‘D’ for DYSCALCULIA

When I was a kid I always said I wanted to be a writer which is maybe how I ended up with a D in Algebra in 12th grade.

But the interesting thing about this is that I have no recollection of getting a D. My version of high school has me as a solid B student with touches of brilliance in English and History. The odd C in chemistry, that I do recall doesn’t bear mentioning, especially to my four children, all of whom I hold to the highest possible standards. In 25 years of child rearing I’ve deployed tutors and sought expert help sometimes just to bring an A- up to an A. In the anxious atmosphere of their grade school years, anything below a B is a family emergency, for crying out loud.

This bad grade that popped up like an overnight pimple needed further excavation. I had no recollection of practically failing 12th grade math but now, middle-aged, I do know a few things about myself: I’ve always been hopeless at mental math. Calculating a tip for a waiter or taxi driver can make me break out in a cold sweat. I love to dance, but for the life of me I cannot follow instructions for steps or movements no matter how many times they are shown to me.

One more thing. You do not want to be stuck with me and a deck of cards in a cabin on a rainy vacation. Over the years many kindly folks have tried… and nearly wept with frustration at my inability to learn and retain the rules and procedures for card games.

I’ve had various jobs in my life but the one pursuit that I’ve excelled at is math avoidance. With the confidence that comes with age I’ve found ways around all of the above. All was fine until recently when I decided that I should build upon my work as an ESL instructor and go back to school to for a masters so that I could teach high school English.

The picayune application process made me grind my teeth. Thirty-four year old transcripts from my undergrad years had to be obtained. Old papers and records of the graduate-level English courses that I’d taken were unearthed and perused with mild interest from me. As the last requirement I needed to obtain a high school transcript showing grades of C or higher in Math and English.

Could I even get a high school transcript from 1977? Yes, you can! At least from Montgomery County, Maryland where I went to high school. I called a number and an ancient-sounding man answered the phone in a shaky voice. He gave me instructions for the precise wording of an email to be sent to him requesting the transcript. He warned me not to open the envelope or the transcript would no longer be “official.”

Hah, hah. Why would I want to open it? I mean who would be interested in the memories evoked by the names of the teachers and the courses taken back in the mid-70’s. Could paisley short dresses, shiny brown hair, the blessed anonymity of a large suburban classroom have even happened in my lifetime?

Five days later I received the envelope and recklessly opened it.

The photocopy of the transcript is signed in a very shaky hand by my elderly friend in “Central Records.” Some of the names of the classes, English 1, Geometry, French 3, are typed others are hand written in inks of different thicknesses. The teacher’s names aren’t there but they come back to me — MacArthur who cleaned his ears with a car key, Mrs. Darling who was very short and wore a Dolly Parton-style towering platinum wig. … A few As, lots of Bs.

And then … there it was — a D in Algebra. In my senior year of high school. What?! WHAT?! I couldn’t believe it. And not just a D for the semester, a final grade for the year. My heart pounding, I sank into a chair.

I would never, ever live this down if my children found out. And explain this to the admissions secretary of the teaching program after I’d already been accepted? The prospect made me shudder.

The D showed a lack of talent, yes, but to my grown up, parent eyes it was also lazy, sticking its tongue out at the importance of grades. Had I tried at all or made any effort to pull up that grade up? I strained to remember.

I drew a blank surrounding the circumstances of the D but it didn’t take long to recall the shame and helplessness I’d felt in being irredeemably awful in math. And the daily need to cover it up, and the collusion of most teachers in helping me avoid embarrassment and carry on.

I faced the dismal prospect of either forging the transcript and submitting it anyway, thereby continuing the charade that I am an intelligent person or calling the administrator of the program and confessing to the discovery of my D and asking whether they would waive the requirement for a C or above.

Unwilling to face either of these options, I looked back wearily at the non-math careers that I’d been kicking around for decades. Romance writer, part-time documentary filmmaker, and homemaker, none of them required getting out of your exercise clothes in the morning, and right now none of them held much appeal.

I began tooling around on the Internet and uncovered one extremely relevant piece of the puzzle that is me.

I have a math learning disability. Not to sound too pleased, but really, it’s a huge discovery.

Six to 7% of all the people in the world have “dyscalculia,” a kind of cool-sounding learning disability (I’m dyscalculic!) that was first used in the 1940s by a neurologist named Josef Gerstmann. Research into dyscalculia lags behind its better known counterpart, dyslexia, which has to do with difficulties with reading, mainly because of the complexity of math functions.

It comes as no surprise to me that my brain is wired slightly differently than other peoples’ but it’s fascinating to learn that neuroscientists can actually see the difference when a child or adult with dyscalculia does a math problem and the areas that are best equipped for numerical tasks are bypassed and other less efficient areas light up instead.

On the Dyscalculia.org website, I pass the screening test with flying colors: difficulty with time, directions, sequences of events, inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Too slow at mental math to figure totals, change due, tips, and tax. A real challenge for me is keeping information in mind during the counting process, and difficulty storing facts in long term memory (like getting a D in Algebra). Another screening question flags problems with with motor sequencing, (as in following dance steps) and difficulty remembering how to keep score in games.

It’s all there. The only thing left to contemplate is how knowing about dyscalculia might have changed my life.

Maybe I would have learned how to be an advocate for myself when it comes to math instead of pretending I wasn’t interested. Maybe I would have asked for extra time. Maybe I would have branched out and taken classes in science and math that intrigued me knowing that I could get help if I needed it.

The fact that I’d never heard of dyscalculia is probably because I’m in my mid-50s. Many teachers and parents of young children today are aware of it and take advantage of

methods of learning, on-line programs, software and apps that offer coaching and learning techniques based on current brain research.

Renee Newman, an educational diagnostician based in Detroit, Michigan, assembles and posts a vast amount of information and links to scholarly studies on her website, Dyscalculia.org. Renee has been collecting research on math learning disorders for 18 years. She has dyscalculia herself and says it’s astonishing how this learning disability affects the choices you make your whole life as you “navigate away from anything having to do with math.” This resonates with me — telling teachers and friends that I wanted to be a writer was a way of opting out of math classes. I’m not interested in math, so I don’t have to be good at it.

The frustration caused by being unable to ‘get’ math while being smart in other subjects causes intense stress — she told me about one young woman, a junior in high school, who before she was diagnosed, was losing her hair and refusing to go to school.

Despite her mission to raise the profile of math learning disorders and provide access to the latest information about dyscalculia, Renee admits that the shame of not being good in math continues to dog her. She has three degrees in education but doesn’t have a PhD, “even though I should.” What’s standing between her and a degree in neuropsychology is “advanced algebra, calculus, chemistry and statistics” she says ruefully.

In the end, of course, I didn’t change the grade. And I decided not to pursue the application to the Master’s program partly, it’s true, out of shame for the D in algebra but also out of suspicion that there might be something better in store for me. Maybe it is time to fulfill the promise that I’d made to myself in high school when I daydreamed about becoming a writer.

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