Every child faces roadblocks to their goals. The infant who cannot quite reach the toy that is blocked off by their crib. The elementary school student who still struggles with tying their shoes on their own, or the other one who grapples with grammar or syntax. What we do in the face of adversity defines who we are. Do we confront it, or do we give up and succumb to it? Often, the ways in which we choose to deal with problem situations can set the example for children for how they should challenge issues in their lives. In the case of Violeta Vlaski, a parent of two children, and her daughter Vera, the two were tasked with a monumental issue, but were able to overcome it by focusing on Vera’s talent and passion.
Violeta Vlaski came face-to-face with a situation that no parent would want to encounter. Vera was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the young age of two. According to John Hopkins, approximately 5000 children in the US were diagnosed with the illness each year. Because of their location, some brain tumors can cause significant impairment to intellectual and neurological function. Vera managed to overcome her condition, but as a result, suffered from severe vision loss that is, as of now, irreversible. Vera’s illness nearly robbed her of one of her primary senses, but she has not allowed for it to get the best of her. Currently, Vera is excelling at school and has discovered a love for both mathematics and science, with aspirations of one day becoming a software engineer.
Vlaski, who is both a linguist and a teacher in Belgrade, Serbia, employs some of her teaching techniques with her own children. Her motivation to study linguistics is that she doesn’t like to be in situations of not knowing what others are talking about. Linguistics allows her to build bridges with people. “With all of my students and my children, I ask all of them to apply their knowledge; to think,” Vlaski said. “With the advancements of modern technology, it is easy to fall into a trap where we rely on technology to solve all of our unknown questions and to overcome any problem that we face.” To her students and her children, Vlaski asks them to think about how their knowledge would go beyond the classroom and relate back to everyday life.
During the summer vacation at the end of first grade, Vera and her mother stopped by a specialized bookstore that sold books relating to math exclusively. The bookstore is run by the Mathematical Society “Archimedes”, a mathematical association based in Belgrade. After, the two spent hours during which Vlaski would read the different math problems aloud and then Vera would solve them, one after the next. The first math book Violeta bought Vera at the Archimedes bookstore was the serendipitous event leading to the discovery of Vera’s talent and passion: mathematics. Vera couldn’t spend her summers riding a bicycle or doing other things like the other kids, but she could practice mathematics. Bertrand Russell, famed philosopher and mathematician once said, “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.” Another mathematical giant, Paul Erdos, further elaborated, “Why are numbers beautiful? It’s like asking why is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you.” Vera might have poor vision, her interest and talent in mathematics allows her to see the world’s beauty in a new dimension. For the outsiders, mathematics may seem cold, boring and have little in common with linguistics, Vlaski’s professional training. For those who venture inside, they will discover that mathematics is the common language connecting the islands of science in the same way that linguistics build bridges for different languages and cultures.
When Vera was in primary school, the school principal at one point suggested she should attend a special school because of her vision impairment. Violeta did not like the idea and decided to keep her in a normal school although this might present more day-to-day challenges to Vera and the family. The time spent practicing mathematics increased Vera’s confidence and she was notably different from other students in her analytical aptitude. Recently, she was admitted to the Mathematical Grammar School, a school for gifted and talented students of mathematics, physics and informatics aged 12 to 19. According to Wikipedia, the school is ranked number one at the International Science Olympiads by the number of medals won by its students and many of its graduates went on to study at the world’s best universities such as Cambridge, Harvard and Stanford. However, Vera’s poor vision makes mundane tasks such as reading from a computer screen nearly impossible. Fortunately, numerous efforts have been made by the faculty at the school to make accommodations for Vera. Thanks to the alumni organization, Vera has been given special equipment that compensates for her poor vision.
Vera’s friends treated her as one of them and appreciated her unique talent. Her success can largely be attributed to the support of her teachers, friends and, most importantly, family members; along with her own tenacity to overcome the hardship that life had dealt her. Violeta stated, “there were two ways to go after overcoming her illness.” The first way was to patronize and overly protect her daughter, which Vlaski said is a mistake many parents in similar situations make. The second way, the option that Vlaski chose, was to prepare her daughter for living to the fullest by focusing on what she is good at. Support from her network is key as this has shown Vera that she should not crumble due to her early setback, but rather, she should makes strides to overcome it.
Vlaski mentioned that her daughter’s motivation for learning was primarily self-driven. “She wants to prove herself to herself, not to the other kids,” Vlaski said. For Vera, her vision impairment is not a setback. Rather, it is just another facet of life. Who knows if Vera’s love and aptitude for math would have persisted had she not encountered a major hurdle early in her life. However, Vera’s story is one of perseverance, of how she was capable of making the most of her situation in order to find her strength.