Logarithms and the Liberal Arts: The Life of Ms. Vollaro

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Issue 13, Volume 110

By Veronika Kowalski 

Growing up, mathematics teacher Dawn Vollaro had envisioned a future for herself as a fashion designer. She had watched the stars of the Emmys and Oscars walk down the Red Carpet, and she imagined herself creating the costumes the celebrities wore. “It seemed like an exciting career,” she remembered.

When she was a little older, Vollaro attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School Of Music & Art and Performing Arts as an art major. At first, Vollaro was reluctant to enroll, as she was the only student from her middle school who was considering LaGuardia. Her father, though, gently influenced her decision in a way that would leave its mark on her for years to come. Vollaro remembered: “On the day I had to hand in my decision, he said, ‘I want you to try.’ That has always stuck with me.”

Over the course of her high school career, Vollaro had a revelation about herself: she loved explaining concepts, specifically math concepts, to others. One teacher who taught her math for four semesters, Ms. Lechner, validated Vollaro’s aptitude for geometry and precalculus. “I just adored her,” she said. “I understood whatever she did.”

Vollaro’s sister, Michelle, who attended Stuyvesant High School, did not have the same good fortune with her teachers. Being twins, though, they were learning the same things at the same time. Vollaro had the opportunity to teach Michelle the concepts from class as soon as she came home. By doing so, she reinforced both her familial ties and her love of conveying logic. “[The] experience of helping other people with their math made a big impact on me,” she said.

It was these early experiences that compelled Vollaro to pursue math as a career as opposed to the arts. She also considered it more pragmatic to become a mathematician than to become an artist. “I'm a pretty practical person,” she said. “I liked my academics.”

Vollaro earned both her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees at New York University, where she studied both Mathematics and Secondary School Math Education. While she was in graduate school, she held a part-time position at the Village Community School in the West Village. During her second year of graduate school, Vollaro became a student teacher at Stuyvesant. She was hired as a full-time teacher in the fall of 1993. Since then, she has held a part-time job at the College of Staten Island but prefers the environment and community at Stuyvesant. “There's just nothing like it,” she admitted. “Everyone is motivated. I love the school, and [it’s] breaking my heart being away [because of the coronavirus].”

In addition to teaching, Vollaro takes care of her seven-year-old son, Dylan. Vollaro has to find unique ways of communicating with Dylan, who has autism and speech apraxia, a disorder that prevents the brain from coordinating the muscles necessary to form full sentences, similar to a stroke victim. Dylan has never been able to speak more than a few words at a time. He has made significant progress, though, as an “emergent talker,” and Vollaro has hope that he will be able to express himself more freely in the future. “One day, we're going to be able to have a conversation, and I'm looking forward to that,” she said. “He lets the bad moments pass, [...] so he's a huge inspiration to me.”

Throughout her 23 years in the math department, Vollaro has maintained her connection to the arts. Her exams are completely handwritten, and occasionally, she includes a comic strip segment or graphic on the exam paper. “I think it's an expression of art to me when I hand-write an exam or if I draw something on it. It's creative to me,” she added. She is also a self-proclaimed terrible typist: “No one complains about my handwriting, so I assume kids are able to read it,” she joked.

In these strange and stressful times of being locked up in one’s own home, Vollaro turns to her own mother, who has dealt with many health problems throughout her life, for strength and guidance. Vollaro said of her mother, “She has been courageous, strong, and determined to live life to the fullest. She taught me to be self-reliant, resilient, and hopeful.” Vollaro also feels it is important to cut down on stress by seeking positivity. “You have to give yourself some grace,” she said. “Find something to laugh at during the day. You have to go easy on yourself.”