Indiana Lindsey

My Experiences with Dyscalculia

by Lindsey Wall Lane

copyright 2013

     It sounded like a fake word to me when I first heard it. Dyscalculia. My mom said I might have it, and my dad said “Doesn’t that basically mean bad at math? We know she has that.” We dismissed the topic.

     By the time I heard the word, I was legally an adult – 18 years old, soon to be 19. I had taken Pre-calculus the first time the year before, and, despite paying a student tutor every day for months, despite going in to meet the teacher before school, during lunch, and even missing some practice from my beloved sports of track and cross country, I had failed.

     Failed. I was not the sort of girl who failed stuff, so it seemed strange to me that it didn’t hurt more. I just knew, I guess, that I didn’t get it, that I’d tried. At one point I remember coming home from a tutoring session during my senior year of high school. It was a freezing cold night in January and I was exhausted and failing my second semester of Pre-calculus. I got into a fight with my parents, and after they left I threw an entire 12" x 16" pane of glass against the wall. Then I picked up the broken shards and threw them again and again until my hands were badly cut. The room still bears scars from where the glass hit the wall, a painful reminder every time I go back to my childhood home.

     That next summer I took an online class through Ivy Tech. My dad hired a former high school student of his, now a math teacher, to help me. He was amazing and they paid him $20 an hour. They also paid for the class. It was supposed to transfer. I had spoken with a counselor at Indiana University and he told me it would. I passed.

     It didn’t transfer. I went in to IU that fall, and there I discovered I’d have to take Pre-calculus again.  I appealed. My mom called me crying on a day when it was raining so hard that the entire campus was flooding to tell me that the appeal didn’t go through.

     I took it again. The teacher didn’t speak English very well and she was bitter that she was forced to teach us in order to get her master’s degree. Within a few weeks, I was failing.

     Since elementary school, I knew I was bad at math.  Most of my teachers liked me, especially when I was young. I was bright, they said, with an incredible vocabulary. I was high energy and I liked to please. I liked to tell and be told stories.

     When I was very young, I was okay in math. 5 + 2 = 7, I got that. And 5x5 = 25. The basic concepts made sense. But by the time I was in fourth grade, I was struggling. I was always making “silly” mistakes. “Lyndsey don’t be in such a rush,” my parents and teachers would say, when I tried to explain that I had meant 43 to be 34. I was always embarrassed. How had that happened?

     So I decided I wouldn’t make silly mistakes. If I only made 2 or 3 mistakes on my homework, I would get a reward from my parents. I tried hard, but I couldn’t achieve my goal. One day, I decided I’d work through it twice. First I’d do my problems, then I’d set my answers where I couldn’t see them, and work through the problems again. If I got the same answer both times, I’d know I’d done it right. If I got different answers, I’d work through that problem again.

     But this solution was only partially successful because I was likely to get a different answer every time, and it only got worse as my attention wandered, as it inevitably did – I was only 10.

     My desire to please as a child was, I think, unnaturally high.  This desire shone through, I think, and teachers often gave me extra help and extra credit, so I got by.  Besides that, I understood the concepts. They always said so. I just struggled to compute them. I made silly mistakes.

     By high school, though, I was in trouble. It took a lot of tutoring to get me through Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Most of my teachers were incredibly kind. They gave up their prep periods and lunches to help me. My parents hired student tutors. I was ashamed that I made such silly mistakes after they spent so much time. My Algebra II teacher was especially enlightened. An older woman on the verge of retirement, she had probably never heard of dyscalculia, but she knew ways to deal with my particular troubles.

     She told me to use graphing paper, which she provided for me, and told me to work through problems I had trouble with by writing different numbers and symbols in different colors. Both are methods that researchers tell people with dyscalculia to use, and they helped. They gave me a bit of confidence I’d never had before. Later teachers would tell me it took too much time to do it this way, and I was always running over the time limit on tests. They didn’t understand why I needed graph paper or colors. They didn’t understand why placing time limits on tests made me panic to the point where I was unable to think clearly. Neither did I.

     Beyond my math struggles I had other problems. I lost everything. At first my teachers and coaches were kind, but as I got older they got annoyed. Even my friends got annoyed. Most of the time, the item was just misplaced, but sometimes it was lost forever. I forget my homework. I lost my purse. I lost my textbooks. I learned to laugh it off, make it into something funny, although it didn’t always feel funny.  I had horrible sense of direction too, and once I started to drive, I was constantly lost on my way to friend’s houses.

     If my struggles had an upside it was that they made me more focused. I was a brilliant runner - the best the school had ever known. I had tried other sports, but was not any good. I got confused and ran in the wrong direction during basketball. Running gave me a freedom, and a pride I had never known before. While I had been good in subjects such as history or English, my running ability was what made me shine. I was determined. I was going to prove that I was a winner and that I was worthwhile. That it wasn’t lack of effort that made me who I was. I had a deep, deep desire to please. And I did please. I became a small-town sports star, a favorite of the local paper.

     But I also was more stressed than a teenager ought to be. My mother was fighting brain cancer and though my parents tried hard to make home happy, it wasn’t always. My mom wanted me to succeed, and she wanted me to have a safe life. I knew she worried about me. No matter how I tried I was not the student I wanted to be. Up until midway through high school, it was only math in which I struggled so much. Then the sciences became hard too. Chemistry’s name – Chem is try – seemed to taunt me. If I tried, I should do well. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. By the time I was 17, my life felt out of control. Multiple classes were difficult, and I couldn’t continue to devote huge amounts of time to getting by in math.

     I had long had a tumultuous relationship with food, counting calories since the 8th grade. It was part of my drive to be worthwhile and good. I wanted so desperately to please, and I loved the praise I got for my waistline.  Besides, I thought being little would make me run faster. It was true, up to a point. I didn’t really believe I could eat healthily and still be slender and run fast.

     Always a happy “dreamer” up until my mid-teens, in my last years of high school, I was usually miserable. Cross country and track were my one bright spot, though I often crashed at the end of seasons, exhausted from a semester of school work, and, it now seems likely, poor dietary habits.

     Still, I made it to Indiana University, where I was a member of the cross country and track teams. But by February of my freshman year of college, it seemed I had hit a dead end academically. I was taking Pre-calculus for the third time and I was failing. The counselors in the athletic department thankfully took seriously my pleas for help. I was sent to a learning disorder specialist.

     She told me that I was not suffering ADHD, which was the diagnosis the athletic department suspected. She also said that my verbal reasoning ability was extremely high, something I had always known. But, she said, my spatial development was very low, below the 10th percentile.

     She hesitated then talked about a “new” learning disability called dyscalculia. I recalled my mom, at this point fading quickly towards her eventual death, talking about the word the summer before, after I failed Pre-calculus the first time. It was not widely studied, she said, nor endorsed, but my symptoms were consistent. But there was not much she could do. 

     The athletic department drew up a proposal for the class. It would take several months for it to go through – meaning if we got it through I would have to take the class again next fall. The proposal included use of a calculator, and extra time on tests. I wasn’t sure either would help me enough to get me through, especially since calculators were allowed for most of the class. I decided to try to hang on. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to try again in the fall.

     The athletic department paid for a student to tutor me for three hours a week. She worked more hours than that, after seeing my tears. She, like so many others who had tried to help me before, was incredibly kind. After I left her, I went to my friend’s dorm room. She worked through the rest of my homework problems with me, often spending hours on MY homework.

     I found a dedicated “study buddy” and we spent hours together in the library. I tried to always get 95% or better on the homework, otherwise, I knew I was doomed. And I always went to class for the participation grade, though I sometimes left to sit in the bathroom when I started to panic,  so much that I thought I had claustrophobia – the walls seemed to close in.

     I flunked the class, but so did most of the other students, so the math department gave us a huge curve. I passed with the C needed for credit in the Journalism school. Journalism was one of the only majors available to me without taking Finite Math. I was good at writing, but not sure that Journalism was the best career path in a poor economy with newspapers and magazines downsizing all across the country. But without taking Finite Math, my options were incredibly limited.  And I knew I couldn’t take Finite.

     I graduated in May and now work as an editor at an e-learning company. My main client is Bank of America. It doesn’t pay like my engineering friends' jobs do, but I get by. I am married. I still get lost sometimes, and I still lose items often. But I am useful. I am safe. I am loved. That’s all that really matters. That and I’ll never have to take Pre-calculus again.