One Middle Schooler Plus One High Schooler Adds Up to More than Mathematical Success

What do a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old do when they’re hanging out? Etan Basser ’20 and Robert ’24 can tell you what they’ve been up to nearly every Friday afternoon for a year and a half.

“In the beginning of the year, we were trying to solve some problems related to the Brachistochrone problem,” Etan said, referring to a math and physics problem that deals with finding the shape of a curve that allows a bead to descend at the fastest rate. Obviously.

When math teacher Andrew Callard noticed that the Middle School math program wasn’t challenging Robert enough, Callard had an idea of what might do the trick. In a reflection of the Sidwell Friends commitment to community, he reached out to Etan, also a talented math student. The 8th grader and the senior understood each other right away.

The first time the pair met, Robert said he wanted to do proof writing, and Etan said that’s what he was planning to do all along. “We were not just going to do problems where the answer is just a number,” Robert said. “Mr. Callard wanted me and Etan to review more theoretical, abstract concepts.”

For Etan, the relationship is not always one of a mentor and mentee but of colleagues. “I’ll find problems that I’ve worked on and I think were particularly enlightening, and I’ll present them to Robert,” Etan said. And though Etan might give Robert “a tip or try to lead him in the right direction,” he said that often it’s joint problem solving. “At face value, you could call it mentoring,” Etan said, “but I consider it more as interaction with a like-minded peer.”

“The goal is not to solve problems quickly,” Robert said. “It may take a lifetime to solve a problem, but you still solve it in the end.”

A lifetime? “He’s tenacious. He won’t give up,” Etan said. “He’s not daunted by problems that will require pages and pages of work.”

At the end of this year, Etan will leave for college, and the duo’s meetings will come to an end, but the two intend to keep in touch.

“Robert and I have a mutual interest in math and theoretical math, and it’s very uncommon to find somebody else who has an almost unparalleled interest,” Etan said. “It’s been one of the highlights—if not the biggest highlight—of my week.”

Robert agrees. “I’m going to miss having these meetings,” he said, “but I feel like Etan has provided me with a lot of information for going forward in terms of what math to practice.” Robert added that Etan has also offered guidance for navigating his way through the Upper School’s math department. “I really think it was essential to learn from him, just to see the path to follow.”

How will Robert’s progress in math—he wants to move into mathematical analysis next—continue without Etan around? Etan shrugs and smiles at the question: “I’m not worried.”


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