‘I was plunging into the world of compasses and vectors’

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Illustration: Samia Singh
Illustration: Samia Singh

WHAT YOU desire deeply for as a child is often what becomes your inspiration, be it the inspiration to earn money or to build a hospital or to play cricket. I probably fantasised about all of these. But what I yearned was to learn mathematics. Not as a child, but as a 17-year-old.

Having grown up in a small town in Madhya Pradesh, my schooling was limited to passing examinations. As all children are, I was happy when my teachers insisted we only had to learn a specific portion of the ‘syllabus’ to pass. Lesser homework to do, lesser formulae to learn by heart and more time to play. Like my classmates, I was content. Neither did I know the importance and joy of learning, nor did anybody introduce me to the concept. Actually, nobody in my school, including and specifically teachers, understood learning as something beyond examinations.

When I first sat for the coveted Joint Entrance Examination of the IITs, all I did was draw patterns on the question paper. I had no clue what the questions were about. I only knew that either I would study in the best engineering institute in the country or I would go back home to take care of my dad’s business.

But I did not go back to dad’s business. Instead, I joined a newly opened coaching institute and invested my time in preparing for the entrance exams. For the first time, numbers looked different to me — they acquired a magical trait. The idea that a series of numbers with jumbled up symbols in between them could translate into circles and squares, fascinated me. I learnt co-ordinate geometry for the first time, and it was passionate, irrevocable, head-over-heels love all the way. I was plunging into the world of compasses and vectors. When you are so in love, nothing can stop you. I was soon a student at IIT, Delhi.

Four years later, I was an IIT graduate and a business analyst with a big company. But I was not satisfied. Here I was, staring at the monitor, crunching numbers all day, with no idea of how the numbers fit in or who profited from them. These didn’t magically transform into circles and squares. They were numbers of a different world. Three months on the job, I walked out the door, never to return. I wanted to fall back in love with numbers. And I wanted to make others as crazy about it as well.

While I wondered about how to indulge my craving for the magical numbers, an NGO that worked to improve the quality of elementary education in schools, seemed like a welcoming option. As I travelled to schools across the country on various projects, in every child I saw my pathetic student life. I created a mathematics module for students of classes one to five that would connect mathematics with our everyday lives. When the Punjab Government implemented the scheme across all its schools in the state, I had found my purpose in life.

In two-and-a-half years, I left the NGO to set up a learning and resource centre in Delhi, called the Unlearn Formulae. The idea was to teach and make students (from Class VI to X) fall in love with mathematics. I had barely any money, so I started the centre from a small room in my house. A year since its inception, I see the rewards when my students tell me: “We want to become a teacher like you.” There is an inexplicable sense of gratification. Teachers are the least respected lot in today’s world, whom students look at with vengeance for forcing them to learn without the hows, whys or whats. No questions. No answers.

My aim is to teach them to be independent learners and thinkers, something that took me more than 20 years of my life. Sometimes I wish there were more teachers who could shorten that time span for their students.

Rahul Khandelwal is 27. He runs a mathematics learning Centre in Delhi

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