The numbers defeated me every time: dyscalculia and me

“How can you be so stupid?”

I was at school. The school I went to was one of those fast-growing schools, even though it had only just opened a year or so before, so there were a bunch of portable classrooms dotted around the outside of the building, and that’s where my class was. I was in grade 5, and we were in the middle of math class. Math was always a source of anxiety for me, because I was bad at it. Not just bad. I was completely inept at math. I was having a lot of trouble with the work, and the teacher asked one of my classmates to help me. 

She explained the problem to me, and waited for me to get it.  

I didn’t get it.

She tried again. Though she used almost the exact same description of the problem as she had before.

And I still didn’t get it.

She tried several more times, and each time I just didn’t understand it. She’d been gripping her pencil tightly in her hands, her knuckles growing whiter and whiter until finally, she snapped it in two. And that’s when she said it. “How can you be so stupid?”

Loud enough for the entire class to hear.

I was humiliated.

Math had been a problem for me for a long time. Essentially since we started doing anything more complicated than addition. Subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and problems; they were all beyond me. And let’s be honest, addition was hard too. It was just a little easier than the others.

I was sent to remedial classes, where a teacher tried to get me to understand basic math. It didn’t go well, and I think some of them wanted to snap their pencils in half the way my classmate had. Because they didn’t understand how anyone could not do the math. Some of them thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Others thought that I just needed it explained to me again. Both were terrible, because no matter what the teacher did, I just couldn’t figure out the numbers and how they worked together.

It didn’t matter that I did well in other classes, how well I did in English, or History, or even Geography. It didn’t matter, because there was always math. And math defeated me every time. 

How could I be so stupid?

For other people, numbers just happened in their heads. It seemed like everyone else could do this magical thing: they could think of numbers, and make them multiply, divide, add and subtract. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do that. With some things, I could do it if I counted on my fingers. But the teachers got mad if I did that. Counting on fingers wasn’t allowed. We had to make the numbers happen in our heads, and write it down on paper. Robbed of the use of my fingers, all I could do was stare at a blank page and hope the teacher never called on me.

Math gave me anxiety. And not a little bit. I have hit a near panic state when forced to do math in front of anyone. Math made me feel stupid. It made me feel so low.

Eventually, I saw a specialist. We did tests. And after a while, the specialist gave their diagnosis: I had a “math perception problem.” This meant that my brain didn’t compute numbers. I couldn’t perceive the way numbers worked together. It was like a number dyslexia. I used to wish there was a word for the “math perception problem” like there was for reading.  

The diagnosis made it at least easier for me to understand why I couldn’t do math. I had a learning disability around math. That phrase still had stigma around it. It wasn’t the end of the issue. Because it still felt like I was the only person who had this. I still felt ashamed of it.

I still bear the scars from those years. Because it isn’t like my ability to do math has improved. The issue still persists. The shame persists. And that anxiety still persists. Math still makes me panic. And it probably always will. Because while only one person really ever called me stupid outright, it was implied by so many teachers, who just kept acting like I wasn’t trying hard enough. That if they just drilled the numbers into me, if they asked the math question over and over and over, maybe finally I would understand. And I never did. And the looks on their faces said everything I feared about myself. Honestly, just thinking about those questions, being asked over and over, makes my palms sweat and my heart race.

It wasn’t that long ago that I finally heard the word dyscalculia – There WAS a word for it! And what’s more there was a new understanding from when I was first diagnosed. This was a difference in the way my brain worked. It was a neurodivergence. Knowing that doesn’t help with the math, but it did make it easier to find out that there were other people who had the same thing. Because without a name for it, it felt like it was a thing that only affected me. But now I know: it isn’t just me.

Its hard to express how much dyscalculia still affects me. I have come up with ways to avoid it, to deal with it. But the shame and anxiety around it still persist. I still have a little panic when a problem involving math comes up. Even when it is one that I have a strategy to deal with. And sometimes, the anxiety really hits. And when it does, its hard to explain what’s happening.

Until now, I haven’t really talked about it openly. Because dyscalculia is less known than dyslexia. And the inability to understand simple math still holds a lot of shame. And the fear of being thought stupid still looms large for me.

But I think its important to talk about. Because shame flourishes in darkness. The only way to diminish it is to bring it into the light.

I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who has this divergence. And knowing that I’m not alone, helps more than I thought it would.


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One Comment

  1. Rosemary Doyle

    So interesting, I have dyslexia and for me math was always a safe space because there was a right answer, spelling seemed to me to be opinion. And therefore oppression. I would reverse numbers too but I could catch myself. Letters I just couldn’t see what was wrong.

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