Thank God for Degrassi: The Next Generation. Because of that show, I now understand that I’m not stupid or lazy. I have Dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic, such as difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, and learning math facts.

Unfortunately, back when I was in school, this diagnosis didn’t exist, so I had to endure humiliations like my 4th Grade teacher standing me up in front of the whole class and shaming me by calling me stupid because I didn’t know my multiplication tables. (Thanks, Mrs. Black. You induced some good childhood trauma with that one.)

Because of math, I spent twelve years in school miserable every single day. The amount of miserable that amounts to is a dang lot. The way I got by was to avoid being shamed. I perfected something that I had already learned from my family system, hiding in plain sight, and was pretty successful at avoiding the excruciating embarrassment of being called up to the board to work a problem in front of everyone. The times I didn’t avoid it, though, are burned into me like scars that still hurt.

My earliest memory of math is of making up a story about the numbers. I told my daughter about this story today as I drove her to school while explaining to her why my favorite number is four.

Me: Well, I had a really hard time with math when I was in kindergarten, so I tried to make it more understandable by making a story about the numbers. It went like, this: the numbers one through four were battling against the numbers five through nine, because they were trying to recapture their kidnapped friend, number ten. Four was the best of the good guys because he went head-to-head with five.

Bird: Why did five through nine kidnap ten?

Me: Because they were mean numbers that wanted to separate him from his friends.

Bird: Why did you think five through nine were mean, though?

Me: Probably because I really struggled to understand those numbers. I did okay through four, and I did okay with the number ten, but I really struggled with any math that included five through nine.

Bird: How did the story end?

Me: It didn’t. One through four fought with five through nine forever.

Now, looking at this story, I see that I never did find a way to have five through nine make peace in my life. They are still numbers that make me pause before I work with them.

The other day, I revealed via Twitter that I have Dyscalculia, and someone responded with a question as to whether or not I know my multiplication tables. CONFESSION: I do not know them all. Yes, I’m 39 years old, earning a decent living, and I don’t know my multiplication tables. I have a calculator, though, and I know how to sit down with paper and pencil and work out problems, so it’s not as though I can’t do any math. There are just certain aspects of math that don’t come easily and never will. And memorizing numbers? Impossible for me. Even rote memory of something like a phone number is very hard. The numbers just slide out of my brain after about two minutes if I don’t chant them constantly.

The person who asked about multiplication tables and why I don’t have them memorized asked, “But why? They are JUST WORDS!”

I replied poorly at the time. The real response is this: Yes, they are just words. Words that have very little meaning. The number eight for example means eight things. That’s all it means. There’s no story to that number, no narrative. My brain latches on to narratives very well, but not to numbers, not to rules involving numbers outside a narrative. That’s why it was when I finally started to study Statistics in college that math suddenly snapped into place for me. Here was a narrative I could understand, here was a map, and the numbers had motivations and movement. It was such an a-ha moment for me that I nearly burst into tears in the middle of my class. Suddenly everything from basic arithmetic to algebra made sense in one sweeping moment of a teacher explaining math because it MEANT SOMETHING. It wasn’t just numbers, it wasn’t just words, and I UNDERSTOOD.

Believe it or not, I work as an assistant in the financial world in my day job. The person asking about multiplication tables said, “Uhh…don’t you work in finance? Remind me to never ask your advice on finances.”

Suddenly, I was in 4th Grade again and my teacher had just stood me up in front of the whole class and called me stupid. Suddenly, I was remembering my writer friend with dyslexia who had told me she was ashamed to tell people about it for fear they wouldn’t buy her books. (“Uhh, you have dyslexia? Don’t you write books? Remind me to never read them!”) It was a moment of immense triggering rage and shame and humiliation and I was very upset.

For what it’s worth, unless you’re a CPA, knowing one’s multiplication tables or being able to memorize numbers has nearly nothing to do with the fascinating narrative of the stock market, the bond market, tax law, insurance regulations, and the movement of money through estates and products. Yes, you have to be able to grasp the concept of mathematics enough to know if the calculations are off when looking at various output from computer modules, but that is not a problem for me and never has been.

I had to pass many exams (and did so with flying colors) in order to earn my licenses to practice in the financial world. I would be willing to bet a great deal that despite not knowing all of my multiplication tables or being able to tell you exactly how much I paid for milk when I last bought it, I know more about the reality of finance than someone who thinks that multiplication memorization is important to the work I do daily.

Obviously, this encounter hurt my feelings deeply. It left me feeling ashamed and reminded of all the episodes of humiliation in my life because of my inability to remember numbers. (Hello, is the lock on my locker a number combination? FML!)

Also, let’s all remember that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do something. It means it’s harder for them, and they might have to come at it from a different angle, or they might need some help from time to time. But it doesn’t mean they are stupid or that they are incapable of doing an excellent job at any work that involves the problem area, given the right support systems.

This morning, Bird ended my story for me. She said, “Mom, let me help you write the end to your number story.”

I agreed.

She smiled at me and said, “Mom, eventually one through four defeated five through nine and got their old friend ten back, and five through nine reformed and became friends with one through four again.”

I smiled and thought about all that I’d done to try to make peace with numbers and I said, “I like that. Thank you.”

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34 thoughts on “I’m Not Stupid: Dyscalculia – Mathematics Disability #dyscalculia

  1. Wow. This is an amazing story and thank you for making me feel I’m not alone. I likewise have severe dyscalculia. I have the math level of a below average third grader. Because I failed the math requirement for my first college degree THREE TIMES (even on the night of my graduation ceremony.) My mother and I invested in having me tested. It wasn’t a cheap test by a longshot. It was a hellish test that definitely made me feel stupid in places, but luckily the psychologist that was giving the test assured me it was perfectly okay if I didn’t know all the answers. That’s why I was there.

    With my results in hand I was retroactively rewarded my degree. The funny part about the results is I learned I had a PhD level in English skills. So there’s that.

    A few of my problems with math is I have to SPELL OUT numbers.The numeral 8 does not register in my brain the same way as eight. I spell out my chapter headings, and all instances of number usage in my stories. My editors make me change them later.

    I can’t count money. AT ALL. I worked retail previously and when I closed my drawer no one understood why it took me an hour to figure it out. I recounted my drawer multiple times, and every time the figures were different.

    I can’t tell time on an analog clock. Seriously. Never have figured it out.

    Figuring out my royalties percentages is my own special kind of hell. I get forty percent of X total. But what’s that number? I’m always asking various friends that understand my issues to do math for me.

    As for my multiplication tables? I can do ones, twos, and threes up to eight, can’t do fours, can do fives, can’t do sixes or sevens save remember certain ones (six times eight is forty-eight– because it rhymes. six times seven is forty-two, seven times seven is forty-nine), can’t do eights or nines, can do tens with no problem as well as elevens, with twelves I just shut down.

    I recently had an embarrassing moment on FB where a young mother ridiculed an employee of a local pool for not being able to comprehend how many adult and ticket passes they needed. I added it up very slowly and mentioned to her the guy might me like me, I gave the answer, and asked if it was right. Because I was genuinely UNSURE. One of her friends came back with the comment of “OF COURSE IT’S RIGHT” and instructed me on how to do math. Now I felt stupid. I am 34. And I refused to feel stupid again. I explained my math issues, and suddenly they backed the hell down, and realized the pool employee was likely like me,

    What I told them as my parting shot and tell everyone else?

    Albert Einstein was likewise severely dyscalculic. And look at the brilliance he gave us. We’re in good company. 😀

    -Lex Chase

    1. Thank you so, so, so much for sharing this story with me. It feels so validating to know we’re not alone in this, doesn’t it? I was touched by your openness. Thank you!

  2. I was never able to learn the multiplication tables either. Just couldn’t do it. I know a few here and there and I add or subtract from those few as needed to get the answer :p I am excellent at addition or subtraction but multiplication and division are why calculators exist 😉

    And that asshat on twitter makes my heart hurt for you 😦 what a terrible attitude to take. I kinda wonder if that person was my kid’s second grade teacher who thought he was lazy because he struggles with math and reading.

    1. Ugh. I’m so sorry the kid is struggling with the teachers at his school. Here’s hoping this year is better. Nothing is worse than a teacher who doesn’t understand. 😦 *big hugs*

  3. Reblogged this on Fivreldens ordvev and commented:
    Dette var veldig sterkt å lese. Jeg synes det er flott at vi kan få mer fokus på dyskalkuli. Jeg kan også huske å ha laget en lignende historie., som hun har gjort med tallene. Selv har jeg jobbet en stund med en bloggpost om dette, men det har vært krevende å skrive om det, siden den også er veldig personlig.

  4. I did not takes math after the ninth grade because college was not an option in my family. I am 58 yrs old and I am just finding out about Dyscalculia over the past few years. I have two daughters and I knew my oldest was just like me. I was determined that she was not going to suffer like I did. I was told all my life I had no common sense.because I could not read between the lines. My daughter was being told the same thing in the 3rd grade. I was never going to accept that and neither was she. I was not going to let her. She is 24 yrs old now and has more common sense that your average 30 yr old. My husband has his Masters Degree. It took him until she was a senior in highschool to finally believe that there was something wrong. Lots of meds that did not work.Visits with a Child Physcologist . My daughter finally found this on facebook and never told me about it. I happen to see it on her facebook. I thought it was a joke and that she was making fun of herself. It is so comforting to meet so many people like myself. I can do basic math very well in my head. And I can tell you the answer to a problem and not be able to tell you how I got it. I think back in the 60’s when I was in elementary school they taught math for much longer and many different ways so that you could understand it. And we did not have calculators.I’m a whiz at percentages in my head. Why can’t they teach math that way now? She does online classes and almost has her Bachelors Degree. So many of her teachers (that thought she was lazy) kept telling me she was not college material. She is determined to prove them wrong, and she’s doing it. It’s been a long road…but she’s happy. To me thats most important. We know we are not alone.I do try and spread the word has much as I can in the school system in Maryland. At times I have to help physically handicapped students in our school system and when I am in math I have to go to the teacher and explain myself. I am amazed that teachers know nothing about it. I have to do math for diabetics and it scares me to death because i am dealing with their lives. I study their formulas for hours and then have someone recheck it for me. Thank God (for real) that I can’t do anything without a nurses approval. Why isn’t this more wide spread?

  5. Math of all kinds and related directional/spatial/time type things have been the bane of my existence. I also had dyslexia, but managed to memorize tons of things about language and could put things into a context, so I did learn to read, though i still struggle with phonics and hate having to pronounce a brand new word, even though I test extremely high on vocabulary, etc. Math is a different ball game. How can you make sense of it. As you say, eight something is eight something. What does that mean. Then they tell you the plus sign and the subtraction sign mean such and such. Then they don’t. They mean positives or negatives. Then you do algebra stuff and numbers are letters and back and forth and the problems are done out of order? Hello! What a night mare. I am two courses away from having two Associate degrees. Guess what courses are holding me back? I cant’ even do the developmental remedial math, never mind collage algebra. So, I am transferring to a four year college that will let me substitute a science instead of math ones. Thank God! I’m in my fifties now. I have worked so hard, and quit and then tried over and over, and I can’t convince anyone of how hard it is and how it is NOT going to be something I can learn. I’m a honors student and I find it so frustrating to be so good at somethings and beyond bad at number related things.
    Anyway, I relate!!!! I find it interesting how many of us love creative writing and fall apart with most math.

  6. Sad for me because I wanted to be a teacher, but can not pass the math portion of the basic skills test to be certified. Even though I graduated in my major with highest honors I still am not allowed to teach little children just because I can not pass 12th grade math. It is very upsetting to me, but I can not change the rules so the teaching field will be lacking someone who is highly educated in the field.

  7. I found your blog post after working up the courage to write one myself about the exact same thing. THANK YOU for writing this, you’ve made me feel like I’m not alone. I’m a 2nd year Events Management student and have a finance exam in December… and if I don’t pass well, I don’t pass. End of. I get upset, embarassed and frustrated with myself about something I know isn’t even my fault. I developed dyscalculia and short term memory loss after an epileptic seizure I had in childhood and always just plodded on, until now. Now I need to find help and tailor mathematical learning to my own needs. Thanks again for this post, the fact you work in finance and actually have dyscalculia as well is really inspiring. Good for you.

  8. Man I am glad that I’m not alone although I am of Korean descent, I don’t fit the asian stereotype of being good at math but however I do get good grades in other subjects. I do believe I have some dyscalculia in me I know I struggle with common units of measurements and some parts of telling time and at school I do struggle isth financial math and geometry yet for a long time till this day there are always people laughing at me because of it 😦 and it’s not that fun! It’s hell to me…. Having strict Asian parents, my mom and dad are ashamed of me because of it :/…. I wish there was a cure for it

    1. I wish there was a cure, too. Perhaps if you were able to get officially diagnosed your parents might have more understanding? I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.

              1. Oh, finance just feels different from actual calculations. It tells a kind of story and makes sense to me in a way that algebraic equations never did. There’s cause and effect that has a story behind it. I’m not sure how else to explain it. I suppose financial planning has its own narrative whereas equations and formulas seem to lack that. I think the narrative is also what helped it snap into place for me in Statistics, which also has a narrative behind the numbers.

  9. when I was in 5th or 6th I was “almost” forced to learn the multiplication tables from 1 through 12. My father is an Engineer and he was always telling me about how wonderful math is: because of that, today I am deeply in love with mathematics and physics. I am double majoring in Computer and Electrical Power Engineering

    It’s okay people, you may not be good at math, but you are good at other things.

    I suck at writing, reading, and history if is not about Engineering, Mathematics, or any other science.

  10. Hello to all and thank you to the person who had posted this article absolutely touching story (:

    And everyone else who shared their stories wow so BEAUTIFUL how through the pain there’s light

    I myself struggle with math I study and study and study??!!!!!!! And then it never seems to stay in my mind . I got tutoured in highschool and then it became much better.

    Especially with tills whenever I have worked i always stand there for ages I feel so bad for people who are waiting but rushing makes me feel stupid I want to take my time I can’t but oh well

    Oh just feels soooooo lovely to see people relate yayyyyy awwww love to you all

    People need to stop being arrogant about it there is no need all humans are humans mistakes happen and it isn’t bad those people who complain aren’t peoplefect themselves, but it stil hurts me when people are impatient I understand in life now time is valuable but people become so rude there is no need. Understanding the world is lacking in we need to be advocates to change that hehehe

    I just cried after work people make you feel incredibly stupid didn’t matter boss friends who ever I just started new work today and I get over worried when it comes to tills they confused me and math in generel scares me beyond.

    Even if I study and study the time it comes to do a test or I’m put on the spot I get so scared.

    The feeling people make you feel ohhhhhh my goodness so so very painful. Doesn’t mean anyone is stupid even though I myself felt that way. Its like a need to impress I don’t want to but is math all that essential really???

    But thank you all for sharing I loved reading it all. Just couldn’t help but cry just math is my worst enemy no one gives anyone time of day to figure it out.

    Thanks for letting me share my experience too I appreciate it (:

    Ohhh math math when will we ever be friends. The feeling is extremely u comfortable for me. Tills cash register is the worst for me just its hard why is it hard like why can’t all have the same knowledge of math just wondering haha it doesn’t matter but greeter GRRRRRRRR just wanna prove everyone wrong. It takes time and patience 😥

    Thanks everyone. I don’t know how I can ever fix this please help xxxxxxx lots of love to everyone x

  11. Thankyou soooo much for this marvelous blog! I am 47 years old and I too have dyscalculia. I started a facebook group called Dyscalculia Math to try and bring awareness to the community. I have posted this blog as a reference. I have struggled with Math and Science my entire life – but excel at English and the arts. I only discovered that there was a name for this odd phenomenon about two years ago. When I discovered this – part of me was relieved because I could finally make some sense to what was going on – but part of me felt like “This is as good as it gets?” Lately I have really felt a need to find people with this same disorder. Most people don’t understand. I also REALLY struggle with directions. It’s almost comical. I walk out of a building or a room – and I almost always turn the exact opposite of the way that I am supposed to go. My husband lovingly told me to just always go the exact opposite of the way that I think that I’m supposed to go and then I will be right. Does anyone else struggle with directions? Thank heavens for GPS and Calculators! 🙂

    1. Hi, Michelle! I don’t really struggle with directions unless they are given using things like, “Travel north on blah blah street.” I do better with directions given the Southern way. “Go down by the corner and take a right and drive until you see a Walmart, then take the next left, etc.” But it did take me a VERY long time to learn my right from my left. Until I was in college I used a mole on my right hand to double check myself.

  12. Leta, I do better with directions the way you’ve described as well. The weird thing is – I don’t struggle with knowing my right from my left. It’s just that my internal compass doesn’t remember the way I just came from. 🙂 I probably need to trace my steps in my mind and tell myself to “Turn right” when I come out of the building or something like that. 🙂 The other weird thing that I experience is not seeing things correctly. For example I could look at a group of people and see it as 5 people for example. I count how many people there are and I count six – but when I look I see 5 at first until I count how many there are. There really are the number that I count. But I second guess myself because it doesn’t look like that. That doesn’t happen all the time. But when it does it’s very weird and confuses both me and the people that I am with. Does that make any sense? Have you ever experienced anything like this?

  13. I am 21 all my life I struggle with math and till this very day I feel ashamed because well it’s embarrassing my heart aches when my friends and people ask about a job..How come I don’t want to try working at some stores close to me? or restaurants? Truth is I don’t want to get humiliated and feel stupid. I am embarrassed of who I am because I can’t comprehend math or can memorize anything that has to do with math. I know how to count , add , and subtract , I know some of my multiplications , I am really bad at division , and can barely round numbers. I want to look for help because I’m scared that this learning disability is controlling my life. I feel like I don’t fit in to the world and it’s difficult to to talk to just anyone about this when they don’t understand how it’s hard.But reading this story gave me some hope and just today is my first time searching on the internet that there are people out there just like me who struggle I don’t feel so alone now to know there someone out who can relate to my problems.

  14. Hi i’m bree i think i have this i failed physics and math and i tried so hard to do it but i never understood and i don’t know what to do now

  15. HI my name is Daniel and i have the same problem as all of you when i was in the fourth grade my teacher had me tested because i did not know my multiplication table to see if i belonged to the special ed class and she put there so i had to go though being labeled as special ed all the way until the the 11th grade i wanted to get out of being called special and being treated special from the other teachers and this person how wrote this blog show me that i am not the only one out there there are lots of people how have this disability i am so happy now back then when i was labeled as special i was depressed all the time i could not tell anyone not even my parents because they would just ignore the fact that i was depressed and at one point i attempted suicide all because i was depressed that i did not know my math and i was jealous that people know math and i don’t i was angry and depressed when my brother got into the military and i didn’t all because i didn’t do well in the math section but i fell a lot better to hear that i am not alone thank you so much

    1. Hey daniel,
      I have the same problem I am in special ed for math and my teacher treats me as if I’m a lost cause and like I’m in kindergarten. How did you get out of special ed, I really want to but don’t know how please help me out?😥😊

      1. Hi ann the way i got out of special ed was that I talked to the special ed teacher to see if I could be placed in a normal math class but you have to not fail the math class my grades in the normal math class where b’s to d’s on the grade letter but you have to talk to the special ed teacher if she/he can place you in a normal class but you have to promise to the teacher that you will get good grades hope this helps

  16. Hi, I’m in 10th grade and am in a 9th grade math class, seriously I feel so stupid every time my friends ask what math class or teacher I have I just say something along the lines of I can’t remember or Im going to be late gotta run. And I have to sneekly go into my math class and shut the door as fast as I can so no one that knows me sees me. Ever year I go through this process and same humiliation especially now that I’m taking physics and computer technology there’s allot of math and steps in each class. So I’m am glad to at least know that I’m not unique or one of a kind stupid. I just hope that things get better and that one day I might be able to count money and read an analog clock too.

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