The Ghosts of Word Problems Past

illustrated math problem

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr

Dee has struggled in school since the beginning and as I have mentioned, I questioned and poked/prodded her teachers about glitches and gaps all along only to be told that “it’s normal for children her age”.

Of course, that was bullshit. Her peers didn’t struggle as mightily or as consistently as she did in certain areas. Perhaps having been a classroom teacher, it was more apparent to me than it would have been to other parents or maybe because I lived it myself as an elementary school student, the alarm bells rang louder for me. Whatever the reason, I knew from the start and her school has only just clued in and she has lost nearly four years in a battle that is going to be uphill and probably not very enjoyable.

The assessment was inclusive. The term “unusual” came up a lot because there is no real recognition of her particular learning disability. Dyslexic, autistic and the behaviorally disordered are the squeaky wheels in education. That is where the research focuses and that is where the funding flows.

Dee has dyscalculia. In layman’s terms it’s like a math based dyslexia – except it’s a bit more complicated than that. Her spatial and time sense are affected. She is hypersensitive to stimuli and has a hard time tuning extraneous noise out or filtering it for specifics. For reasons unknown, she can’t memorize formulas and committing base information to memory – like how a word is spelled, math tables, or phonic decoding skills – takes longer.

She wasn’t actually classified as having dyscalculia. Unlike the inability to read, having difficulty with math is not viewed as a big tragedy. Math is so universally loathed (because our school systems insist on teaching higher math forms to everyone despite the fact that it’s not necessary) that one is considered “normal” to be bad at math. But for Dee, it goes beyond math and one thing can’t be addressed without addressing all things.

I have dyscalculia. I discovered this inadvertently through my team teaching with special education teachers when I worked in the middle schools. Even they were only vaguely aware of the condition and didn’t have any advice for me in terms of doing something about it.

“Well,”  I was told, “you certainly managed to overcome it on your own at any rate.”

Yeah.

And that’s the problem. I had to “overcome” it on my own.

I came home from the studio last evening to find Dee at the dining room table working on a math table Rob had designed for her. She had a math test the next day and the teacher sent home a note asking that she study.

The test was word problems.

Word problems were the beginning of the end for me in school where math is concerned. As I watched her at the table, wiggling, sighing and in general being annoyed and annoying, I was cast back to the hours my dad had me anchored to the kitchen table with my math book and homework.

I did not act up because unlike Rob, my father had no patience and I was quite scared of him at that point in my life. Having watched he and my mother take after my younger brother physically, I had no doubt that this could happen to me too. So I sat, stone-faced and so focused on not crying that even if what he’d been trying to explain made even the slightest sense to me at all – I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“Oh,” my mother reminisced when I told her about Dee, “your dad had no patience with you. He could do any math at all in his head and couldn’t understand why you couldn’t.”

She didn’t add that my failure to do well at math was a huge disappointment to him. And not one that I missed. Even now as I listened to Rob’s exasperation with Dee when he told me about his attempts to help her study, I could feel again the awfulness of wanting to understand and just not being able to. I remembered the nights I sat at the table instead of being able to watch television or play outside.

And I remembered the words that showed up on Dee’s assessment “she just needs to try harder” because “the knowledge is there”.

Except it isn’t.

I couldn’t tell time on analog clocks. I had to use my fingers to count once the big hand slipped off the hour – even now, I count minutes past the o’clock, the thirty or quarter to or past.

I can’t judge distance. I can only subtract and divide because I can add and multiply and I still don’t have the entire times table locked and solidly loaded. I have to think about it whenever numbers are concerned and I transpose addresses and phone numbers regularly.

Grades three and four were easily the worst years of my academic life (until 9th grade algebra*). Neither of my math teachers had the time to work with me one on one as class sizes regularly hit the mid-30’s. None of my peers could explain what I was doing wrong or how to fix it though they generously gave me answers in an effort to help me avoid the regular dressing down I received in front of them.

Mrs. S, my grade three teacher, had a wicked way with the sarcastic put-down. Where my Dee is small and sweet and cuddly, inspiring the tender side of her teachers, I had perfected an air of indifference that read like defiance – and maybe it was a little – and I would meet her eyes and take the insults without comment. I would have sooner stuck splinters under my fingernails than cry.

In grade four, Sister assigned her student teacher to work with me exclusively when she grew tired of my stubborn refusal to learn.

That’s how it was viewed. I was not learning on purpose. Perhaps because I enjoyed being chapters behind and wrong every time I was called on?

He worked hard but nothing much stuck.

I had done so much copying – cheating really – the year before to survive that I was determined in grade four to do the work myself. But all that resulted in was falling further and further behind everyone else. So the day after Sister had forced me to stand by her desk, facing my classmates, as she berated me and asked me if just “enjoyed being stupid”, I sat down next to my cousin Gwen and asked to copy her work.

A week later I turned in every single assignment that was missing and I failed every single test that I hadn’t yet taken. I am not sure what went through Sister’s mind and I no longer care, but I do remember she smirked when I turned in the work and didn’t look at me when she handed back the red pocked tests.

I feel as though I should be able to better help people understand what it means to have dyscalculia, but I find I am not able and I worry for Dee.

Third grade was the year that school became an endurance race, a marathon that I plodded through without joy. It was a time-suck whose rewards were endless homework, tutoring and summer school.

Of all the things she’s inherited from me, this is by far the worst gift. Even her near perpetual habit of looking at the glass as half-empty, which she got from Will, is not nearly as poor an inheritance.

Having endured the misguided perception that hard work can overcome, I am a bit downcast at the prospect of going through this again with Dee. Hard work is unavoidable, but it will do nothing except possibly help her endure. I still have dyscalculia every day of my life. I struggle to keep PIN’s and passwords straight and to follow Rob’s reasoning when it comes to investment strategies. I hope that no one realizes that I haven’t gotten their name memorized yet or matched with the right face. I am relieved when I am not asked for directions because I can’t give them using street names or that no one thinks it’s too weird that I don’t know my own cell phone number after nearly four years. The truth is that I worked hard and got to a point where some things were easy to cover up and other things? I deal. And that is all and Dee will learn to do the same, but it won’t be fast enough to suit anyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s