On Thursday, Nov. 12, the Medomak Valley High School math team meets for practice. Seventeen different computers boot up in 17 different homes and a grid of students fills the screen. Instructor William Hinkley posts a three-point problem to the group. Several students stare intently into their monitors, reasoning through the logic in their heads. Others immediately put pencil to paper as they begin making calculations, angling toward the correct answer.
Coming off a successful second meet and currently ranked third of 18 schools in the Central Maine Math League behind regional competitors Lincoln Academy and Camden Hills Regional High School, Medomak Valley is posting its best season ever. The team is led by a group of “super-strong seniors,” according to Hinkley, along with an experienced cadre of underclassmen, all of whom both support each other and compete with each other for the coveted top 10 slots in upcoming meets.
Sean Sebrey, a junior who joined the team as a sophomore, credits the “aggressive marketing of the team by Mr. Hinkley” for the record number of participants this year. “No student who is interested in math gets through MVHS without being asked to join. We have a lot of fun and we learn a lot,” Sebrey says.
“It feeds on itself,” says Hinkley. “I don’t have to twist arms — the outgoing seniors do the twisting for me.”
John Owen Weber concurs, saying Sebrey and others recruited him — “rather aggressively, might I add.” Weber goes on to explain that Hinkley seemed like “a pretty chill dude,” so he took the path of least resistance and is now an experienced member of the team.
It’s a well-known theory among the students that Hinkley is only involved in other extracurriculars to recruit for the math team. Lily Rogers agrees, saying she encountered Hinkley via the school musical and quickly found herself immersed in calculations.
“It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she says. “And it really raised my confidence around math. Being given different problems to practice before my first meet prepared me to do well. It was exciting — I scored 18 points.”
Hinkley uploads another problem. “When solving a probability problem, you want to think of a string of events,” he says. “What are the number of ways that this event can occur, divided by all the different ways the experiment can be run?” The grid of students considers his question. Behind them bare walls, or framed art. A tall light, the corner of a ceiling. An Einstein poster peers over Brooke Powell’s shoulder.
There are five meets during Central Maine’s competitive math season. Each meet has five rounds and students have 12 minutes to solve three problems of increasing difficulty valued at three, four, and five points, respectively. A perfect meet for an individual player would be a total of 60 points. Perfect meets are exceedingly rare — a score in the high 20s is a very good showing.
This year the meets are remote. Students work out the problems at home and upload their answers via Google Docs. The state meet this past April was canceled, but Hinkley is holding out hope that an in-person meet may be possible in 2021. He knows it’s a long shot, but he describes the energy of 1,000 kids all sitting at tables doing math as “really cool.” He wants that for the kids on this year’s team.
Students look up as Hinkley reviews a problem. He reminds them “it’s not a trick — it’s just algebraic.” He asks how they approached the problem and Emma Kunesh confesses that she guessed the answer and then checked that the math worked.
Assistant coach Zachary Melvin forms a separate breakout group with a few students to hone in on their probability skills. Once a student at MVHS, Melvin returned to student teach and was kept on when a long-term math instructor retired. Melvin brings “a ton of enthusiasm,” according to Hinkley.
“We work hard to make the team open to a lot of students, to make it a safe space to participate,” Hinkley says. “Math team can be pretty daunting. To get even a three-pointer you have to know what you’re doing. I wish I could encourage more.”
Oscar Oakes, a 12-year-old sophomore, has been with the team for three years, starting while he was in middle school. Students can participate as eighth graders if they are taking math classes at the high school. A prodigy, Oakes won third place in the Central Maine Math League last year, which Hinkley called “very impressive for a freshman and at his age.”
“I scored six points at my first meet — not very high. But I have gotten much better. Now I am scoring 20 points and higher,” Oakes says.
Hinkley and Melvin strive to achieve a gender balance — girls now make up about half the team. And they encourage a wide age range, focusing as much on underclassmen as they do on juniors and seniors. Several students are on the autism spectrum. Others have anxiety. It was Melvin who saw the potential in Thane Waddell.
Naturally gifted at math, Thane Waddell, now a junior, is diagnosed with level 1 autism and anxiety. His mother, Rebecca Waddell, says she was “looking for anything for him to be involved in.
“He knows he is different,” she says, “but he still wants to feel like a part of the school community.”
Her voice warms as she describes her son “trying things he never tried before … walking around singing after finishing a practice.” Rebecca Waddell says her son, who she characterizes as “different, but not less,” was “never pressured — just included.”
There is a sound of a computer keyboard tapping — another problem appears. After several moments of silence, Rogers is celebrating. She raises two fists. Her smile says it all. She is confident in her answer.
The Medomak Valley High School math team will compete again Dec. 2.