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.