On Learning Disorders and Patience with People

numbersWhen I was growing up, math was never my favorite thing. Numbers too, just didn't seem to click for me. Telling time was always hard. Remembering street numbers was impossible. I invariably inverted my own phone number. While math and numbers seemed clunky and difficult, it was never a real issue till I got to high school. In middle school math was definitely my toughest subject, but if I tried hard enough I could at least get it, I wasn't the worst in the class. High school though was a totally different story. Math seemed to slope immediately downwards unexpectedly and numbers seemed to take on a confusing haze for me. It started with my locker combination. I just couldn't get it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't remember it. It wasn't just that I couldn't remember it, for some reason I couldn't get the numbers straight in my head if I was reading them to try to put them in to unlock the combination. I would put it in over and over again, lining the numbers up so very carefully, pulling on the lock. Nothing. Everyone would be getting their stuff, slamming their locker doors, walking off to class and I'd still be there, trying to avoid having to look at anyone, wondering if anyone thought it was weird that I could never get my locker open. I was late a lot.

I decided to just keep everything with me at school to avoid the number thing. I would go to my locker to make it look like everything was normal, but I would keep it just open enough that no one could tell I wasn't locking it. It was in math class that things really went south though. I just could not wrap my head around all the new math we were learning. Sometimes the numbers would literally seem like they were falling off the page. I would start to try to count in my head, would get hung up, would start again. During tests I just didn't know how to figure it out, time would run out and I would have to make a decision. Do I just put in any numbers? That way at least I can hand in a test that had answers in case anyone else noticed, but I would surely fail. If I hand it in empty I still fail but at least no one will think I'm stupid. There will still be writing on the page if any of my classmates saw it. I was put in the remedial math class. While everyone else was moving up, I was stuck in "Algeo", the algebra and geometry hybrid designed for kids like me who just didn't get it like everyone else. We plugged along, taking it slow, feeling like total morons in the "slow" class. It was embarrassing, and to even think the ridiculous word "Algeo" now makes me cringe.

My teachers could not figure it out, but to be honest, nobody really tried that hard. I was just "bad at math". While I was in way over my head with math I was head and shoulders above everyone else in English. I lapped it up. I could get through a novel in one night, I loved poetry, I loved writing, I loved anything to do with words. I would write and rewrite papers for my English classes over and over again until they were perfect. As I got straight A's in English I was put in remedial math. But, I wasn't tested for a learning disability. Back then I was merely confusing. Here I was excelling in everything else, but in math I was at the absolute bottom. I was sort of just pushed along through Algeo even though I was failing it until my senior year, when my school didn't even make me take a math class at all, much to the jealously of my friends who were wading through geometry.

When I started college, I was put into a non-credit remedial math class at the same time that I tested out of any freshman English classes. People would find out I was in remedial math and would laugh, wondering how I could be so lopsided. I didn't know either. But I did start to realize it didn't just have to do with math. It had to do with money too. I was on my own in NYC and I realized that I was HORRIBLE with money. I couldn't make change, I couldn't figure out a tip. My Metrocard would always run out even though I thought I was keeping track of how much was left on it. I couldn't figure out how much I had in my shopping cart when I went for groceries and would often way under or over estimate how much I was about to spend. I couldn't balance my checkbook, I couldn't remember phone numbers, and I was always either way early or way late for class when I would try to budget out my time. I also got lost, a LOT. Figuring out north and south and east and west was pretty much impossible, and receiving directions was pointless for me as I would forget them immediately. Once I remembered one route I would stick to it, no matter what. If I wrote directions down it was still a lost cause, as I had no ability to read a map or figure out how one worked in any real usable sense. I wore a watch, and when people would ask me what time it was, it was really, truly a struggle to make sure I said the right answer in the appropriate amount of time spent staring at it without looking like a total weirdo. I stopped wearing watches.

But there were other weird, non number related issues that cropped up. I could never remember the off sides rule when playing rugby, no matter how many times it was explained to me. Keeping score was also difficult for me, even in something as simple as a pool game out at a bar with friends. Someone else would always step up to the plate to keep score, and me not knowing the score or whose turn it was just seemed like I wasn't paying attention, even though I was. I could not parallel park, like at all, I still can't. But it wasn't that I simply was bad at it. I just couldn't do it. I would either go up on the curb or risk damaging other cars, the spatial difficulties making it nearly impossible.

At first, I hid it. All the time. I would either just way over tip at dinners out with friends or have someone else figure it out, waving it off with a dismissive "I'm not good with numbers". I would make a joke of it, before anyone else could. I thought I was this stereotypical girl who was "bad at math". It really wasn't until a friend of mine with dyslexia described the letters as "moving around on the page" to me that something went off inside my head. This was what was happening to me, but with numbers. I went home that night and googled "dyslexia with numbers" and found out what had been with me for all of these years, the "number version" of dyslexia, called dyscalculia.

Part of me was so angry. Here was something that I could have dealt with, I could have learned how to learn with, something that I could have managed, I could have tackled. I'm not blaming anyone for not knowing what was wrong, it just makes me angry, and sad. I feel like now I'm stuck with it. This is me. This is what limitations I have. I can't figure out a tip. I can't help my kids with math homework. I can't read a map. I can't parallel park. I can't remember phone numbers or addresses or birthdays. It could be much worse, but all these little things set my days back sometimes and my frustration level with it can be annoyingly high.

By sharing this, what I want to prevent is the feeling of stupidity. I spent so many, many, many years feeling stupid. Because I couldn't do some things that were so easy for someone else. Because I didn't know why. Because I felt embarrassed. Because being "number dyslexic" didn't seem like it was a real thing, mainly because I had never heard of it. And I want to share the idea that everyone, no matter who you think that person is, has their struggles. We all do. You might think that mom at preschool who looks fab and has the great super well behaved kids and the great car, etc., etc. has it all together. But you know what? She's got her own stuff to deal with too. It might not be the same as your stuff, but it can all be heavy nonetheless.

Take your time with people, and with each other. Remember that we are all operating at different levels, different levels of stress, different levels of understanding, different levels of knowledge. Sometimes a little bit of a helping hand can change someone's entire day. Sometimes a little bit of understanding and patience can help someone not feel stupid. And in the same vein, let people be themselves. If you happen to be in a parking lot with me and I take five minutes to pull into the spot, I'm sorry. I will get it right (eventually, hopefully) I promise. Honking at me pretty much never works, and getting the finger is not a motivator. If there is someone at your kids' school who is a little too over-protective for your taste, who cares? It's their style, let them just go with it. You guys don't have to be best friends, so if they don't mesh with you, talking about them behind their back is just a sucky thing to do. And if you are a waitress for a table I'm at in a restaurant? This is your lucky day, because I am guaranteed to over tip you. xoxo guys