The Right Angle: The Gift of Failure

Sunil Singh
4 min readNov 26, 2017

There is a submerged narrative that links my current status as a math educator to the opportunities that have been afforded to me — including the ideas of my book, Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics.

The Globe and Mail ran a story in October about why I quit teaching. However, for obvious space limitations, a critical piece was omitted — how I actually became pretty much destitute. While that statement seems jarring, it is only a punctuation mark — albeit it was a devastating one — in the story of The Right Angle: Canada’s first math store/school.

Well, it was supposed to be…

In August of 2014, my business partner and I secured 5000 sq ft in a beautiful, historic building in the town of Unionville, Ontario. Not only was the street picturesque — it was right beside a confectionery! Why this seemed like fate(the good kind) was that I always had envisioned a scrumpdidlyumptiouis place to discover mathematics. And, those time less words of Willy Wonka, never spoke more clearly about the essence of what exploring numbers, patterns and structures is — pure imagination.

As I started to think of the mathematical goodies that could go into this space, I began to research the internet feverishly to find the most amazing ideas of mathematical exploration. In my hundreds of hours of Googling, I came across a person named James Tanton. It is in Fall, 2014 where I sent him a random email telling him about this mathematical venture I was starting. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. Yet, his first response was robust, gracious and enthusiastic. He immediately fell in love with the idea and gave all kinds of support/resource ideas.

The planning of the The Right Angle was only going smoothly in the creative department. The actual logistics of securing a permit to renovate our space was the harbinger of the nightmare(s) to come. While we took possession of our space in August 2014, we didn’t get a permit until February 2015. Yet, our financial resources were running out and we had to play a cat and mouse game of getting our place ready by Spring, 2015. We had planned on opening in the Fall. Even though we were not open, we did decorate our window for Christmas.

We even had a partnership with Queens University to have students due an “Alternative Placement” at our new, innovative math school.

Two weeks before our grand opening — with barely a nickel to our names — the most unpredictable and tragic thing happened.

There was a fire. The first fire ever in this 19th century building. My dreams. They literally went up in…yes…smoke.

Looking back now, the fire seemed to be this mysterious agent/midwife to what I am doing now. I had to lose everything — to be at zero. It is in this abyss of uncharted failure is where I learned about humility, simplicity, gratitude, etc. in life and in mathematics.

Universal markers/traits for happiness that would eventually become chapters in my book.

It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. But, to be given a “gift” of seeing life through a sudden, impoverished lens is something that I am trying to explain even right now, but am realizing that I am probably still falling short…

This is one reason why my view of mathematics is so heavy on the humanity and light on curriculum structure/assessment techniques. We are missing valuable opportunities to see each other in more binding/connective ways — we arbitrarily creating barriers/hurdles to more meaningful exchanges as humans. This of course has spilled over and stained how we discuss mathematics — as some kind of inert object to be prodded, poked and parceled.

It’s not.

It is one of the most beautiful and imaginative emanations that humans have cobbled together over the last 5000 years or so — and I could not have seen it with such prismatic colours had I not fallen on my blackest days of my life…

I indeed Fell on Black Days, Chris

Life and mathematics. Both a struggle. Both filled with wonder. Embrace it all — always.