It Happened To Me: I Have Math Dyslexia

Since about fifth grade, math homework was an Olympic event in our household, complete with hysterical sobbing fits as I stared blankly at nonsensical columns of numbers that seemed to rearrange themselves each time I looked away.

Jun 4, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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“You’re grounded.” 

I stared disbelievingly at my mother as the words started to register, my hands tangled together in my lap. She and my father were sitting across from me at the kitchen table, matching unsympathetic gazes fixed on me, and I had never felt so small or misunderstood in my entire life.

 “You’re not going to be using the computer or hanging out with your friends,” my dad chimed in. “You’re not going to use the phone. You’re going to school and tutoring, and then you’re coming home to work on homework. Is that clear?”

“What about Sam?” I asked tremulously. Sam was my first real boyfriend, but he didn’t go to my school anymore after his family had moved a couple of towns over. The only time I really got to talk to him was on the phone, and we only saw each other once or twice every few weeks.

“Alex,” Mom said, not entirely unkindly. “I think you have bigger things to focus on right now.” 

“It’s not forever,” Dad said. “When we see some changes, and can trust that you’re being honest with us, you’ll get your privileges back. But until then, you’ve left us with no option.”

This conversation wasn’t so different than the ones most kids my age were having with their parents, or ones that I myself had endured before. After all, I was 15. This was practically what was supposed to be happening to me.

Only, I hadn’t broken curfew. I’d never drank or done drugs. For once, I hadn’t even talked back. I was at home most weekend nights, writing truly awful Harry Potter fanfiction, scribbling away in my diary, and burying myself in books. My social life was small, limited to a great group of equally nerdy friends whose idea of a crazy party was breaking out a Ouija board and playing “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board,” and a boyfriend who I was still kind of nervous to hold hands with. So, why was I being put on lockdown? 

For the first time in my life, I was failing a class. Not just a bad grade here or a missed assignment there, either, but no less than 15 zeros on homework. Not even partial credit for effort.

At that point, my most recent test grade was an angry 52%, scrawled in red pen across my name, and circled not once, but twice. I had three tutors, went to Sylvan Learning Center twice a week, and I worked with the teacher most days after school, but it didn’t matter. I was failing tenth grade geometry, and it seemed to me that every single person in my life thought it was because I didn’t give a shit. 

Looking back now, it’s obvious to me why they must have thought that. I was a pretty smart kid who had no trouble getting As in English and history, and who had never gotten anything less than a very rare C in science. My parents had always known I struggled in math -- after all, it did take me three years to learn my multiplication tables, and I counted on my fingers for simple mental math even as a teenager -- but I’d always managed to scrape by.

For years, my mom had made me do math workbooks every day during summer vacations so that I wouldn’t be too far behind the other kids when school started up again. I made no secret of the fact that I hated math and resented having to do it. Since about fifth grade, math homework was an Olympic event in our household, complete with hysterical sobbing fits on my end, hours of patient explanation on my parents’, and eventually, me sitting alone in my room, staring blankly at nonsensical columns of numbers that seemed to rearrange themselves each time I looked away, until I wrote down something -- anything -- to be finished with them.

I can clearly remember getting in trouble for sneaking out of math class in grade school with a book stuffed under my shirt, under the pretense of going to the bathroom for the third time in an hour.  

So, yeah. I had clearly demonstrated that I’d do anything to avoid math. Sure, I struggled more than most kids might, but I was smart. My teachers always said so. The people at Sylvan Learning Center said I had some gaps, but that my verbal ability was way, way above average. With a little hard work, everyone insisted, I would be just fine.

When I was failing geometry even with the tutors my parents were paying for and the extra work with my teacher, the only explanation they or anyone else could find was that I was purposefully self-sabotaging, or that I wasn’t putting in the effort. 

I couldn’t find the words to explain that the “easy mistakes” I made on tests (like writing “86” instead of “68,” or adding fractions instead of multiplying them) weren’t out of laziness. As my mother always instructed me, I would meticulously check and double-check my work before handing it in. I’d be shocked when I got the tests back to find how many basic things I’d done wrong -- like, why would I write “f” instead of 5? How could I never have noticed that?

I concluded early on that I was stupid, but I knew it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying or didn’t care. I didn’t have the vocabulary, or the self-assertion, to tell my family and my teachers what I’d known since third grade: Something was wrong with me. Although I begged my guidance counselor, he refused to transfer me to the remedial geometry class, saying my other grades were too high for me to be considered. Like it or not, I was stuck. I’d better start working a little harder. 

However, as hellish as geometry was -- I never did solve a proof correctly, or learn how to find the missing side of a triangle -- it ended up helping me more than it hurt me. After two months of punishment, and the addition of extra days at Sylvan, my parents had to reevaluate. At that point, my boyfriend and I had broken up (largely due to the fact that I could never talk to him or see him), I was a miserable wreck, and my life revolved around working on math, and pretty much nothing but it.

My grades were not improving. My geometry teacher, who wasn’t exactly my biggest fan, was expressing concern after individually watching me take a test and noticing how careful I was about checking my work. It was becoming clearer that this wasn’t teenage laziness, but something a little more serious.

One day, while I was in the middle of working on some extra homework my teacher had given me, my mom put her hand on my shoulder as I struggled through it and told me I was ungrounded. For the first time that year, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my chest. Somebody finally believed me.

I kept working hard in geometry, but, not unsurprisingly, failed my final exam spectacularly with a 23%. My teacher and my guidance counselor took pity on me, decided it would be cruel and unusual to make me repeat the class, and gave me a 65% overall in the class:  a D—. I’d never been so grateful for a just barely passing grade in my life.

My parents even told me they were proud of how hard I’d worked. We still didn’t know what the real issue was, but at least they were on my side, and I was signed up for the remedial class in the fall.

Everything changed when we moved, though. We’d already moved twice before (from Colorado to Louisiana to upstate New York), but I was finally in a place where I was mostly happy and secure, with actual friends. I was even less thrilled to find we were going international: My dad had been offered a position in Shanghai, China. My little sister and I were enrolled in an American-International school that didn’t offer remedial courses of any kind, and we moved five days before my 16th birthday.

As if it weren’t hard enough, school had already started two weeks ago, and I was immediately swamped with assignments and make-up tests. Two days into the Algebra II/Trig class, I knew I was doomed. I got a D on my first homework assignment, failed the first test, and had already been singled out by the teacher as a problem before a week and a half was up. It was starting to feel a lot like geometry, but this time, I was determined. I wasn’t going to face another year of constant F’s and an angry teacher who told me to stop slacking off in front of the entire class.

I called a meeting with my guidance counselor, teacher, the school psychiatrist and my mom, and then flat-out begged to be tested for a learning disability. The psychiatrist agreed, and after three days of testing and evaluation, determined that I had one. It was called dyscalculia, and it basically was the equivalent of math dyslexia.

What it meant, the psychiatrist explained, was that my visual-spatial reasoning was particularly low, I wouldn’t ever be able to fully retain complex math problems, mental math and money management would always be difficult, and there was a reason I was perpetually lost and could never learn to cut anything resembling a straight line. 

“You should have been diagnosed in elementary school,” she told me sympathetically when she gave me the results. Her office was small and colorful, with uncomfortable orange plastic chairs. My mother grasped my hand tightly from the seat next to me, and I tried hard not to look at her expression, afraid her shock would make me start crying. “It seems as though you slipped through the cracks.” 

When we walked out of the office that day, I didn’t say much of anything. I was relieved that my little problem had a name, but I was also overwhelmed by sadness. I had spent the past eleven years of my life listening to people tell me to work harder, or being called stupid by other kids, or wondering over and over why I couldn’t just do math.

I had never even wanted to be good at it. I’d just wanted to be able to subtract simple numbers in my head, or be able to write down an equation without flipping numbers, or not have to count on my fingers in the middle of a crowded supermarket. I knew now that this probably wasn’t ever going to happen. In my particular case, my ability to reason mathematically had been capped at basic algebra. 

Dyscalculia affects 3-5% of the population. Besides math, it inhibits sense of direction, the ability to read analog clocks and keep track of time, and it is quite common for those with the disability to be better than average in English and writing. Most kids never get diagnosed: In fact, I’m one of the lucky ones.

I was able to get documentation that (largely) helped me all throughout college. It was still a constant struggle to convince professors the disability is real (it’s recognized in the DSM-IV, and my documentation is extensive), but the Disability Services office on my campus did help me find the perfect class to fulfill my math credit, one that met five days a week and was project-based, with no tests.

However, I am still struggling with my school, trying to convince them to waive a chemistry or physics requirement so that I can graduate. I have the number of credits I need to get my diploma, I’ve taken my 13 mandatory credits of science, but because I didn’t take physics or chem in high school (after that same psychiatrist told me I wouldn’t be able to pass either), I’m stuck.

I have attempted and had to withdraw from both classes twice now, and finally, after a year and a half of searching for answers and getting little to no response from the people and systems in place to assist me, I have the opportunity to appeal. I had to go right to the assistant-director of Disability Services before someone started advocating for me, but for the first time in my life, it finally happened. The other day, when I went into pick up some paperwork for my petition, I found out that the whole office is going to bat on my behalf.

They unanimously support my request, and the director, whom I’d never met in person, came in to tell me that she was making a call to ask the dean to waive the credit without me having to go before a committee. She gave me a hug, and told me they were going to fight for me.  

When I left, I started crying. I never asked or really expected anyone to take up arms for me that way -- the way I needed when I was a child, the way I had to learn how to do myself when I was a teenager. I got into the car, and when my fiancé asked me what had happened, I told him, and showed him the letter from the department. He kissed me on the forehead, smiled at me, and said,

“Well, it’s about goddamn time.”

I couldn’t agree more. 

If you think you have dyscalculia, or if you just want to know more about it, go to www.dyscalculia.org.