At the ripe old age of 52, I discovered that although I may be lazy and careless in many aspects of my life (e.g. my lawn and desk), I wasn’t at fault in one particular way I’d always believed I was. I figured out that I have a learning disability and have apparently felt its effects for my entire life.
I’d always known that I was bad at numbers, but three years ago, while sitting around waiting for a staff meeting to begin, I asked Juan, a colleague in Special Ed, if there was such a thing as numerical dyslexia. I switch numbers around, I explained. They move and multiply. 47 becomes 74. I add and subtract zeroes to the ends of longer numbers. 14,000 becomes 140,000. It’s a punchline around my house. There’s a hundred of something and my 18 year old daughter will kid, “or is it a million, dad?” Juan said yep, it’s called dyscalculia.
In college, I studied John Keats’ life and poetry. His epitaph pessimistically says “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” For me, numbers often evaporate the second I look away from them. For example, now, as a high school English teacher, I find that when typing out a student’s ID number, I have to discreetly speak it aloud in three-number chunks or I forget it before my fingers finish writing them. When I hear a number out loud, it sticks for a second longer. When students ask when a period is over (every teacher’s favorite question), I usually redirect the student back to the task at hand rather than resort to looking at my attendance sheets where I have written the beginning and ending times of each period. I’ve never been able to remember a bell schedule. When students arriving late ask what period it is, I get it wrong a lot. My students know this about me.
Once, I scheduled a family vacation for the wrong week because I’d misremembered the dates of my mid-winter break, which had been adjusted due to a teachers’ strike in September. That one was a doozy.
Numbers I use often, like my social security number, appear to be permanently memorized. But I have forgotten my phone number many times. Whenever I have to get a new phone number, I make an effort to get a number with repeated digits, like 4055, or a sequence of them, like 0456, or a number with a zero at the end, like 4940. A few years ago, when I needed a new cell phone number, I think I actually paid for an easy-to remember business number, the last digits of which are 0505. And I still forget it sometimes and have to look up my own phone number in the contacts on my iPhone. Don’t ask me what my wife’s number is. My iPhone knows it.
I’ve forgotten my address too. Just my luck, my address has a five-digit house number and a three-digit street name, eight consecutive numbers. At home, when I have to give my address over the phone, I’ve had to grab a bill or magazine with my address on it. At stores, I’ve taken out my driver’s license to take a peek. “New house,” I’d explain, though it fact, I’d been in the house for years. I can usually remember my long library card number because I use it every day, but once, when a librarian asked me to tell her what it was, I needed a keypad because my fingers knew the pattern of the number, while my mouth did not.
In school, I always hated math. I remember my dad working patiently with me when I was in 4th grade to memorize my multiplication tables; I burned with frustration and embarrassment when I couldn’t recall an answer I’d known twenty seconds earlier. High school geometry was purgatory. Algebra II was the only class in high school I failed. When I got to college and passed what I called “bonehead math,” I overflowed with relief that I would never again have to take a math class. When I decided to go to graduate school, I chose a school that didn’t require me to take the GRE.
And when I accepted a Stafford loan to pay for graduate school (the maximum amount allowable) I had no real concept of how much money that was. I still don’t. When I met my wife, she asked me how much I’d borrowed, and I had no idea. I just knew I had to make a certain payment once a month. For how long? I didn’t know. A long time. Any large amount of money is hard for me to grasp or remember. I couldn’t tell you how much we paid for our house.
She is skeptical. She says everyone does things like this from time to time. Lots of people need a calculator to calculate a 15% tip. Our address is unusually number-heavy. Lots of people forget what 7 x 9 is. Lots of people lose track when counting. She says everyone does these things. But it was when I looked up the characteristics of dyscalculia and discovered the traits that are not obviously numerical that I recognized that dyscalculia was not what most people experience.
Dyscalculics have poor name-face recognition, a particularly embarrassing failing for a teacher. For most of my career, I’ve depended on seating charts to remember student names. I avoid social functions partly because I know I’ll forget the name of someone whose name I really should remember. I can know a person very well, remember lots of things about her, recall whole conversations, remember her likes and dislikes, but still call that person by the wrong name. Or I’ll switch names and call my daughter by my sister’s name. I once pissed off an uncle by calling him by another uncle’s name. I recently called a colleague by a former colleague’s name. I apologize a lot.
There’s more. I can’t estimate distance beyond a few feet with any accuracy. I can’t memorize anything, even poetry I’ve taught for years, even the lyrics to my own songs. I once required students to memorize a short poem of their choosing and told them I’d try to do it with them. After the first two lines, I struggled visibly in front of my students to recite the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. I also can’t remember choreographed dance steps, as my first girlfriend learned in 1977 when she tried, with mounting annoyance, to teach me the Hustle.
Dyscalculics can’t look at a crowd of people and estimate how many people there are. When asked how many people were at a meeting, I make a wild guess and am usually not even close. Dyscalculics have a hard time remembering how long ago something occurred. Growing up in Hawaii, I thought it was because we don’t have the change of seasons to mark the passing of time. I tried to remember years by counting how many Christmases had gone by. But since moving to the mainland, where the seasons come and go like clockwork, I still have the same problem. I’ve memorized a few important years and then count backward or forward from them. If you ask me how long I’ve been teaching, I’ll start with the fall of 1991 and start counting.
But I do not display a lot of other dyscalculic traits. I don’t have trouble with spatial relations. I am not frequently late or early. I don’t have a hard time reading a clock. I don’t get my left and right mixed up. When I was in my high school band, I was able to read musical notation, though it was never easy. So, Juan told me that I could accurately say that I “present many of the characteristics of the disability.”
So, numbers evaporate, but I can remember stories really well. I remember nuanced and shifting relationships between characters decades after having read them. I clearly remember powerful emotions generated by moments in a book; I’ll never forget my outrage at Angel Clare’s betrayal of Tess, or a bawdy joke in The Taming of the Shrew. I can get a class fully engaged in a narrative that was written 400 years ago. I can raise their heart rate when walking them through Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors. I am formidable at Jeopardy. I have the vocabulary typical of an English teacher. I can see and remember meanings that are invisible to other people and teach them to see what I see, to understand what I do. My daughter rolls her eyes and kids me that I see symbols and themes in literally everything, and she may be right. I am lucky to have chosen a career that plays to my strengths. I define myself by what I can do, not by what I can’t.
But I’ll never, ever forget feeling stupid in math class. And I like to think that teaches me patience and empathy for students who struggle. I’ve been that kid. Their brains are different from mine, but I can help them find workarounds and roundabout strategies as I have. And I talk openly about my own newly-discovered learning disability in the hope that they will not be embarrassed of their their own. I don’t tut-tut disdainfully if they can only learn how to write one kind of paragraph transition. Maybe one is all they will need.
Those students don’t have to grow up to be English majors any more than I had to become a rocket scientist. They will be people who are amazingly good at other things—sports or music, social skills or emotional intelligence, auto repair, physics, or math—but who can also read and write well enough to function successfully in the world. Mere competence is not the lofty goal we all aim for, I know, nor should it be. But I try to think about how I have always and will always struggle with numbers, and then cut them a little slack when they aren’t looking. As adults, they might not go around quoting Langston Hughes, might not vary the lengths of their sentences much, might not know the characteristics of Romantic poetry, but they’ll know enough to get by. And that’s really OK.