Elsa’s Freedom

Disney’s Frozen came out on DVD last week and my family and I watched it on Saturday. It’s a very good movie with an excellent theme about the real nature of true love which is not usually seen in a “princess movie”. There are also two different stories about freedom, which is pretty common in a princess story (consider Rapunzel in Tangled and Jasmine in Aladdin). It’s this I want to talk about today.

In case you don’t know the story of the film it starts something like this: Princess Elsa is born with the ability to create snow and ice, and while playing with her younger sister Anna there is an accident and Anna is blasted in the eyes with ice. The trolls are able to cure her but warn that Elsa will need to learn to control her power. The King and Queen take this to mean she needs to try not to let her power out at all and so Elsa spends much of her time locked in her bedroom, trying not to feel. Well this all comes to a head at Elsa’s coronation where it all gets too much for her and she lets it out spectacularly and runs off into the mountains. Cue the Oscar-award-winning song Let it go.

The song is all about how, now that everyone knows about her powers, Elsa is free to let it go and really see what she is capable of. This is where I want to draw my parallel to maths.

I have been a mathematician from a very young age — my mother says at the age of five I was playing number and letter games in my head. But it wasn’t too long before I realised that a love of maths attracted resentment and even hostility in others. I soon learned that the only way to enjoy maths was in my head, all by myself. I had to work hard to turn off my natural instinct to see the mathematical in things when I was with others for fear of getting the wrong sort of attention.

In my first year at university, the people I spent time with expressed resentment at being forced to learn useless and boring maths, so even then I felt I had to hide. It wasn’t until my second year at university that I found others who shared a similar joy in maths and was fully free to be myself with them and “let it go”.

Strangely, I had to go into hiding again as a maths teacher in a high school. Despite the fact that my job was to teach maths, I was looked upon as strange by the other teachers for my love of it. And worse, the many and burdensome responsibilities of day-to-day work in a school meant that I did not have time to play with the maths I was teaching and I struggled having to hold it all in. Coming back to University was like Elsa escaping to the mountains — I felt a great relief that I could play freely.

Of course, this story is a little sad because there are still throngs of people who don’t share my love of maths and I shouldn’t have to feel trapped when I am with them. Well I’m happy to say I learned a long time ago that it’s not worth worrying about what others think of me, and I am actually free to be myself no matter who I am with. As long as I’m not getting in the way of their joy, I should be able to express mine. (Incidentally this allows me to publicly express my love of other strange things like childrens fiction and singing.)

The key point I want to make is that it was being part of a community where it was ok to love maths that helped me realise this, and I found that community here at University. There must be scores of students with a similar experience to mine — those who have a love they’ve had to hide and who discover the freedom to express it here at University (and not just maths either). This is much better than Elsa’s so-called freedom, where she still had to be alone to express herself.

I dare say, however, there are many other students who still don’t find that freedom here because for whatever reason they don’t connect with the right community. Like me in first year, they still feel like they have to hide their love. This is one of the reasons we do public puzzles and sculpture, and talk excitedly in the Drop-In Centre about maths beyond the curriculum. Who knows who might find the freedom to let it go?

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