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Friday, July 25, 2014

Something is different about me...

Friday, July 25, 2014 By

AUGUSTA, GA - I was in the gifted program growing up.

I'm not bragging. My mother would die. I'm sharing that to give you context for what I'm about to tell you, which is: I have a learning disability.

My friends are rolling their eyes and muttering, "Do you ever." But I'm not talking about dating, so NYAH. I'm talking about a learning disability called dyscalculia. Or, in more current terms, a learning difference.

In grade school, I got all A's, except for in math. Most of the time, I got B's. And then, as I got older, that dropped to C's.

"You're just not applying yourself," I heard, time and time again.

But I was. I just... didn't... get it.

By the time I got to high school, walking into math class was like being transported to place where I didn't speak the language for an hour every day. I'd listen, take notes, repeatedly swat away the wandering hands of the idiot football players while the teacher pretended not to notice the harassment (that's a story for another post), and every day think, "I got this. I really got this one." And dive into my homework only to find... I don't got it. I really don't.

Friends would walk me through standard formulae. "But... why?" I'd ask. And they'd toss their pencils in frustration. Teachers would have me talk through the work, nod and smile in satisfaction as I got the concepts right, then frown as I made mistake after mistake in working out the problems.

"You just don't care," I was told.

But I did.

I dropped down from Advanced math classes to Average math classes, a decision that caused me a great deal of heartache. Even then, I failed pre-Algebra three times.

Teachers started to doubt my abilities. One of them questioned whether or not I'd be able to go on to college. I began to question my abilities. I thought, "If I can't handle high school, I can't handle college."

Fellow students in the gifted program began to treat me as though I didn't belong there. I started to believe I didn't belong there. "Maybe I should just move down another level," I thought. A guidance counselor looked at me with barely a whisper of pity and said, "If you can't do the work. You shouldn't be in the class."

But some part of me thought, maybe, that I could do the work. If I only tried harder...

I declined to take any more math than I needed, and graduated a half-credit shy of a college prep diploma. "I'm not smart enough. I didn't deserve a college prep diploma," I thought.

But I applied to colleges anyway, and was accepted everywhere I applied. Of course, I didn't aim super high. Mostly sizable state schools in various parts of the country, and small private colleges whose research I admired. I was attracted to idealistic programs like Peace & Conflict Studies, and Environmental Public Health.

But, money being an ever-present issue, I stayed in state and went to a small four-year college in middle Georgia. I won't name it here, but while threw myself into the student paper, student radio station, the activities board and was an R.A., and I made and maintain wonderful friendships with classmates there (What up, Penny!), I was miserable. I left and moved to Athens and worked for a newspaper, and eventually decided to go back to school because I was so broke that student loans didn't even register as a concern.

Also, mad props to my awesome boyfriend at the time who bolstered my confidence in my academic abilities, my very good friends who kicked my butt, and my wonderful parents for gently hinting every single day for three years that I needed to go back to college.

I transferred to Georgia Regents University. My parents were ecstatic that I was going to finish my degree. But I had avoided college algebra - and anything else resembling math - for so long, that I almost had to get through that before I could get into my major coursework. I struggled, took advantage of every bit of the free tutoring the university so generously offers, and barely scraped a C. Let me tell you, I celebrated that C! That C was my ticket to my degree. I could handle anything else college threw at me!

Then came Quantitative Methods. As a student in both communications and psychology, if I wanted to finish a psych major, I had to get through this course of techniques for the measurement of human attributes, the statistical and mathematical modeling of psychological processes, the design of research studies and the analysis of psychological data. Basically, the course teaches you how to math people's mental problems. Like, up to 40 percent of schizophrenics on Thorazine develop Parkinson's-like movement disorders. But how do they know this, and how do they show the correlation mathematically?

At first, I was excited. Reliable, replicable science makes me feel like humans might have some of the answers to the universe. Or, at least, some of the road markers that lead us to some of the answers. I thought, this class wouldn't just be theoretical. Factoring to factor. Using the quadratic equation because someone told you do it 30 times that night in your homework. No, this class would help me to look at data we already have, and use math to organize those numbers into meaningful patterns. There were defined parameters and real-life questions to answer. I could do this.

I really, actually, for serious understood everything in class. I know why we need the standard deviation. I understood what we were doing with data sets. I was engaged in class, excited about the possibilities. These were tools I could use to find answers...

...Until the first test, on which I proceeded to earn a whopping 68. I shrugged when I picked it up. Typical. Fine. A C was still well within my grasp.

"What happened?" the professor asked.

"I'm just not good at math," I answered. "Can't be good at everything."

He narrowed his eyes. Told me to see him after class. "Crap," I thought. "I'm not 'applying myself' again."

He asked me a rapid-fire series of questions, then sent me to the Counseling & Testing Center. The nice woman there gently asked me another series of questions, and then stopped me mid-math-rant with a gentle laugh, palms towards me in a placating gesture.

"It's okay," she said. "I think I have the answer."

To what? I hadn't even realized there was a question. Then she began describing my experiences.

"You do well in everything, but math. You find yourself getting lost a lot. You lose track of the score in games. You're late a lot, forget what's on your schedule, and can't really tell how long something will take."

My eyes welled up with tears. She was describing my whole life. The fourteen billion times I was late getting home, because of an honest miscalculation on my part. The first date for which I was an hour late because I have no concept of time (sorry, R.H.!). The ridiculous, circuitous routes I take to get places, because I can't learn another way to go. The fact that some people from my childhood affectionately refer to me by the nickname "Spacey." The fact that I'd long-ago abandoned the idea of playing any game where I had to keep score rapidly. In fact, when Emerson and I took up tennis this year, I actually didn't even bother to look up how to keep score. We just play until we're tired, and then she declares herself the winner. Which is fine by me, because I have NO IDEA.

The counselor worked with me to give me study techniques to get me through. "You can do this," she said. "You just have to do it differently."

And I could. And I did. I got a 100 on my midterm. From that moment, my concept of myself began to change.

I hadn't gotten a 100 on a math test since about the third grade (times tables, you are jerks). I actually handed the paper back to him, thinking he'd made a mistake. But, no. There it was, my name at the top. I hopped back to my seat, joyful. I'm sure everyone else in class thought I was insane. But they're psych majors. They think everyone is insane. Including themselves.

So. If you've followed me this far, thanks. I could have just listed off some symptoms, with a standard "If your child displays these symptoms, talk to your doctor about medicating their childhood away." But I wanted to try to describe how this impacted the trajectory of my life, from about third grade through college. It completely destroyed my self-confidence, and there was no one around who was trained to recognize my struggle. My wonderful mother is, herself, a teacher, and would have pulled in every resource available on the planet had anyone understood what was going on with me back then. But studies on reading literacy outpace studies on math  literary at a rate of 14 to 1, I'm told. So the information just wasn't there at the time.

Here's some advice for you, if your child is struggling in math. Look for discrepancies in your child's learning experience:
  • Are they good at speaking and listening, but cannot process or explain a math problem in verbal or written format?
  • Are they good at working with words and phrases (i.e., English, history, etc.) but struggle to read numbers and math symbols?
  • Are they visually creative (i.e., art, etc.) but struggle when working with specific, more complicated measurements?
  • Do they have a generally good attitude to learning but are often late to lessons / appointments, cannot remember a schedule such as a school timetable and struggle with time management in terms of estimating how long something might take?
  • Are they sociable and competitive when taking part in sports and word-based board games such as Scrabble etc. but avoid strategy-based games such as chess, Monopoly, etc.?
  • Are they outgoing and independent but tend to get lost easily when in an unfamiliar place, struggling to follow a map or list of directions, etc.?

Then ask your child's school counselor to request an evaluation of  your child for dyscalculia. I wish it had been a better understood disorder when I was younger, but I'm glad it's better understood now. I hope, in time, it becomes as well-known as dyslexia. Because illiteracy of any kind can impact a child's well-being and have a long-term impact on his or her life. And to the Counseling & Testing Center at Georgia Regents University, thank you.

Thanks for reading! :-)

Side Note: Uh.... I just looked at this live on my blog and I think the "bullet points" in this might actually be... pot leaves? Please know that is not intentional, I do not use drugs, and I will be finding another template to use very soon. Good grief.


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