So I’m like, “Hi.  Hello.  My name is Vanessa.  I’m your new favorite math teacher.” 

And he looks at me and he's like, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing being math teacher?” 

And I’m like, “What the f---?  Like, is this 1942?  Is this happening?  Whatever.  That’s fine.  Another thing I’m gonna change.” 

I’m like, “I’m ready to meet my student teacher.  I’m ready to meet my mentor.” 

Vanesa Vakharia shares her story at the Tranzac Club in Toronto last September. Photo by Ally Chadwick

Vanesa Vakharia shares her story at the Tranzac Club in Toronto last September. Photo by Ally Chadwick

For those of you who don’t know anything about student teaching, whatever, you're a teacher.  I’m in teacher’s college.  The whole point of being a student teacher is you have a mentor that’s your classroom mentor.  And, I know, shocking!  They mentor you.  They're supposed to mentor you and you follow them around and you learn from them and it’s this whole symbiotic experience and it’s so great and you learn how to plan lessons…

Well, Mr. Gana, my mentor, is a rugby teacher turned French math teacher.  I’m going to do a lot of side rants because I just don’t understand how this happens when there are so many qualified math teachers without jobs.  But there he is, super enthused guy.  Like really into it.  Doesn’t know shit about math or science.  Nothing. 

So I’m like, “Hey, I’m your student teacher.” 

He's like, “Oh, my God.  This is so perfect.”  Perfect because he has a rugby game to coach. 

So day one, we’re supposed to go into the classroom and I’m going to observe him teach.  Instead what happens is we go in the classroom and he's like, “Hi, guys.  This is… sorry, what’s your name, miss?” 

And I’m like, “I’m Ms. Vakharia.  You can call me Ms. V.”

He's like, “This is Ms. V.  She's gonna be your teacher for two months.  I gotta go,” and leaves.  Like he's out.  And I’m like, “All right.” 

Other side note.  The day of my first placement, this day when I’m student teaching, is April 20th.  It is 4/20.  It is the national day for celebrating marijuana consumption.  That is the day I’m in the classroom for the first time.  That will become very relevant later. 

So I’m there, he leaves, there are thirty-five kids because, obviously, classrooms are completely ridiculously overstocked with children.  And I’m like, “Uh, all right.” 

Thankfully, there's like a few girls in the front who are really down with the fact that Mr. Gana is no longer there because they're enthused about learning, and I’m a female that looks kind of young and kind of cool. 

So they're like, “Wait, what?” And they're like, “We have a test on completing the square tomorrow.” 

I don't know who remembers this.  Completing the square is the worst fucking thing ever.  It is the worst especially if you're taught it by a teacher who doesn’t know any math. 

So I figure out what they're doing and I’m like, “All right.  We’re gonna learn completing the square.  But first I’m gonna give you this really great pep talk and you're all gonna love me.”  So I’m like, “Hi, guys.  I’m Ms. V.  Don’t worry.  Like, I failed math twice.  I totally get it.” 

So five kids are like, “Okay.  All right.  I’m down.  I see what’s going on here.”  The rest of the kids… and this is what I don’t… it’s not that I have a bad memory.  I swear, just think about our math classes.  Were they like this?  It’s literally like a fucking zoo in there.  Like everyone’s talking, like they're doing stuff.  I’m like, “Why is there so much noise?” 

I’m standing, I’m teaching a lesson, so I’m trying to teach and like… so the five girls are like, “Oh, my God.  This is so much better than what Mr. Gana did.  This is great.” 

And I’m like, “Okay.  Great, great,” but there's like so much noise.  So I keep being like, “Guys, I’m teaching.  I’m teaching a le-… do you mind just… can you be quiet?” 

So they'll kind of look at me like, “What the fuck is she on?”  They quiet down for like two minutes and then keep going.  I’m just confused. 

Then all of a sudden, every time I turn around from the lesson, some of them are gone.  They're just not there anymore.  I’m like, “Where did they go?  Are they in the bathroom?  I don't know but I don't have time to think about this.  I have forty-five minutes. I need to teach a lesson and I don't even know what’s happening.” 

So finally it got to the point that these girls in the front are into learning and I’m feeling that I’m teaching them something, like I’m doing it.  I’m the change I wish to see in the world.  It’s all happening, but no one can hear me.  Finally, I’m literally whining at these kids. 

I’m like, “Guys, honestly.  I’m standing here and I’m trying to teach and like just can you imagine if you were here and you were trying to teach and no one was listening?  Like it’s so pathetic.” 

I was thinking in this moment, I’m like, “Oh, my God.  I get it.” 

You know, I’m sure we all have the math teacher that you're like, “Ugh, why are you teaching me?  You don’t even wanna be her?  Like get another job.” 

No.  This is why they're like this.  This is why they're like this.  It’s because they want to get up there and they want to teach you how to factor, like they are ready to do it.  But instead you know what they're doing?  They're being like, “Be quiet,” “Don’t go to the bathroom,” “Stop smoking weed,” “I don't even know what you're doing,” they're so stressed out.  I see how it all happens in their minds. 

Finally, this girl at the front who I will equate to like the Plastics in Mean Girls, literally gets up, she turns around and she goes, “Guys, leave Ms. V alone!  She is so much better than Mr. Gana so shut the fuck up, you assholes.” 

I’m like, “Oh, my God.” 

Okay, number one, since when can kids just swear in classrooms like this?  Why is this like okay?  But, number two, I’m like, yeah.  Fuck, right?  Like I fucking won this.  I’m a part of the cool girl… like all my high school dreams of being cool once and for all are happening right now, like twenty years later. 

So I’m like, “All right.  I’m in.”  So I’m in.  Whatever with the swearing.  I don't even know if going to the office is still a thing.  I guess not.  Like you could just swear now.  So I have twenty minutes left and I’m like, “All right, let’s finish this off.” 

The problem is now everyone is down.  They think I’m cool but they're like too down.  That’s when I get hit by the first flying joint.  I said a flying joint because… and I remember his name, Brian, who was definitely high out of his fucking mind, had like rolled up little pieces of paper into joint formation and was hurling them at my head. 

I’m like, “Okay, I’m just gonna keep… okay, factor the three out.”  Like we’re fine.  But he could not contain himself and the guys think it’s the funniest thing ever. 

So finally Brian is like, “Miss, miss, are you going to the Marijuana March?”  

And I’m like, “I’m just gonna keep factoring.  Like whatever.”  And I’m thinking, also, like, “Brian, you dumbass, like number one, if I was going to the Marijuana March, which I obviously am, like I’m not gonna tell you.  And number two, I’m not gonna say no because that’s so beta.  That makes me look… like what kind of response do you even think you're eliciting, you dumb, sixteen year old.”  That’s really actually damaging to my job right now.  I think you're all very intelligent. 

So I think, like I hope in my memory the story goes that I was like, “Brian, even if I was going to the Marijuana March, I wouldn’t tell you I was.”  End of story.  Not sure if that happened but in my mind that’s what happened. 

So I keep teaching, whatever.  We kill it.  End of day, bell rings.  I’m like, “Oh, my God.”  Honestly, I’m feeling so cool.  I tell those girls in the front that we’re like a squad now.  I didn’t use the word “squad” because it’s like cool now, it wasn’t cool then at all, but I said something and I was like I've totally made it. 

All the guys kind of give me a nod, like ten of them are missing from the class.  Like whatever.  It’s fine. 

I leave.  I’m strutting down the hall, like go outside.  I’m like, “All right, I got this.”  I see Brian.  His face is so red.  He's smoking a joint.  I just look at him like I’m-not-really-looking-at-you-but-I’m-looking-at-you, whatever.  And I finish my first day of class. 

It’s kind of crazy.  Mr. Gana, in case you're wondering, he never came back, ever.  Except one time he came back because I wanted to do the quadratic formula song, like “x equals negative b,” and it was just like a whole song, and he got really excited about it because showing up with like a lighter and his guitar.  It was way more in his wheelhouse than teaching math.  So he showed up for that.

But yeah, so end of the semester or end of my two months I told these kids, I’m like, “Wow, I’m peacing out to India and I’m gonna be tutoring for a few months.  If you guys want some help…” Every single kid in that class called me, literally.

Fast forward until like a year later and I have a tutoring company.  I ended up having to hire twenty tutors.  I feel like it’s the craziest thing because all I wanted to do was give these kids a real actual chance to love math.  Mr. Gana, God bless the guy, couldn’t do that. 

It’s really scary to look at the education system.  I know we’re talking about it a lot and it’s in the news a lot but math and science are amazing, but you have to have someone to show you that.  If they’re not going to do that, there's no hope in hell. 

So it was incredible.  I’m now friends with all of these kids.  I have drinks with them and coffee.  I never smoke weed with them.  Not yet.  It’s not legal yet.  At the end of the day, I really was the change I wished to be.  Like, honestly, these kids were and they will be too.  Thank you so much.