For years, I’ve been telling people that I was – hmm, I believe the phrase I used when I was middle-school-aged was “math retarded.”

My mom told me many times over the years, sometimes rather sharply, not to say that. She didn’t want other people to think of me that way, and she didn’t want *me *to think of myself that way. Therefore the phrase I used to declare “I’m not very good at math,” evolved continually as I got older, from “I haven’t taken very much math,” to “I don’t have a very strong math background,” to “Math wasn’t really a concentration for me,” to my most recent, “I’m better with words than numbers.”

The thing which all these more recent explanations have in common is that they admit that my math training has not been extensive, but refuse to consider that I would be less than adept at it if I applied myself.

Turns out my original assessment of “math retarded” is probably closer to the truth.

While I was dual enrolled at my wonderful community college, they let me take whatever classes I wanted, so I focused on English and theatre, with some film studies, psychology, sociology, and history thrown in. But I officially became a high school graduate in December (I still can’t get used to saying “I *was *homeschooled,”) and so in this, my first semester as a full-fledged college student, the administration put its foot down, said, “them’s the rules,” and made me take a math class.

If you were wondering, it was the lowest leveled, easiest, non-college credit math class, which was all that my test scores (112 0ut of 120 English-type skills, ultimately 27 out of 120 math) would bear.

I tried to go into the class with an open mind. I was still on the “gaps in my knowledge, but perfectly competent,” track. I figured that hey, these people would teach me to do math, and then I’d be set. I really tried to think of it as a positive.

I had a lot of trouble in the class, though, because of the way it was set up (minimal to no human interaction, the computer teaches you math and does so poorly, etc., etc.). Despite getting As on all my quizzes, I got a D and an F on my first two tests, the worst grades I have ever received on anything in my whole entire life. When I expressed my despondency to my English Guru, he asked if I tended to make huge piles of paper all over my living space, if I ever found my mind wandering in math class, and when I answered yes on both counts, if I’d ever considered the possibility that I might have a math learning disability. He told me that some people, especially those who are highly gifted in language, writing, and communication (such as I am) have brains which simply do not properly fire neurons when it comes to math.

I found this thought kind of intriguing, but when I mentioned it to my mom, she toed the “perfectly capable, but weak on the fundamentals,” line; and when I mentioned it to Calvin, he responded with, “ADD that only manifests itself in math? I’ve known people who tried to pull that crap. You’re too smart for that.”

So I rallied in my usual little-engine-that-could sort of way, and got help outside of class from my mom, my math major friends (all of whom whipped out their calculators to do the multiplication and division I had to do in my head), anyone willing to give me some time and some patience.

It seems that there was an earlier draft of the story in which the little engine didn’t make it up the hill, but stopped partway and rusted to a standstill.

I got an F on my next test (a high F, though). I didn’t know what had happened, I’d tried so hard.

I sobbed, I went to my math teacher and had a conversation with her and my mother. She was much more empathetic than she was in class, she probably feels as strangled by the system as I do. “Have you considered the possibility,” she asked, “that you may have a math learning disability?”

On the way home, I vomited in the car.

I met with a highly recommended (by both my English Guru and my math teacher) disabilities counselor, who told me that I displayed all the classic signs of having a specific math disorder.

He gave me a referral for testing, and said that if the tests came back the way he thought they would (and he’s been doing this literally as long as I’ve been alive, so he should know) there were equivalent non-math courses I could take – and still get my AA on time and transfer into local university and get a creative writing degree and live happily ever after.

But even if that doesn’t pan out (knock on wood) I feel so much peace *knowing what is going on. *Knowing why I can’t retain math; why I have to memorize numbers like my SSN or my library card number in long strings to remember them at all; why sometimes when I try to frame number problems in my mind all I can make my brain do is produce a faint humming noise (as opposed to word problems, which spontaneously begin to work themselves out without my even trying).

I thought I’d blog this because it’s another interesting step in my educational journey, and also gels rather nicely with a poem I wrote a few weeks ago, inspired by accidentally leaving my notebook behind in my math class.

**On Leaving a Book of Poems in the Math Building**

There is nothing quite so terrible

as losing a notebook of poems

in the math building.

I am dizzy, frantic, wondering

what horrors those numbers people

will enact on my scrawled characters.

They might translate them to binary,

or try to convert all of my metaphors to fractions

to see if they are truly equivalent.

They might grade them, disfigure their structure,

mark them in bright judgmental red,

or add the lines together and average out the vowels.

They are short-sighted, hungry beasts, eager for the universe

to give up all its secrets, now, and to show its work besides,

they spend their time trying to count the seeds in the center of a sunflower

rather than capture what a sunflower means.

They know the numbers which make up the Fibonacci Sequence,

but know not the delight in saying “Fibonacci,”

over and over, feeling it in your mouth, caressing it.

They have never tried to make “Fibonacci Sequence” an anagram,

they don’t know how difficult it is when there is no R,

Even if you make “equine bison,” which I did,

you still have an A, E, F, and three Cs left, an untidy remainder.

They might write them as decimals.

[…] Daughter Comes Out of the Closet 27 03 2008 . . .the math disability closet, that is, with her new blog diary posted direct from her college honors lounge […]

Oh, come on. My bedroom is, as we speak, littered with papers. My mind wanders so much in Math class that I have a huge notebook full of short stories and sketches. I am considered “gifted” in language, I suppose, as I got some college scholarships based on high English exam scores. In grade 4, I was tested at a university level for reading comprehension. I also had a similar struggle with math this year, right down to the “A’s on quizzes” and “barely passing tests”. Does this mean I have a math disability?

Probably not. In high school, three years ago, I was entering district-wide math competitions and placing pretty damn well. Problem was, I couldn’t get into math the following year. The enriched-level class that I signed up for was cancelled because of lack of interest, and I wasn’t informed until it was too late to sign up for university-prep math. The year after that, the course counsellors wisely decided to wait until the final semester to give me both the math courses that I signed up for (even though one was prerequisite to the other). I had gone a year and a half without doing any serious math. The thing about math is that the material is all cumulative. If your basics aren’t solid, you will do poorly on anything more complex. Go long periods of time without doing math, and you’re bound to get rusty. If you haven’t taken much math over the years, then yes, you are going to do poorly.

In middle school, by the way, my math teacher told me to go into trade-school level math because he thought I was too dumb for university. Just because someone has a degree in a particular field, doesn’t mean he has good judgment. Even if you had a math disability – and, from the sounds of things, you haven’t actually been diagnosed with one yet – I don’t see why this automatically means that you “can’t do math”. Not many dyslexic people give up on learning to write just because they are told they are “language retarded”.

I agree, math is based on a solid grasp of the fundamentals. Even I can see the beauty of a system in which every part hinges and builds upon the last part.

However, I have such a low level of ability to comprehend even these basic fundamentals that there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that I have an inherent issue in the way my brain is structured. While I appreciate the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach, I’ve been yanking on my bootstraps for about fifteen years now, and I haven’t budged.

I can’t visualize numbers in my head. Even though it’s been explained to me multiple times, I couldn’t tell you right now how many zeros there are in a billion. I scored a perfect 100 on the quiz on percent, and when we had the test (2 days later) I answered the question “12 is what percent of 6?” with “150 %.”

I do not understand how numbers relate to each other on a basic level. Even when I learn how to manipulate them to solve problems, I can’t hold the methods in my mind for more than a day or so.

True, I haven’t been tested yet, but my counselor said that he would be “amazed” if I didn’t have a math LD; my honors adviser has thought I had one from the beginning; and the guy who’s been tutoring me in math said he “thought I had a math learning disability but didn’t want to say anything.” And this explanation makes all of the problems I’ve had throughout the years make sense.

I realize that the few things I can explain in a coherent fashion don’t offer a complete diagnostic picture. I can’t really articulate to someone who is good at math (as you seem to be) how it feels to be inside my head, grasping at tendrils and trying to form halfway acceptable answers from absolutely nothing.

I admit it took me aback a little that you were offering a diagnosis of my condition online;but then again, there is an established diagnostic tradition based upon watching a videotape or reading an account – Why, Bill Frist didn’t know what was going on in Terri Schiavo’s head either, and he attested she was fully aware of her surroundings!

Thanks,

PenguinDust

P.S. I too, tested gifted as a kid, although my math was rated “average” while everything else was “above average.” Several of my teachers at the gifted center were concerned about my “frustration” with basic, fundamental computation.

Crankypants — right then, you probably don’t have one. Favorite Daughter probably does. Difficulty and disability are two different things. And neither of you knows for sure.

A math mind more able than mine (and I was a math honors student) could calculate odds for each of you, given a great deal more info than a stranger’s blogpost could contain, of course.

But I can say this much with reasonable confidence — I’ve seen your experience described as almost universal among US students, with up to 90% struggling chronically with formal math in school and on standardized tests.

But only 6% (according to one credible source) will have a diagnosed clinical learning disability, roughly comparable to the likelihood of being formally identified for “gifted” services in school. Most non-educators of course pooh-pooh academic giftedness too, along with dsylexia and ADD, ADHD and other “learning” exceptionalities. When I was in school, there were no differentiated services or support for any exceptionality including giftedness. There was only blind Ben, who we all could see couldn’t see, so the brilliant solution was for me with a Stanford Binet score that made teachers think I could do everything with nothing, to read aloud to him most of each day, off by ourselves, instead of sitting through the regular instruction — case closed for both of us! 😉

And even diagnosed dyscalculia tends to be complicated by co-morbidity (if that’s the word; none of us knows much about this yet!) with various pseudo-dyscalculia behaviors and learning difficulties such as most young people know all too well from their common experience with math schooling.

I am older than you college kids by many decades, a lifelong academic who knew nothing about this small possibility, despite a doctorate and previous education department research positions. No gifted academic would pronounce judgment from ignorance, though, right? — I’m investigating this new possibility with an open but critically thinking mind, and already learning that like weight issues, paranoia and personality, dyscalculia isn’t just having to work harder at math than other subjects and understandably avoiding the discomfort of it — everyone’s a little depressed or paranoid, knows personally what it feels like, but most people would not be diagnosed and treated as disabled by their depression and paranoia. Most people are wrong when they assume their own experience fits anyone else; in fact, it’s likely we’re often wrong about our OWN experience, much less strangers’ experience! 🙂

Maybe (as mathematical thinkers might think!) the 6% stat is in flux as dyscalculia becomes better understood? We learn more and the population, culture and schools, maybe even the human brain itself, all continue to change. Maybe it will prove to be more like obesity? — metabolic, inherited, behavioral, cultural, rooted in childhood, cognitive, emotional, treatable, chronic, morbid? Yes.

All in all crankypants is right about something else too– “just because someone has a degree in a particular field, doesn’t mean he has good judgment”

LOL FavD! I forgot about Bill Frist, brilliant!

[…] Daughter drew a stranger’s comment about her math disability revelation — yes, revelation is a religious word, not scientific, if we’re […]

I have fairly good maths skills, but I never did take any advanced courses. Sometimes I regret that.

I love the last three lines of your poem, though. Really elegant. 🙂

If you ever want to talk to other dyscalculics, go to http://dyscalculiaforum.com 🙂