or: “Why my children will go to public school only over my stone cold, dead body.”
Hi, my name is Rebecca and I have dyscalculia. My formative years took place in the 90s and I graduated high school in 2000. I am 31 years old. My ability to add and subtract small numbers in my head has gotten better over the years but it still takes me longer than the average grade school child to do single digit calculations. I don’t know my multiplication tables and never will. I have trouble reading analog clocks. I never carry cash. There’s a lot of other things but cataloging them here is unimportant. What is important is that you understand what this has meant for me and my education. If I’ve gotten the years I was in school wrong…well…we can chalk that up to my learning barrier and my age.
The trouble started in the second grade. This is when the worksheets for math with the little pictures of 5 oranges next to 8 apples = “how many fruits?” disappeared. There were no more little pictures but instead there were neat rows of symbols and numbers.
5 + 8 = ____
Most of the world can bang that answer out in short order. Without thinking, like breathing. At the time my classmates took a little time to adjust and then they had it. I started to get very nervous about math time. I struggled. I had to use my fingers, often. I could see my classmates not using their fingers. If I had to go to the board to do a problem, I almost always got it wrong because I would be corrected for doing the counting. I know now they were priming our brains for rote memorization. I would ask my friends how they were doing it and they were puzzled…”I just do it.” There was no “just” doing it for me. I sucked at this. Obviously, I needed to try harder. I wasn’t applying myself.
3rd grade: After one of our breaks (Christmas or Spring, I can’t remember which) the school year was at least half over and the rest of the class was on to multiplication tables. I was still unable to reliably add and subtract. My teacher came back from an overseas vacation where she had been exposed to a delightful little method they taught over there (probably to 1st graders) and she wanted to show it to us.
TouchMath. I was saved. It wasn’t part of our curriculum but I was now vaccinated against whatever sort of thing was plaguing my brain. I could visualize this and no one would know I was counting and when they weren’t watching I could add and subtract even faster by touching the points with my pencil. Hallelujah.
Meanwhile, I’m falling further and further behind. I am unable to memorize these multiplication tables. They try teaching me silly little workarounds to remember your 3s and your 9s. 10s and 11s, are so blessedly easy I think I might be ok until the 12s come along and I’m in the weeds again. Schoolhouse Rock helped but if you have to sing THE WHOLE DAMN SONG to yourself for every other problem, or hiding that you’re making a zillion tick marks on a spare piece of paper….you end up not finishing your tests in time. You get notes written home that “Rebecca seems distracted,” or “Rebecca daydreams too much.”
During math, I was so far behind my classmates that I just switched off. Yes. Daydreaming about a world without math class. A world where I would be allowed to read and draw in peace without long division.
I read and read and read. I began to hide in books. I loved history and science. I did very well in all my other subjects. My reading level soared to compensate for my mathematical deficiency. It wasn’t conscious but I didn’t want people to think I was stupid. I wanted to show them I could do some things. It ended up backfiring and notes started to read “Rebecca is not applying herself to all subjects. Needs to pay attention in math.”
Alright. Maybe that’s it, my little 4th grader brain thinks. I’m not trying hard enough. My math teacher is the most vindictive, evil bitch. I think her name was Mrs. Hill. I’ll out her. She was HATEFUL to me. (She had my brother the previous year or as a substitute at some point and they must have had some sort of personality conflict or something. My older brother is one of those people who don’t have to try at anything. They end up being good at everything they brush up against. He could screw around the entire day, magically absorb all the material, and get 100s on all his tests.) On more than one occasion I am snottily told I should get my smarty pants brother to help me. This woman is not interested in figuring out why I’m doing so poorly.
7th grade…Mr Coulter. “Girls are bad at math.” Yeah. Idiot.
8th grade…state competency placement tests. I also end up going with a friend to take the Advanced Algebra placement test at the high school so they wouldn’t have to go alone. I end up being placed in Basic Math and Advanced English by the state and Advanced Algebra I by the high school. The state test was just me and a pencil. The other test, calculators were allowed, and I didn’t have to show my work.
I went to summer school that year to try and get up to at least pre-algebra level. Everything was open book, calculator allowed, and no work needed to be shown. I start to feel optimistic. Is this high school? No work needs to be shown as long as I can get the answer? I’ll be ok! I pass summer school with flying colors and end up in Advanced Algebra I.
Freshman year. My Advanced Algebra I teacher is insane. She threw a stapler at a student. She routinely melted down and had temper tantrums. The calculator is still allowed but …I have to show my work the way they want. My scribbles and drawings and scratches to find the answer are not going to cut it. Getting the right answer is not enough. Failed but insane teacher passed me anyway. I am now in Algebra II and I can barely add. I failed it 3 times and the final time I was passed because the teacher knew I was not going to graduate on time without it.
Getting to the point.
To this day I can’t tell you what the answer to 5+ 8 is is without doing my own set of coping computations that I’ve cobbled together over the years to get by in life. It goes something like: Ok…self. 8 is too hard…let’s add 2 to it to get it to 10 …that makes 15. 8 minus 5 is 3…add to the 10. The answer is 13.
Some of you may have just thrown up in your mouth. Some of you are like…yeah ok that’s how I do it too. This…is common core math. It’s a very bizarre and abstract way to think about numbers that I’ve managed to figure out on my own in lieu of however the hell else the rest of the world knows how to add. It takes me moments that drag out into an eternity to do this in my head. Sometimes my ADD causes me to drop a digit or get one wrong or forget what I was doing…and I have to start over.
“Ok…so what? You seem to be doing fine! You’re ok!”
If the number is written out in front of me, I fall back to TouchMath. If you ever see me filling out a credit card receipt after dinner and I act like I’m hiding what I’m leaving for the tip by trying to turn away from you or scooting the folio behind something… I’m not. I’m hiding that I still have to touch the numbers to add and I’m afraid it will be wrong and you’ll notice and mock me. My anxiety about this is to the point that if a restaurant is set up to make me fill out the credit card receipt while standing at the counter in front of the cashier…I will avoid going there again because I don’t want anyone to know I add and subtract like a 1st grader.
It’s painful. I feel crippled. I’m ashamed of it sometimes. I have had people laugh at me for not being able to give the cashier the right amount of cash (too much or too little) so I never use cash.
This nonsense has kept me out of college which has affected my earning potential and my self esteem.
And here is where I stopped. Now I don’t know where I was going with it. I remember I did have a point I was making…Promise.
Thanks for reading!