Childhood


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.


Cross-country skiing on Schwedentritt loppet, ...

Image via Wikipedia

Our town is a wonderland of winter pleasures. Skating for both pleasure and competition rule, as one would imagine, but cross-country skiing as well as downhill make strong showings. There are three or four sledding hills, and even though just about everyone with means escapes to Mexico or Cuba at some point, I don’t think many would really give up our winter if the opportunity presented.

Except my husband, who would throw winter under a snow plow without losing a moment of good sound sleep.

Last February, Rob got it into his head that we should take up cross-country skiing.  He and Shelley had pursued it a bit here and there when the older girls were small, and he thought it would be a good winter activity to pick up again.

We outfitted late season, so it was tricky to track down the right sizes of boot, ski and pole for the three of us – but we managed. There were a few trial runs in the baseball field nearby and one rather treacherous trek on a trail much too hard for Dee out at Elk Island Park one Sunday before Rob decided perhaps we should wait until next year. Join the Nordic Ski Club. Take lessons.

Today we joined the local club, signed up for lessons and embarked on our initiation in the cult of the wintry trail.

The cult thing seems to be requisite, I’ve decided. It really doesn’t matter the interest or pursuit. The non-joiner in me can’t help but observe and take notes while making note of the exits, but I’ve come to the realization that there is no real remedy for involvement with those who crave tribe. There is some primitive need that compels most everyone to join – and sometimes over and over – with others in totally fabricated configurations.

Today were the Jackrabbit classes and general information for parents meeting. There are a lot of young families and it always makes a me a bit regretful that Dee didn’t have the chance to start some of these activities at a younger age even with my misgivings about becoming too enmeshed in groupthink. Watching a barely toddling little one happily learning to ski is to bear witness to base level values being instilled and nurtured. Powerful stuff.

Dee was dubious. Her last time on skis was Elk Island and on a trail that far exceeded her skill level. If she were a daring child that wouldn’t have mattered, but she is cautious to the point of fear, depending, but that trail scared me too given our slight skill base.

She envisioned more of the same in Jackrabbit class, but nothing could be further from the reality. The year’s growth showed. Between maturity and yoga, her balance has improved measurably. She is still slight but taller than she’s ever been in comparison to her peers.

Her listening skills – and these seldom transfer to Rob and I – exceed most children her age. She is a serious student, regardless of topic.

“I went down a hill and it was fun,” she beamed as she told me after class.

Dee loathes few things more than moving quickly downhill. It’s why she still can’t ride a bike, doesn’t roller skate or skate board and pokes along like a turtle on her Razor until she comes to a downward incline and then she carries it. Where this excessive caution comes from, I have no idea. Deeply recessive genes? Certainly not from me.

Next Sunday, Rob and I take our first lesson. Given that my knees are much improved thanks to yoga, I am hopeful to pick up a few pointers that will enhance the cross-country experience for me. Rob is just brushing up little used skills.

On the drive home, I asked Dee if she knew anyone in her classes. She didn’t. There were a couple of kids from summer activities – outdoor soccer and swimming – but no one from school.

The vast majority of her classmates lack the discretionary income for the types of activities we do as a family or the sports we encourage Dee to play. Most of the kids she meets go the separate school – John the XXIII. I asked Dee if she would be interested in switching schools.

Lately, she’s been complaining that she has no one to play with at recess. And while I am not surprised, she will not play the follower but isn’t confident or charismatic enough to be a queen bee, and her natural inclination to thoroughly check people out before trying to make friends inhibits the spontaneous formation of friendship that is more typical for children her age.

Rob and I have discussed moving her to another school, but we doubt it will solve the friend problem. The other children, for the most part, have years long advantage of association on her that even having started kindergarten with some of them hasn’t erased. It’s also pretty clear to me that many of the girls she meets have the added advantage of the parents – mothers in particular – being friends, and I am not much help to Dee in this area.

And there is the religion thing. If she moved to the separate school, the other children will have gone through two sacraments already without her. She would be excluded from much of the mass that her peers wouldn’t and as she already views church with a jaundiced eye (“I only go if I am staying with Grandma and have no choice.”), I can see disaster written all over this.

Perhaps the activity only route will work in the long run and she will meet children more like her.

“There really aren’t that many kids like her,” Rob reminds me. “But Edie and Mick were the same way. They didn’t make many friends here and never ran in huge circles of kids.”

Neither did I. Neither did he. For that matter, neither did her father, Will. He tried though but succeeded only in getting his feelings hurt by those with whom he associated. She is like him in that moth to a flame thing, though I can’t do anything about it. She will be who she is. I wish I could spare her the loneliness of being just on the edge and never really invited in.

Ski club? Hmmm. Maybe. If nothing else, it’s good exercise.


Eye death

Image by doug88888 via Flickr

The child brought her first term report card home today. Nothing surprised me save the A equivalent she got in math.

She did not inherit that from me.

But she is blessed with my slightly dyslexic view of all things written – letters, numbers, whole words, sentences, paragraphs – what I see and hear doesn’t always translate properly. I never thought this was abnormal growing up. I thought I was just selectively stupid.

It wasn’t until a tutor at the U of I’s math lab suggested that my inability to perform simple Algebra, despite the fact that I appeared to be of normal intelligence, was due to a learning disability.

The guy’s girlfriend was an education major and she’d suggested this to him after he’d described the difficulty he was having in getting me to recognize formulas.

Regardless, this light bulb moment did me no good in the reality of needing a math credit, but it stuck with me. Years later, I team taught with a number of special ed teachers and managed to glean enough information to semi-pinpoint my particular issues. Again, a barn door after the horse is long gone kind of thing but good to know at any rate.

Anyway, the same brain hiccup that makes it difficult for me to recognize number patterns without some kind of external cue (like the tones on the phone keypad and the pattern my finger makes helps me remember phone numbers for example) makes spelling … challenging.

Yes. Yes. There are spelling “rules”. I taught middle school English for 17 years. I am well aware. But the English language evolved haphazardly in its written form.  Spellings were all over the place in the early days of the printed language and it was printers – not linguists or grammarians – who invented spellings. They were not always well-educated, or schooled at all, and they pulled words together from the recesses of their assholes at times.

English is a mongrel language, which is why those who learn it as a second language in the various grammar school systems around the globe always sound like automatons to native speakers. It’s also why even those who grow up with it as their mother tongue can’t necessarily communicate with each other if they grew up in different parts of the same country.

But that was a digression. I couldn’t spell. Couldn’t even learn to spell with all that much success in grade school.

Do you remember those leveled spelling lists of the 70’s? They were grouped together using the alphabet. Every year we took a pretest at the beginning of the year using the level the teacher assumed we should be at given our age and every year, I had to start at J or K.

Never once made it to M. Grade 3, 4, 5 and 6. Never passed L. It was so demoralizing that I eventually didn’t bother to try at all.

I was the kid who couldn’t punctuate, spell or use capitals all that consistently, but I was the best reader in my class and passed out of all my grammar without so much as glance in the direction of my teachers for assistance.

Spelling, I decided early, was not a very good indicator of who was smart and who was retarded.

But for some reason, it mattered a lot and I suffered the frowney faces of teachers all the way through university for my haphazard spelling.

And then came Word. And spell check. And it was awesome. God rested. The seventh day.

Spell check changed everything. Computers freed me.

Doomed all of you though.

So, Dee can’t spell. Her punctuation is “creative” though she has an ear for structure.

Her reading issues caused me anguish. Her dad lost the ability to read and write as his illness progressed. Whenever she can’t do something or master something where letters and words are concerned, my heart catches.

Is she getting sick? Theoretically she shouldn’t. She’s a girl. Her double X protects her from the disease that killed her dad, but I still fly there. Don’t ask me why.

But not with spelling. I couldn’t spell and but for spell check (which doesn’t catch everything – for that I have Rob), I would be mute still or at the very least making you wonder if I wasn’t “special”.

In my early years of teaching, I did as little with spelling formally as I could get away with. I knew from experience that it was better to teach kids how to spot errors and tricks to get around any shortcomings than it was to force them to memorize a random list of words. Later on, all spelling was based on relevancy. I cribbed spelling lists from their subject area teachers. My students never had a spelling list that wasn’t related to another class they were taking and I always allowed points for using the word correctly somehow. They defined or used them in sentences. They could write synonyms instead of the spelling word. When they had math terms, I let them draw and diagram. Spelling a word is useless if one can’t use it properly in the first place.

Dee’s only mediocre mark was spelling and picky grammar. She’s just eight. A year younger than I was in the same grade. Her teacher isn’t worried. I’m not either. This is something I know she gets from me, and I turned out alright.

I never won a spelling bee. They are overrated anyway.

Tonight, I helped her create a blog. Showed her the spell check. Lights began to flicker like fireflies across her freckled brow. She clearly never imagined such a thing.

It’s like finding out there really is magic.