Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A Requiem For Twitter Math Camp

    Five years ago this month I boarded a plane in Newark, NJ and, after a layover in San Francisco, flew into the small airport in Ontario, CA.  I had traveled across the country to attend something called Twitter Math Camp, which in the summer of 2015 was being held on the campus of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA.  It was difficult to explain to my family, friends and co-workers exactly what it was, or what I was going to be doing there, because I didn't really know myself.  Was it a camp?  Was it a conference?  What does twitter have to do with it?  How is it all organized?  What I did know was that I was going to get to see some of the MTBoS people who had inspired me to explore new ways to teach math and who had supported and encouraged my attempts to blog about my experiences.  I had never met any of them, and was more than a little apprehensive about what they would be like in person, and how welcoming the community in general would be.  I had struck up an online friendship with Graham Fletcher, and he agreed to share a room with me and split what turned out to be a very small rental car.  He was standing outside the terminal when I walked out with my bag, and we recognized each other immediately.  I reached out my hand, but he shook his head, opened his arms, and gave me a giant bear hug that nearly crushed me to death.  
     TMC '15 was everything I could have hoped for, and much, much more.  Beyond the amazing sessions, it was an opportunity to meet people from all over the country, all over the world, actually.  People who were involved in math education in all kinds of different ways: elementary school teachers and district administrators, university professors and math coaches; private school, public school and home school; urban, suburban, rural; big, small, and in between.  We were all there, on our own time and on our own dime, because we were passionate about what we did and eager to learn from each other.  During the day we went to sessions, interspersed with keynotes and quick hit "My Favorites".   After, we hung out in the courtyard of the hotel till all hours of the night.  I couldn't sleep, my head was spinning at 100 miles per hour.  I kept Graham up all night, blabbering away non-stop about who I had met, what we had talked about and what I was going to do when I got back to the world.  He told me I was drinking from a firehose.  He also told me to stop talking and go back to sleep.  By Sunday morning's final assembly I was emotionally exhausted.  When a group of participants stood up and sang a goodbye song, I started to tear up.  And when Lisa Henry announced the date and location of next year's TMC, I immediately phoned my wife and told her to block it out on the calendar.
     When I got back home everyone asked: "What was it like?"  
     All I could think of was something that Christopher Danielson had said: "It's like being in the faculty lounge of your dreams."  Like baseball fantasy camp, except with math teachers.  

      I went back to Twitter Math Camp in 2016, 2017, and 2018.  Each time I was afraid that the magic would be gone, that I would be disappointed, that it wouldn't live up to my expectations.  Each time I was wrong.  Part of it was the different locations--it was fun to explore a new city each summer.  Part of it was reconnecting with old friends.  Part was the fact that each time I went back I connected with new people, widening my network of friends and colleagues, which made our virtual interactions during the rest of the year richer.  Part of it was my own increasing confidence presenting sessions.  Although I knew that attendance was capped and I wasn't guaranteed a spot, I began to count on it to recharge my batteries for the coming school year. 
     More than the venues, more than the cities, more than the sessions, more than the keynotes, more than the math, for me TMC was a place where, for four brief days, 200 lives intersected in a very intimate way.  Shared breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  Early morning coffees and late nights in hotel courtyards and lobbies and, on one special occasion, in a college dorm.  Clusters in the corners of classrooms.  On stairwells and in hallways, on Ubers and in airports.  I couldn't even begin to count all the different conversations I had with all the different people I met along the way.  They challenged me, informed me, encouraged me.  They agreed and pushed back.  They listened, and no matter how crazy I sounded they made me feel like I had something worthwhile to say.  For me, it was different than the big, industrial NCTM conferences.  Nobody was selling anything, nobody was angling for a deal or working the room, or trying to impress anybody.  It wasn't institutional.  It was t-shirts and shorts.  It was, as we would say in Yiddish, haimish.
     In 2018 I convinced a former work colleague to join me.  Now I was the old hand and she was the nervous newbie.  I was curious to see her reaction and to look at something I had begun to take for granted through her eyes.  How would she would find the experience?  I told her that I'd always be around for her, that I wouldn't leave her without someone to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner with, or to hang out with after the day's sessions were through.  There had been talk that things had gotten cliquey, that newcomers weren't being made to feel especially welcome.  I knew that people experienced TMC in different ways, and that the leadership had made attempts to make people feel more included.  I knew that not everyone felt the same way about it that I did.  Turns out I had nothing to worry about: after the first day she had met a bunch of people and made her own friends, some of whom became my new friends.  She talked about going back.  I started making plans with Brian Miller to submit a proposal to co-present a session at TMC '19 in Berkeley.

      I didn't see it coming.  One day the acceptances came out, and then, suddenly, it imploded.   I've worked through the stages of grief, and I think I've finally arrived at acceptance.  Looking back these last few weeks at my pictures, revisiting the archives and the old tweets, my heart is filled with gratitude for all those who worked so hard to make it happen.  I'm sorry if I didn't let you know just how thankful I am.  I know I was blessed to be able to experience those 16 special days in the summers of 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.  It's not my intention to reopen any wounds or reignite any debates.   It's just I never got the chance to say goodbye.