I held a secret for many years that only my closest friends and family knew. I can’t do math. Before you discount this statement, I need to clarify that I have been tested, and I really can’t do math.
I wasn’t tested throughout my elementary school years, even though I sat at the dining room table crying over my math homework every single night. My parents who had learned math in Guatemala tried to teach me their methods sending me into even greater frustration since they were completely different than those being taught at school. I couldn’t grasp even the simplest of concepts. I wasn’t tested in middle school even though the pattern of tears and frustration persisted. In fact, it was in middle school that I remember sitting in math class while Mr. Nakatani explained negative numbers. This was the single most traumatic moment in my math life. He said that negative numbers where numbers that didn’t exist. I was struggling with numbers that already existed and now they wanted me to get cozy to the idea of numbers that were imaginary! Many more tears followed. I wasn’t tested in high school either where I had excellent math teachers, who would explain concepts to me in multiple ways and yet I would never understand. Oh, and I wasn’t tested at UCSD, the university that required two years of math, from which I graduated. Even when I became an Inventory Planner, I didn’t think something was actually wrong, although there were times that I would mix my numbers and I couldn’t figure out why my totals were not adding up. It wasn’t until I was pursuing my master’s degree in business that I made the decision to get tested.
The reason that I was never tested was that I passed all my classes with As and Bs. My parents figured that I just hated math. They assumed that I just needed to apply myself. Now the reason that I got good grades was that I copied everyone’s homework and was a great student. My test scores would give me away, but the teachers were always okay to bump up my grade or give me extra credit. I was in the honors classes track, so surely I was such a good student so eager to learn that I could not get a C grade or lower. You might have heard of students that are pretty much illiterate that somehow get through and even graduate high school. Back when I went to school, it was a common practice to simply push students through the educational system. Well, I slipped through the cracks and it was easy, I didn’t even know I was doing it. I knew that my math was not up to honor student standards, but I never considered that something might be wrong in the way I was processing math concepts. Much to my relief, at UCSD I only needed to take two math classes and they didn’t have to be actual math classes. My major was in social studies so I took logic, which I failed and dragged my grade point average down, and Korean (apparently the written language was about concepts). So that is pretty much how I managed to get through the cracks of an educational system that didn’t notice that one of its students couldn’t technically even add or subtract.
It was in therapy, unrelated to my math problems, that the idea of being tested came up. I was venting about how going back to school to get my master’s degree was bringing up a lot of issues about feeling inadequate and like a fraud. I felt that I had gotten away with pretending to be smart and knowing that I wasn’t. I confessed, as one tends to do in therapy, about my ways of getting around and how amazingly enough it was working in my master’s program too. I was a good writer so for all our business plans I could partner with a person that loved math. I had learned that those that preferred math tended to not like the tedious writing portions of the project plans. After hearing my rant, my therapist suggested that I get tested, she said that not only would I be able to get help through the school if needed, but I would finally be able to understand what was really behind so many years of frustration. The testing was pretty intense. I cried through most of it. I felt so stupid not being able to do any of the problems, but what really caused me the most grief was the preschool game of using blocks to create an image like that shown in the picture. I couldn’t get through some of the basic shapes. I dreaded getting back my test results and having confirmation that there wasn’t anything wrong with me and I was just plain dumb. Much to my surprise though I was diagnosed with dyscalculia.
The dyscalculia I have is severe, and it includes spatial and geographical problems as well. I can’t do simple math calculations much less hard ones. I can mimic the process at the moment, but I will forget or get confused rather quickly how the answer was derived. Also, I can’t assemble things according to a picture and I can’t follow a GPS with a map, I have to always use the details list option. I can get lost very quickly even in hotel corridors as I can’t figure out from which way I came. Many times, I have been with people at a restaurant and when it has been time to split the bill they pass me the check to calculate how much I owe. If they really don’t know me, they will task me with telling everyone how much they owe. After all, I am a college graduate. If a close friend isn’t around to help, then I have to jokingly tell someone that I can’t do math (wink wink). I can’t even use a calculator to figure it out because I don’t understand the concept of splitting the bill and adding the tax and tip. Plus, by that point, I am reliving my dining room tears moment, and I can’t concentrate on the numbers through blurry eyes.
I wish that I had known early on in my life that I was not stupid or a fraud. That I had actually done amazing things using all methods available for me to succeed with limited resources. It pains me to be near a child struggling with their math homework, and now I tell all parents to get their kids tested. It isn’t normal for a child that does very well in one subject, like writing or reading, to be so overwhelmed and frustrated to the point of tears in another. Also, just because they manage to get to the next grade doesn’t mean they have mastered the subjects. Pay close attention to how they are finishing their homework if you never see them doing it. Ask their teachers about quizzes and not just how they are doing overall. I am so thankful that testing has become more common practice, but even now I still hear so many misconceptions about testing a child. Some parents fear that their child might be tracked in lower level classes or might be labeled as a problem student. Others fear that they might be limiting their child or that the child’s limitation is a reflection of themselves. On parent-teacher nights, schools should offer information about getting their children tested and have students with stories like mine speak. Maybe once parents hear the good that comes with understanding their child they would be more open to making sure their child is not struggling unnecessarily. If I would have been diagnosed early on, I would have been able to get more help with my math, such as tutors and more time to finish assignments instead of copying them from other students. I could have skipped all those years of shame and gone straight to understanding that my brain processed differently and that is okay.
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