Not What You Think

This is the post excerpt.



Unless you know someone with dyscalculia or you, yourself have the disability you have probably never heard of it. I first heard the term when I was in grade school. My early childhood was filled with a battery of tests to determine why I wasn’t “keeping up” with my peers.

The testing started as early as preschool. My teachers did not think I would do well if I started kindergarten right away so they recommended that I get tested for learning disabilities. I don’t have much memory of the experience but I have read the 20 or so pages written about me during these tests. They tested my hearing, my vision, my gross motor skills, my fine motor skills, my knowledge of vocabulary, my ability to recognize shapes and colors and my memory recall. They did not do much math testing but I was so young, math probably wasn’t a concern of theirs yet. The results were inconclusive. While I was below average in my fine motor development, everything else seemed normal. However, they did note that additional testing might be needed as I progress in school and they recommended I wait a year before entering kindergarten.

So, instead of heading off to my first year of grammar school like most five year olds, my mother placed me in a program for kids like me, that works to prepare kids for school. I remember they especially worked with me to develop my fine motor skills and teach me the proper way to hold a pencil or scissors. I remember this being a stressful time for me as I could not figure out what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.

A couple years pass and I’m in the first grade. My school struggles continue and my fine motor skills have only improved slightly. Once again, my teacher wants me tested for learning disabilities. However, this time there is motive. She believes I have ADD. It is important to note that I was in first grade in the early 90’s and ADD had just surfaced as a disability to the general public.

I began seeing a special education teacher who gave my mom pamphlets and videos explaining what ADD was and the symptoms. My mother read the literature and watched the videos with me. She never said anything to me at the time but I remember her telling my teachers and other adults that she did not agree with the diagnoses (which she also admitted to me as an adult). She rejected the idea of me being medicated but agreed to more testing.

So for all of first grade I was seeing this “special” teacher who observed my learning patterns. I remember my friends asking why I was always going off to see this women. I told them it was because I had ADD. No one knew what ADD was at the time and I remember my friends realizing that spelled the word “add” and joking that I was seeing another teacher because I couldn’t “add,” which was actually very true and I look back on those jokes and laugh at the irony now.

The special ed teacher after months of observation and testing came to the same conclusion that my mother did. I did not have ADD. In fact, aside from being a day dreamer, I didn’t really have any other ADD symptoms. In fact, the only learning deficit she noticed in me was purely mathematical. I couldn’t tell time, understand money and I could barely count without using my fingers.

My mother brought me to every meeting she had with my teachers because she didn’t usually have babysitters for me. I remember one meeting in particular in which her, my teacher and the special education teacher discussed their “plans” for my education.  The special ed teacher had suggested that I have some “rare” learning disability called, “dyscalculia.” This is the most vivid memory of the meeting. The rest I remember from what I was told later. The special ed teacher did not believe I needed any special education for any subject but math.

However, despite my teachers requests I was never tested for the disability, and the term was never used on me again even though throughout the rest of my education I would always need to seek special help in math. From that moment until I entered highschool I would get pulled out of classes periodically with tutors and special teachers to assist me with my math homework and tests.

When I changed schools in the fifth grade my mother failed to inform my new school of my testing and math difficulties, but it was soon apparent to them as well. And they began the same routine of testing and pulling me out of classes. When I was 13 I was once again tested for ADD (ADD having become much more popular at this point). After much testing, most of which I remember having to do with putting together puzzles for some reason. I was diagnosed ADD and my mother tired of the struggle finally agreed to medication.

The medication did nothing to me. I didn’t improve a bit, but I did come out of it with a slight adderall addiction. By now, I had long forgotten the dyscalculia conversation. I did remember that there was once a teacher who thought I had a math learning disability but I could never remember what it was.

When I entered high school, for whatever reason I stopped seeing special teachers (in fact I remember this school having very poor disability services in general). I failed math every year. Not just failed but received extremely low grades on every test. I was lucky if I scored a 50% on a math test and yet no one helped me.

I had the same math teacher for 9th and 10th grade, a man who I distrusted to help me from the beginning. Every class began with a lecture and there was always a handout of practice problems we would do at the end of class. The first couple weeks of class I tried asking him for help on the handout. I’d go up to his desk and simply say “I don’t get it.”

He’d respond by asking “What don’t you get?”

Embarrassed I’d say “I don’t understand any of it.” I didn’t even know where to begin most of the time.

Rather than sitting me down or assisting me right away he’d start off everytime with a lecture, saying “Do you know why you don’t understand?” I’d always give him a puzzled look and he’d continue. “You don’t know how to do it because you weren’t paying attantion.” And he’d go on a rant about how I just need to stop laying my head on my desk and doodling and pay attention.

After that, I could never tell him that I couldn’t pay attention in math because it always sounded to me like he was speaking Latin as he rattled off numbers and formulas. Everyday I received that same lecture when I would ask for help.Here I was, asking for extra help. I was not sitting in the back socializing like some of my peers, I was not ignoring the worksheet entirely. I wanted to be successful in his class and he made my learning deficit a problem simply of enthusiasm for the subject. Of course, I hated math, but at least I was trying.

Rather than “learning to pay attention” I just stopped asking for help, at least from him. I found a friend in the class who was rather good at math and began going to her house after school for tutoring, taking it upon myself to seek the help I knew I needed.

Here are some facts about me that should have indicated a need for disability services.

By the age of 15 I…

still could not tell time on an analog clock

Had to count on my fingers to add 5 and 2

Could not walk a block without getting lost (unless it was a place I went to everyday)

Could not read a map and still had not grasped that “north” does not mean “up”

Could not count objects accurately without physically touching each one while counting.

Even with help from my friend, I still failed math. In 11th grade I transferred to yet another school. The first thing me and my mother did was meet with a school counselor (at my old school I did not even know who my school counselor was) Upon seeing my poor math grades he immediately suggested I take a class which, in his words, was a class “for students who struggle with math.” The class was designed for kids who were hands-on learners. Our lessons included making graphs, using objects to count and even artistic projects. Everyone said the class was “so easy.” I passed with a C.

I continued having similar issues with math, once I entered college. However, I found little help (even though I failed algebra four times and begged for a replacement course). Since I had never received any “official diagnoses” regarding my math struggles, they couldn’t let me take any other course. When I finally did pass I magically pulled an A…thanks to help from the teachers, the math lab and something called a “flipped classroom.” The class was designed so I could watch the lecture on a video at home and do my homework in class. I don’t remember a single thing I learned now but I passed.

I had forgotten all about dyscalculia, although from time to time I would try desperately to recall that conversation. Then, I got a job as an assistant preschool teacher. Part of my training involved reading about learning disabilities. In one of the training modules I saw it mentioned, just a word, not even a description or a full sentence just the word placed somewhere in a list of other “specific learning disabilities.” I immediately recognized the word and began researching it as soon as I got home.

In my research, I found out that I am not alone in my struggle. I found out that most schools do not test for math specific learning disabilities and that researchers believe dyscalculia is severely under diagnosed. I decided right then, that I needed to raise awareness on this.

I recall once a frustrating tutoring session with a friend of mine in college. After explaining something several times she asked, “Ok, what don’t you understand?” Frustrated I burst into tears and said “Everything! It’s like…numbers don’t exist in my brain.” Then I realized how true this was. Math phases through me it enters my brain and then goes out and I don’t remember what I was shown. My whole life whenever I complained about my poor math ability people would respond, “Me too, I’m horrible at math.” I would usually not say anything to this. Maybe they were right? Maybe I’m not so abnormal. I mean, everyone feels like a freak, right? But in my mind I’d still say, “No, it’s not what you think.”

And that’s true, it’s not what people think. I realize that now. I realize that when I can’t help a kid subtract 150 from 200. While I may have the ability to retain math for a short time in order to pass a test, only after studying for hours a day, I have realized that there is something “wrong” with the part of my brain that is suppose to understand numbers.

I’m not just “bad at math.” It doesn’t exist in my brain…in the classroom and in real life.

I don’t know if I have dyscalculia or another learning disability. I may never know. But regardless of any disability I may or may not have. My experience has encouraged me to let the world know of these problems in the hopes that other kids may receive help before it’s just another problem shoved aside as unimportant and they are made to feel as if they are simply “too dumb” to learn, as I often felt

Author: Jo Resner

I'm a recent graduate from Grand Valley State University with a B.A in English and a minor in history. When I was a child I received a little red typewriter as a birthday present and it became one of my most treasured objects. On it, I typed out my own newspaper to hand out to family and friends, complete with weather reports, news stories I made up, and movie reviews. My mother told everyone I was going to grow up to be a writer. Except I couldn't grow up to be a writer because I already was one. From the moment I learned how to formulate sentences, I told stories. From that fake newspaper typed on my little red typewriter, to writing poetry in junior high and high school, to writing for my college newspaper I have always been a writer - even when I was being other things too.

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