I have dyscalculia.
You might be thinking: ‘The hell is that? It sounds like a monster from Greek mythology, or a name from an Asimov novel.’
I’m disappointed to tell you that dyscalculia is neither of those things, though I deeply wish it was. No, dyscalculia isn’t romantic nor fantastical; neither is it cool, in case you’re wondering. Dyscalculia has been described as the reverse of dyslexia. While dyslexia effects one’s ability to comprehend language concepts, dyscalculia is the inability to understand mathematical principles. Not only can dyscalculia make it nearly impossible to absorb the lessons most ‘normal’ students take for granted, it can also effect a person’s ability to tell time, differentiate between directions, and read sheet music.
Let me tell you, it’s a pain to stare at an analog clock and have to spend minutes trying to deduce the time. As a person who’s been involved in choral groups, I can also vouch for how much of a hassle not being able to read sheet music is; learning by ear only takes you so far, unless you’re some kind of child prodigy. And telling left from right - a basic skill most people get the hang of at age five - has taken me about ten years to master, and I still have some trouble.
At the time of writing this, I’m nineteen years old and confident in the career I’ve chosen for myself. Lucky me, my passion has very little to do with numbers. Picking up a brush and going to town doesn’t generally take a lot of calculations, and even fiddling on my computer to design logos hasn’t given me any trouble beyond geometric principles.
However, about twelve years ago when I was starting ‘real’ school, I was completely lost. I remember telling time was the very first thing I’d not been able to grasp at all. I was an advanced reader and a little brainchild when it came to anything language-related. Science, while a tad confusing, became undeniably cool when a kindly biologist brought in some samples of shark skin and an elephant’s tusk for us to “study.” Then came the lessons dealing with reading an analog clock; suddenly, I dropped from the head of the class to the very bottom. The teachers had to sit down one-on-one with me before I could even understand what the numbers on the clock’s face were supposed to represent, much less add up what looked like a sea of numbers to equal something I could use in the real world. I didn’t truly understand what it all meant until the third grade.
Just when I thought I had conquered one demon, another one reared its ugly, numbered head. The demon was called the times tables, and I have never forgiven it for making my elementary school life such a hell. I still found all literature classes easy as pie, but at the same time my math classes were torture. I was such a poor student in my math classes that I was taken from the ‘normal’ kids’ class and put in the ‘special needs’ private-tutoring course for math. It was embarrassing, though at the time I couldn’t quite understand why; it also made my father furious. He was the first person who ever told me I was ‘just lazy.’ He swore that if I tried a little harder I would get numbers in a snap. No matter how I tried to explain how lost I was, neither my teachers nor my parents would accept it as an excuse. They all pushed me harder. As a result, I was pushed into an even darker place.
I found solace in reading. Words have never been unkind to me. I could open a book and assure myself that, no matter how poorly I was doing in mathematics, nothing could take away my knowledge. As I passed from elementary school to middle, I struggled with new forms of mathematics. Algebra was especially challenging for me, and I can’t say I understand it even to this day. Again, whenever I failed in my math courses, my parents and teachers would berate me for ‘laziness’; I could do nothing but explain feebly that I didn’t know how to get better because, no matter how hard I tried, the numbers didn’t become any clearer.
My counselor in fourth grade was the first person to suggest I might have a learning disorder. He told me he had dyscalculia himself and had struggled with it all his life. As he explained his symptoms to me, I could see the parallels between us. It disturbed me in a lot of ways because I just wanted to be ‘normal’, but at the same time I felt a huge sense of relief. I wasn’t lazy, or fooling myself into being terrible. I had a real problem. Knowing this meant I might finally get the help I needed.
I’m sad to say I didn’t quite get the help I desired. I was given extra help from math teachers, but only occasionally; it seemed like most of them refused to believe I had a real disorder. My father felt the same way, still sticking by the idea that I was refusing to put out an effort. As I passed all my literature and history-related classes with flying colors, my math and science scores steadily plummeted. I barely passed middle school and had to repeat two separate math classes, but with the help of a dear friend I managed to get into high school with the rest of my peers.
High school, being a place of varied classes and the first place where I could really choose my courses, was a breath of fresh air. I also had my best friend there, who I swear is a math prodigy (even if she won’t admit it). I still had a lot of trouble with the burden which was math. I failed algebra twice before being able to take math classes in my grade level. Geometry was the first math class where I understood the basics, but the formulas still made things difficult since I found it impossible to memorize them. After three more years of struggling, my senior year was devoid of all things math.
I can’t even express what a joy that was. I could focus on things that mattered to me: art, history, literature, writing, and singing. I decided on my career and realized, with a great sense of relief, that I wouldn’t have to deal with any more numbers that I couldn’t type into a calculator. Life was finally sweet.
I wish my story could have been a happier one. Yes, I have found my path and know in my heart I love what I do. However, I don’t believe my school life should have been so hard. If there had been justice then, I would have been given the help I desperately needed. If there hadn’t been ignorance then, there would have been teachers and counselors who could have supported me. If I had understood my problem better then, I might not have felt so alone.
What I’m trying to say is….if I take a while to tell you the time, please be patient. If I get lost even when you hand me a compass, try to help me find my way back. And if I ask you to sing a tune for me, instead of telling me to read the sheet music, why not humor me and sing a note or two?
I have dyscalculia. It is a real disorder with real symptoms.
I’m not lazy. I’m not stupid. I’m not abnormal.
The numbers just speak a little more softly, is all.