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Esther Okade: The Ultimate Problem Solver

Esther Okade was born with a mind full of numbers and a passion for solving problems. A math prodigy, she was mastering algebra at age four. With her love of math, she became one of the youngest to ever enroll in college in the UK.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Sara Weiss and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Donna Louise Bryan. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Seven-year-old Esther Okade was determined to make her dreams come true, no matter what it took.

Please can I go mum? Please?

You’re too young, Esther, her mother said.

Please? she begged.

Esther!

Pretty please?

Calm down, Esther. Really!

Rebels, have you ever wanted to do something so badly that you wouldn’t take no for an answer? Well, Esther felt just like that. And she wasn’t asking to go on a roller coaster or for the latest videogame. Even though she was just seven years old, Esther was begging her mom to let her go to college so she could study complex mathematics.

Let’s go back a few steps to figure out how this came to be, shall we?

Little Esther Okade grew up in a town called Walsall in the historic county of Staffordshire, England. Walking down the streets, there were various shops lining the road, including the many leather shops, famous for crafting saddles, stirrups and buckles. There was also a beautiful arboretum in Walsall with cherry trees that bloomed with pink fluffy flowers in the spring and tall skinny poplars that lined the fishing lake. 

Esther loved growing up here. She chased her little brother in the park or made up games with her dolls. She dressed up in a blue sparkly gown with glitter and jewels and pretended she was Elsa from Frozen

She danced and sang, twirling as her shiny iridescent train whirled around her legs. 

But more than dolls and games and even glitter, Esther LOVED… math. She felt like math was this delicious mystery that she got to tunnel deep inside and figure out. When Esther was sitting in front of an equation, it was like she was in charge of connecting all these different numbers and ideas and making them shine. She felt the answers pulsing at her fingertips, her heart thrumming with hope.

To Esther, math was wondrous, math was fascinating,  math was…magical.

It had been this way for as long as she could remember. Maybe because her mom was a great mathematician too.

See, when Esther was three years old, her parents sent her to school. But each day Esther would come home unhappy — her head down, her shoulders slumped.

“What’s wrong?” her mother asked one day.

Esther’s eyes brimmed with tears. “I don’t ever want to go back to that school!” she said.

“Why?” 

“They don’t even let me talk!”

Esther’s mother wrapped her up in a big hug, wiping her tears and trying to come up with a solution. After talking it over with the rest of the family, they decided that it would be best if Esther was homeschooled for now. Her parents wanted to share their love of learning and to celebrate the bold curiosity that lived inside their daughter.

Pretty soon, Esther’s mother converted their living room into a lively classroom and the two of them dove into their favorite subject — math. They started with some basic numbers and patterns. Esther devoured all the knowledge her mother taught her and kept on asking for more. She felt like a super detective, decoding long division, decimals and variables.

By the age of four, Esther was already learning algebra and quadratic equations. Rebels, these are math concepts that most kids don’t explore until they’re 12 or 13! 

And you know what? Esther was breezing through them!

“I just love Math,” she announced. “All the numbers. And the solving. It’s like a mystery!” 

It was clear that Esther had incredible brain power and her parents wanted to keep her challenged and engaged. So, when Esther was six years old, her mother brought her to Ounsdale High School about thirty minutes from their home to take the Math G-C-S-E exam. See, in the UK, high school students must pass these exams to qualify for college.

As they walked through the long halls of the high school, Esther and her mom’s footsteps echoed. They went to a private room where three examiners were sitting quietly, waiting to monitor and grade Esther’s work. Esther sat down at a desk, and her mother gave her a reassuring smile.

But as Esther gazed at the exam, the numbers blurred together on the page. There were so many confusing questions about trigonometry, Pythagoras’ theorem, algebraic fractions. Esther had taken practice tests at home and done so well, but now her brain felt like a tangle of nerves.

She could hear the clock ticking and could feel the thump of her heart in her chest. She wanted to ace the test, so badly.

But when she got back home, Esther found out that she had gotten a C on her exam, which was very disappointing for her. 

Rebels, this was an exam meant for students trying to get into college and Esther was only six years old! Even sitting at that desk and putting her pencil on the paper was brave and brilliant! Still, Esther really wanted to take the exam again. She knew that she was capable of so much more. So she studied like crazy, and a year later, when Esther was seven, she marched into that exam room and channeled all of the passion, joy and excitement she found in math. She remembered how powerful she felt connecting the numbers and variables, piecing these answers together like a magnificent puzzle.

And this time, she earned an A.

And Rebels, that’s how it came to be that at seven years old, Esther was begging her mom to let her go to college.

Pleeeaaaasssseee can I go mum? Pleaaasssee ?

Her parents both thought she was too young to go, but for three years, Esther kept pleading. Until one day, she decided she was done waiting. 

“Mum, I think it is about time I started university now.”

And guess what? Her mother agreed to let her apply!

So at the age of ten, Esther Okade enrolled at Open University in a distance learning program. This meant she could still live at home with her parents while taking classes and learning online, because after all, she was only ten and she wasn’t quite ready to live on her own. 

Esther had become one of England’s youngest college freshmen EVER! She studied hard to get A’s and she loved the challenge. The problems and equations didn’t always come easily for her but she always knew she had the detective skills to find the answers. She loved learning and stretching her mind so much.

And once Esther finished university, she had to keep going. She wanted to know everything there was to discover about the numbers, equations and calculations she so loved. So, she decided to complete her Ph.D. Her dream was to take her love of numbers and open up a bank by the time she turned sixteen.“I like numbers,” she said. “And I like people and banking is a great way to help people.”

Today Esther is well on her way to achieving her goals and she wants to pass on her love of math to all kids. So she wrote and illustrated a workbook called Yummy Yummy Algebra. In the book, Esther drew a picture of a girl holding an apple. “Algebra can be just as yummy as this apple,” the girl explains.

She dedicated the book to her mother, who always makes her feel special and who first fed her appetite for math: “Dedicated to Lydia Omonefe Joshua,” Esther wrote. “Also known as the best mum in the whole wide world.”

Rebels, Esther might be a math whiz, but that doesn’t mean it has always been easy. She knows what it’s like to struggle with her work, to make mistakes and push through to find an answer. She continues to show the world that we can work through any problem that comes our way no matter how complex. And with her generous spirit, she reminds us that we all have the power to do amazing things. 

So, what are you hungry to learn, Rebels? Whether it’s math, science, dancing or dreaming, we hope Esther’s story of brave curiosity always inspires you to dream big and dare yourself to try it all.