Disconcerted by Dyscalculia

19 Aug

by Rhea H.Boyden

‘Rhea, can you please tell me what time it is, we don’t want you to miss your school bus.’ my mother calls down the stairs to me. I always dreaded this question from her because at age 10, I had still not learned how to decipher the anolog clock that would stare at me menacingly from the wall. ‘Um’, I answered back with uncertainty. ‘The little hand is just past the seven and the big hand is just past the five. ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Rhea, when are you going to learn to tell the time?’ my mother responds, trying to be patient with me. I remember some mornings going to my bus in tears and the clock was the least of my problems. I didn’t want to go to school because, again, I had failed to do my math homework. My poor mother had been up with me half the night trying to help me understand my multiplication tables. ‘You just have to try and memorize it. Six times six is thirty-six, can you remember that?’ My mother says gently. ‘No, I cannot’, I retort defiantly, on the verge of tears, yet again. ‘Well you must get some sleep now, we can try and deal with this in the morning.’ my mother says as she kisses me and tucks me into bed. I am unconsoled, however and I devise a crazy plan to try and get at least a part of my homework done so as to avoid another scolding at school. I have a flashlight and reams of paper in my bed with me and I set about drawing groups of little lines in rows, as a prisoner does to mark off the days he has spent in prison. ‘If I can draw eight rows of twelve lines and then count them all dilligently and exactly, I will know what twelve times eight is. I am a genius!’ I smile to myself. At midnight my mother comes in to check on me and she sees in amazement what it is I am attempting to do. It then dawns on her that I definitely need extra help with learning my multiplication tables and she sees the torture I am going through. The half hour of extra help a week at school achieved little that year. That was one of the joys of 4th grade in Massschusetts. My woes of learning math may have been lessened had I been able to learn it using one system in one country and in one school, but the following year was even worse when I was back in Ireland with my father, trying to learn long division. Now it is his turn to sit up with me late at night and try and help me understand the exhiliariating idea of how many times one-hundred and twenty eight can be divided by six. ‘But we learned it in a different way in Massachusetts.’ I wailed at him in desperation. ‘This is totally different here in Ireland. I hate math!’ I moaned. The next day I failed the math test miserably in my Irish primary school. You hear about dyslexia all the time at schools, but interestingly enough you don’t hear much about dyscalculia which is essentially the math equivalent of dyslexia. Many school children these days are actually diagnosed with dyslexia and given extra help, special training, and special therapy sessions to help them deal with their disability. I was never diagnosed with dyscalculia but I am sure I had it. It is defined as ‘a specific learning disability involving innate difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic. It includes difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, learning maths facts, and a number of other related symptoms (although there is no exact form of the disability).Maths disabilities can also occur as the result of some types of brain injury, in which case the proper term is acalculia, to distinguish it from dyscalculia which is of innate, genetic or developmental origin.’ I am, thankfully, pretty sure that I am not brain damaged, and I have since learned how to tell the time and learn most of my basic multiplication tables and I have a wonderful life (although I still avoid long division if I can). I have a fantastic calculator on my desk which I use often, more often than I care to admit. The word dyscalculia has a fantastic etymology that makes me chuckle: ‘dys’ is Greek and Latin for ‘badly’ and ‘calc’ meaning to count, comes from ‘calx’ which means stones or pebbles, which are, I discover with delight, the stones on an ancient abacus. I wish now, that I had had one of those stone abacuses in my bed those late nights when I was counting lines furiously. This ‘disabilty’ has, thankfully, not had a very negative impact on my life, as I have either avoided all mathematical and mental arithmetic as much as humanly possible, or if I do need help I just ask people who are more talented in such fields than I am. I happily discovered in my early teens where my talents lay and that was in languages and I have always followed that instead. I excelled at French at school and was actually given the option of dropping out of my accounting class at age 15 to concentrate on my French. My teacher saw that I was a hopeless case, and that there was no way in hell that I would ever comprehend the uses of a general ledger. ‘Go to the study and learn your French vocabulary instead’ she said through gritted teeth. Looking back, I see that I was essentially expelled from the accounting class. I moved to Germany for one main reason: I wanted to learn the language fluently. Life in Berlin is fantastic and many people move here to do all sorts of things, and you can get by without the language as it is a very international city. I, however, was determined to master German and I learned the language at great speed, great joy, and with little difficulty. In my first few years here I did not befriend many other English native speakers as I wanted to immerse myself in the language as much as possible. I was welcomed into a clique of East Germans in their 20’s like me, who spoke very little English and they took me under their wing and taught me their language. Research has shown that two age groups of people learn language the fastest: babies and small children through pure imitation, and people in their mid 20’s. It is only in more recent years that I have a much more expanded and international group of friends with whom I rarely speak German. Now that I have mastered the language, I can branch out and not focus on German as intensely, as speaking the language is now second nature to me. Other symptoms of dyscalculia include an inability to tell the difference between left and right, difficulty grasping mathematical formulae, rules or sequences, difficulty perceiving measurements and distances, and an inability to comprehend financial planning and budgeting. Some sufferers can’t even balance a check book. I can balance a check book, but I do it with great hesitation and doubt. Had I been allowed to attend my accounting class longer, I may be equipped with a higher level of self-confidence when performing this task. Fortunately, in Germany I do not have a check book as I did when I lived in the U.S., so it is a delightful task I don’t have to deal with anymore. I have a bank account with bank statements and that is enough for me. About the same time I finally learnt to tell the time on an analog clock at age 11, I was also taught a clever trick for telling the difference between left and right. A classmate of mine in Massachusetts said ‘Look, when you put up your left hand and spread your thumb out horizontally it forms an ‘L’ shape. And ‘L’ is for left so that is your left hand!’ What a clever girl she was! I have never forgotten this very valuable lesson. I used it for a couple years until the difference between left and right also became second nature to me. Statistics also show that people with dyscalculia are very likely to do exceptionally well in a writing related field- many talented journalists, poets and writers are hopeless at doing long division, so they happily avoid it as best they can. Who needs long division anyway? I have never found any practical use for it since I left school, and its only use then was to torture and challenge my brain which is little use at all. Naturally, I cannot completely avoid logical tasks and challenging technical activities that one comes face to face with on a day to day basis. And I have my lovely struggles with daily mundane duties that require me to use my brain in a rational way that I don’t enjoy. I would much rather be steeped in fantasy and dream world and lost in a writing project, but then I have to do something like put together my new vacuum cleaner. If there is one thing that I fear more than long division, it is the user’s manual of any new technical gadget I purchase. Why would anyone even need to consult a user’s manual for a vacuum cleaner? Just put the appropriate nozzle on the end- either the one for the carpet or for a wooden floor- plug it in and start sucking dust. Simple! No, unfortunately, not so simple. I spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out how to connect the first part of the hose to the vacuum cleaner. In frustration, I then consulted the manual. The manual then basically pointed out to me that I was indeed, a retard. It said: ‘This appliance may be used by children over the age of 8 and by persons of reduced physical, sensory or or mental capacity or by persons with a lack of experience or knowledge if they are supervised and have been instructed on the safe use of the appliance and have understood the potential dangers of using the appliance.’ Well’, I thought. ‘There is no one here to instruct me, so I will have to deal with this alone.’ My frustration was soothed slightly by seeing the comedy in the unflattering euphemism ‘persons with reduced mental capacity’, which is a retard no matter how you put it. Oh, how happy I am that I shine in other fields, because I am indeed a retard when it comes to assembling appliances. The manual also usefully went on to instruct me that I may not use this vacuum cleaner for cleaning animals. ‘Well, it’s a good thing I have no pets, otherwise I may end up doing something really dumb.’ I giggled to myself. I managed after quite some time to get my shiny new vacuum cleaner working without assistance and I happily hoovered my whole flat. Some of my closer friends have not only noticed my inability to perform basic calculations without a calculator, but also that I seem to have a special ‘Rhea-effect’ on electronic gadgets. I was walking through a flea-market in Berlin with a friend recently and I spotted an old style radio that was merrily playing German classical music. ‘Oh, look at the lovely old radio’ I said happily. I reached out and touched it and the music turned to static. I let go and the static continued. My friend laughed at me and he teased me by warning me not to touch electronic devises unnecessarily otherwise they go crazy. When other friends are visiting me, I sometimes ask them why a certain thing isn’t working, or why it won’t do what I want it to do. ‘Did you plug it in or turn it on or do this or that?’ they helpfully advise. As soon as they hit the magical button or switch, the gadget works. I always swear that I had done the same as that before and it didn’t work for me. It’s the ‘Rhea-effect’ on electronic devices, they tease. Now I am not so dumb that I would use my disk holder in my computer as a large coffee cup holder, but I also am very afraid of ever having to call up any technical support hotline for help if a phone line or internet connection is down, or if something fails to do what it is supposed to do. The following conversation between a tech support hotline and a really dumb caller is apparently not a hoax and is really true. And no, it was not me calling for help. I may not know the many uses of a pair of pliers, but I love to cook, and I do know the proper uses of a turkey baster: Customer: “I got this problem. You people sent me this install disk, and now my A drive won’t work.” Tech Support: “Your A drive won’t work?” Customer: “That’s what I said. You sent me a bad disk, it got stuck in my drive, now it won’t work at all.” Tech Support: “Did it not install properly? What kind of error messages did you get?” Customer: “I didn’t get any error message. The disk got stuck in the drive and wouldn’t come out. So I got these pliers and tried to get it out and that didn’t work either.” Tech Support: “You did what sir?” Customer: “I got these pliers, and tried to get the disk out, but it wouldn’t budge. I just ended up cracking the plastic stuff a bit.” Tech Support: “I don’t understand sir, did you push the eject button?” Customer: “No, so then I got a stick of butter and melted it and used a turkey baster and put the butter in the drive, around the disk, and that got it loose. Then I used the pliers and it came out fine. I can’t believe you would send me a disk that was broke and defective.” Tech Support: “Let me get this clear. You put melted butter in your A drive and used pliers to pull the disk out?” (At this point, the tech guy put the call on the speaker phone and motioned at the other techs to listen in.) Tech Support: “Just so I am absolutely clear on this, can you repeat what you just said?” Customer: “I said I put butter in my A drive to get your crappy disk out, then I had to use pliers to pull it out.” Tech Support: “Did you push that little button that was sticking out when the disk was in the drive, you know, the thing called the disk eject button?” ( Silence. ) Tech Support: “Sir?” Customer: “Yes.” Tech Support: “Sir, did you push the eject button?” Customer: “No, but you people are going to fix my computer, or I am going to sue you for breaking my computer!” Tech Support: “Let me get this straight. You are going to sue our company because you put the disk in the A drive, didn’t follow the instructions we sent you, didn’t actually seek professional advice, didn’t consult your user’s manual on how to use your computer properly, but instead proceeded to pour butter into the drive and physically rip the disk out?” Customer: “Ummmm.” Tech Support: “Do you really think you stand a chance, since we do record every call and have it on tape?” Customer: (now rather humbled) “But you’re supposed to help!” Tech Support: “I am sorry sir, but there is nothing we can do for you. Have a nice day!” Quite apart from showing an unbelievable incompetence in technical matters, sufferers of dyscalculia have also been shown in many cases to have a very active imagination, which is of course, very useful for writers. An over-active imagination has been shown to possibly be a cognitive compensation for mathematical-numeric deficits. Now this, I can most definitely relate to. I do tend to live in a bit of fantasy world at times, especially when writing, but also when it comes to my dealings with romantic relationhips. I have had very functional relationships with men in the past, but more recently I have experienced the following: A certain man fullfills some fantasy need of mine that I blow into a big fairy tale that will never be fullfilled for several reasons. First of all, we do not live in the same country, and all I saw were his pictures on the internet and the messages he left me. And second of all, we are absolutely and completely different and have different lifestyles. I do tend to focus on wanting what is not available and not near me. Is this a symptom of dyscalculia? I also find myself attracted to men who are very competent at technical, mathematical and computer issues. Women, in general are attracted to competent men, but it doesn’t take a lot to see that I am looking for a man who can do well what I can’t and to complete and complement my wide reperatoire of non-technical and non-mathematical skills. The last few guys I have fallen for have been computer geeks who I am in fact, incompatible with, but my over-active imagination helps me build a nice romantic fantasy that leaves me dissapointed when it amounts to nothing in the end. Am I attracted to the computer geek, the same way a person suffering from hypochondria may be attracted to doctors in the hope that they can solve their problems? Maybe so. I only end up disappointed when the computer geek I am attracted to fails to appreciate my poetry and writing, this being more proof that we are incompatible. I recently wrote a poem for the computer guy I liked and he said: ‘I read your poem and it’s good, but I am nicely ignorant to poetry in general.’ I am surprised that the computer geeks don’t need our writing and poetry as a balance in their lives, as much as we seem to need their tech support. ‘Forget about him, Rhea.’ a good friend of mine who also knew him advised. ‘If he can’t appreciate your poetic genius then he is not worth your time.’ I would not call myself a poetic genius, and I appreciate that my friend was trying to make me feel better, but the fantasy world I live in is only bubbly and nice until I get rejected by the man I desire or I am faced with some mind boggling technical or mathematical puzzle I am unable to solve alone. Then I get rather gloomy for a spell. I get over it fast enough though and return to my world of fantasy and writing which is probably, I concede, over compensation for my other deficits. I keep on writing and keep on dreaming that I will find a man who will appreciate my love poetry and fix my computer without the aid of a turkey baster. I can use that well enough to prepare a nice meal for us. And I know that is a dream of perfect cliched and stereotyped gender role task division, but I am a girl who dreams that blissful domestic moments like this await me still and are indeed possible.

Image: Algebra Formula Math Quiz Clock

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