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.”
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.”