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Published June 05 2011

Swift: Count me among the math-phobics

Poor Sister Clavera.

She was my third-grade teacher, and I used to blame her for making me hate math.

She was a short, feisty nun with a shock of red bangs escaping from her habit. I didn’t like her much.

But maybe I was just blaming her for my own issues. Because sometime in my third-grade year, a terrifying thing happened: I started to struggle in math.

Up until then, learning had been effortless, even fun.

But when our class began to dabble in multiplication, my mind froze. I still remember taking timed tests and looking on in panic as my neighbors whipped through the problems.

Why couldn’t I get this? What on earth was wrong with me? Was I stupid?

When I came home with my red-pen-spattered worksheets, my parents panicked more than I did. They knew these simple early concepts laid an important foundation for later mathematical success, so they started drilling me on my multiplication tables.

I would be reading a book or sitting at the supper table, and Dad would turn to me and say: “Nine times seven.”

Before long, I was spitting out the answers on command: “63. 72. 56.” But deep down inside, I was ashamed. None of my sisters had to do this. What was wrong with me?

I got through the year with a B in math. But from that point on, my stomach lurched with fear whenever presented with math problems. I thrived in every other course. But when it came to fractions or long division, my brain stalled and my concentration evaporated.

You might even call it “math hyth-teria.”

Pre-algebra was terrifying. Algebra was worse. I especially resented word problems. How could you take something so pure and beautiful – like words – and use them in such an incomprehensible way?

I didn’t care if a woman was in an eastbound train traveling 70 miles per hour while her friends were traveling westbound at 72 miles per hour. I wanted to know why she wasn’t traveling with her friends, whether the train has a dining car and what the woman was wearing.

The only thing that saved me was a teacher so laid-back that he had students eople in front of or behind them.

I didn’t take any chances. I stationed one mathlete friend, Penelope, in front of me and another mathlete friend, Ursula, behind me. Thanks to this strategy, I somehow pulled a low C.

All my life, my math anxiety continued to dog me, making me feel secretly inferior.

Then, just a few days ago, I heard interesting news. Turns out there’s a little-known disorder called dyscalculia, which could affect 5 to 7 percent of the population.

Although considered a cousin to dyslexia, dyscalculia isn’t quite the same. Dyscalculics don’t mix up the order of symbols, but they do struggle with basic arithmetic and understanding the meaning and concepts of numbers.

Dyscalculics can be average or above-average in intelligence, even as they struggle with seemingly elementary chores like making change, correctly guessing the height of a room or estimating the number of sets of objects. (I’d like to think this is why I tell my husband I’ve bought two pairs of shoes when I’ve actually purchased five, but there are probably darker forces at work there.)

Those with dyscalculia also can miscalculate concepts of time – something I’ve wrestled with all my life.

Of course, I could just be grasping at straws. I may just have such bad math anxiety that it blocked my ability to learn. Or I might just be so right-brained that my left-brain is occupied solely by a single chirping cricket and a dusty spiderweb.

All I know is that there could possibly be an explanation as to why I’ve struggled in this one particular area for years.

So, for now, I will proudly join the Order of the Dyscalculic.

Count me in.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or tswift@forumcomm.com