Living by Numbers

(Based on an interview with Fortunato Tacuboy III by Rorie R. Fajardo)

I AM not a Mathematics genius. It’s just that I never tire of learning new things.

This is what I always tell people every time I am called ‘Math whiz,’ ‘Math genius,’ ‘Math pro’ (for professional). Even my friends expect me to compute bills fast. But because I live in a country where Math is a much-feared subject and is usually associated with nerds, I fully understand this perception. In my many years of competing and winning in Math contests and later teaching and coaching students to do the same, I have seen how most people have considered this subject as their waterloo. Many have shed tears just to conquer it, but not all have triumphed.

GIFTED COMPANY. Fortunato Tacuboy III (center), Math coach and teacher at the Philippine Science High School.

GIFTED COMPANY. Fortunato Tacuboy III (center), Math coach and teacher at the Philippine Science High School.

Being called a Math genius is sometimes too overwhelming for me, but my relative ease with Math is not the result of magic or something I achieved overnight. Perhaps it’s a combination of natural talent, discipline, luck, patience, and my unending thirst for knowledge. Maybe I have a predisposition to numeric or computational reasoning. I have always liked Math; I’m drawn to numbers. But I also like information and am a voracious reader. This is a big plus for me. With every new learning, I am able to do a lot of things.

At 31 years old and now a coach of future Math wizards, I still have so many ideas on how to help as many young minds to see Math beyond boring lectures and scary exams. I want to help many children enjoy Math – like I did during my growing years.

Many believe I got my Math and teaching genes from my grandfather, Fortunato Tacuboy Sr., who served as district supervisor of the then Department of Education in the 1960s. Lolo was said to be a genius in many aspects. He even composed our town’s official hymn, the “Buguey March.” Ate Rosbin, my only sibling, was lucky enough to have seen him during his life time and to have been trained under his wing.

There’s also the theory that my ‘gift’ for Math is because I was a ‘menopause’ baby. Ate Rosbin was already 14 years when I was born, while Papa and Mama were in the prime of their careers. That is why they were always busy with their work. But despite their busy schedules, they never forgot to instill in me the value of achievement and excellence. Mama, in fact, seemed like a stage mother. She would prod me to aim for more, to aim higher, with the entire family providing everything just so I could excel academically.

I hate to admit it, but I was really nerd when I was a child. One time, when I was still in elementary school, I had everyone panicking because I was nowhere to be found. All the while, however, I was in just one corner of my room, silently reading an encyclopedia. Even now, whenever I visit Buguey, up north in Cagayan Valley, the old folk would tell me, “Sika diya’y anak ni doctor na nalaing (You are the smart son of the doctor).”

I ATTRIBUTE my passion to win and excel to my family. My father, Fortunato U. Tacuboy Jr., was a rural doctor and public servant. He had served as our municipal health officer until he died due to cardiac arrest in 1996. My mother, Beatriz Co Asiddao, graduated from medicine but did not practice it. Instead, she concentrated in our family’s pharmacy business. Ate Rosbin, a pharmacy graduate, easily inherited Mama’s prowess in running our drug store, even as she plays single parent to my nephew, Ardie Dominic.

Achievement, especially in rural communities like ours, is usually equated to winning in competitions. This is why at an early age, I was already exposed to joining academic contests –and winning. I admit, I really enjoyed winning even as a child.

I got my first taste of competition and success when I was in Grade 6 – but it was in History. It was a two-year training that started when I was in Grade 5 for the Quiz Bee under my teacher aunt, Luzaida Tacuboy Salmorin, Papa’s first cousin. And because the one and only target was to win, it was a no-nonsense training: I lived in my aunt’s house; daily training started at five a.m., and I had to drink warm milk every night with the belief that it would further enhance my brainpower. I got so fat because of the night drinking of milk for two years!

But the discipline, combined with luck, paid off. I was able to compete all the way up to the World Quiz Bee. The competition was originally scheduled to be held in Manila on December 19, 1989.  But the coup d’etat led by former renegade military officer and now Senator Gregorio Honasan forced organizers to move the contest to March the following year. By the time it was finally held, many competitors had dropped out, fearful of the political situation in our country. It was supposed to be a big, happy event, but it ended up with participants from very few countries like Thailand, Spain, and Nauru.

Still, the World Quiz Bee boosted my confidence. I won in my category, a big feat for my home town. When we went back home from the competition, I was paraded all around the province capital, Tuguegarao, and in our hometown as the son of Buguey who bested many others in the World Quiz Bee. I, too, was very happy – because it was all over. I was happy because my hard work paid off.

Everyone’s expectations of me grew as I approached my teen years, and I confess I found it hard to deal with them. When it came time for me to go to high school, I set my eyes on the Philippine Science High School. Pisay – that’s how we call our beloved school — was known to be a prestigious school that hones future experts in Math and Sciences. For me, it was Pisay or bust. There was an alternative: the seminary, to “tame” me. But I wasn’t really considering that option.

The mailed acceptance letter from Pisay took too long to get to Buguey, however. I developed a fever waiting for it, fearing I hadn’t made it. When I finally received the letter, I became the second Buguey resident to enter the premier school. The first one had been the regional Quiz Bee champ the year before. Then again, she was not really from Buguey, but was a transferee from Sta. Teresita town.

BY JUNE 1990, I was a freshman at Pisay – and in serious culture shock. What was supposed to be a dream come true was feeling more like a sharp slap in the face.  At Pisay, I realized quickly that I was not the best, which I had been used to being in my hometown. My only credential – being the World Quiz Bee champ in History – had no weight at all in a field of super intelligent and amazing students in a Science and Math school. I even failed the Math diagnostic test, which is given to new Pisay students to measure how much they know about the curriculum to be taught them for a particular school year. Yet while subtraction of integers proved to be foreign to me, some of my classmates got perfect scores. That meant they already knew what would be taught to us for that year!

Somehow, however, I received an average of 1.4 in Math (Pisay’s grading system has 1 as the perfect score, with 5 the failing grade) for my first year and made it to the Director’s List, the honor roll. I never lost focus on going for high grades, even as I struggled to live independently in a dormitory – a contrast from my pampered life in Buguey. But even though I was grade-conscious, I made sure I harmed no one. I just studied very hard.

I was in second-year high school when I met and was inspired by my would-be mentor in the world of Math: Ms. Evangeline Bautista. She was my Geometry teacher and at the same time the Math coach for the school. By the end of that year, I swept the Math intersection contest by winning both in the individual and team levels. I bested all those who were known to excel in Math in the school. Ms. Bautista — more popularly known as Ma’am Banjo – then invited me to train under her. I started joining Math contests and winning. I tried to be good in Sciences, but I found Math more fulfilling. I resolved to excel in Math.

In 1993, I landed third place in the National Finals of the Philippine Math Olympiad. And while I did not graduate at the top of my class, I was content with being given the Best in Math recognition for the whole batch.

BY THEN I knew I wanted to concentrate on Math. My parents, however, said it was important to be titulado. They said that if I took up B.S. Math, I would become a teacher, a profession that offered no title to append to one’s name. And so I studied Electronics and Communications Engineering at the University of the Philippines in Diliman; my parents said I would be called ‘engineer’ once I graduated.

But the beckoning of Math never stopped. As soon as I graduated from engineering, I immediately began my master’s in Applied Math. I am almost done now; I just need to finish my thesis.

Toward my last years in college, I had also started working as a tutor at the Ahead Tutorial and Review Center along Katipunan Avenue. I wanted to earn my own money. I tutored elementary, high school, and even college students in Math and Science. Working as a tutor for about two years honed my teaching skills. It helped me assess students – whether they belonged to the bored, the lazy, the ones who refuse to learn, or those who are intelligent but are not satisfied with their grades. Being a tutor also taught me how to challenge an already gifted student.

I would have wanted to join the Math department in UP, but my application was turned down. Which turned out to be a good thing, because if I had gotten accepted at UP, I wouldn’t have tried asking for a chance to teach at Pisay. In 2003, Pisay finally accepted me as teacher for juniors. I was tasked to teach Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry and I was also given an advisory class. It was like reliving my high school: every day spelled only fun and excitement, although this time I was in front of the students, imparting the knowledge I had accumulated through the years.

I almost got the highest evaluation rating (‘Teacher A’) for a teacher after my first year at Pisay. Since then, I have consistently received ‘Teacher A’ rating, even though I am known to flunk many of my students. For me, this is proof that my students understand that I want them to excel.

In 2004, I was assigned freshmen classes as my regular load. At the same time, I was also to coach students for Math competitions. By then, coaching students for contests in Pisay was already institutionalized. The difference was that during my time there as a student, we were trained for competition only during out later years of high school. Now, Pisay wanted to train students as early as their freshman year.

SO A decade after I won the Philippine Math Olympiad due to proper coaching, I became a Math coach myself. And I’m still at it. These days, my regular load includes teaching advanced algebra to third-year students apart from coaching mathematically-gifted students.

Stephanie Oliveros, who I trained beginning her freshman year, is among those who have made me proud as a coach. In her senior year, Steph became champion of the Philippine Math Olympiad, thus making her qualify to the training pool for the International Math Olympiad in Spain that July. But Steph has a natural gift for Math. During her elementary years at De La Salle Zobel, she had already won in local and international Math competitions.

I don’t really have a different coaching style from Ma’am Banjo, although unlike her, I am strict and my trainees probably consider me a pain in the neck. I’m just more demanding than Ma’am Banjo — maybe because I was contestant myself, and I know how it feels to lose or win. I do push hard. I don’t easily get pleased especially if my students cannot remember important lessons taught to them. I tell them: You can always do better. The challenge there is for them to impress me. If I can do what they can do, then that is not impressive.

Yet I also tell my students to be realistic. With a lot of effort, you can do things — but also learn to accept realities. Otherwise, you’d go crazy.

My life, by the way, is not all about Math. I also have typical interests, ambitions, and fears, just like anybody else. I get to enjoy what life has to offer. I also envision myself having a family with my college sweetheart, Abigail de la Cruz. Everyone we know sighs and says that our wedding is long overdue – we have been sweethearts since 1998. Hopefully, we will get married this year. A psychology graduate from UP, Abi now works with the development NGO Asia Foundation.

During our free time, we enjoy watching movies and TV – although my TV has not been working for the last six months. I love watching science fiction, technology, and horror/thrillers because these give me the adrenaline rush that I love so much.

I love to read mystery novels, yet still I can’t get my eyes off Math novels or what I call “non-textbook” books. I am reading one now, William Dunham’s Journey through Genius. I am so amazed how the author was able to tell the history of the Pythagorean Theorem beyond the formulae or equations. I believe this approach to Math has helped take me where I am right now. Math is indeed hard. But there are a lot of ways to discover it and enjoy it.

I use this attitude now in teaching Math to my students. I sometimes teach Math at the soccer field or combined with an obstacle course. My exams have themes – Halloween (I ask my students to compute the angle in the witch’s hat), Kung Func Panda (for functions in my Algebra class), among others.

Someday I would like to volunteer to teach in far-flung areas. I also want to earn a doctorate in Math. And I hope I could have an impact in Mathematics education in the Philippines. But for now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing.

Years back, when I was still applying as teacher at Pisay, I promised one of my former mentors, Alex Alix, that I would be a good example. I told Sir Alex, who vouched for me: “Sir, hindi ko po kayo ipapahiya (I will not let you down).”

I’d like to think I have kept that promise. – PCIJ, January 2011