Dyscalculia: I think people are like sunsets…
I sat at the kitchen table with my five-year-old foster son, feeling frustrated for all I was unable to do that morning. It had been a rough week, with the school calling me every day to pick him up long before it was time. Each day was the same, with a pile of worksheets to work on at home. Today was math. We were using baby carrots as both manipulatives and a snack. “Mhm,” I said, “One and three is five.” He looked up at me with bright eyes, and then moving some carrots around, said “No Mommy, one and three is four.” This was a telling moment for me, and I felt shame clouding my thoughts yet again. “What is wrong with me?”
For all the issues my foster son was dealing with in relation to school, math was not one of them. As I spent that fall advocating for him and trying to get him the help he needed, I remember clearly one day looking over a list of learning disabilities the school had sent. Dyscalculia was on that list. This was the first I had heard of a math learning disability, and within moments of googling dyscalculia, I burst into tears. Suddenly so many things about my life made sense. As a 26-year-old foster parent, it would be another year before I finally scheduled a neuropsychological evaluation and had a diagnosis, but I already knew. I had always joked that numbers were a language I didn’t understand and never would.
“You’re above the 98th percentile in these three areas, as well as being dyscalculic, so technically you are 2e, or twice exceptional,” the neuropsychologist said. The words “98th percentile” meant nothing to me, and I simply nodded my head. Being twice exceptional can make it so that both areas of difficulty as well as gifting often go unnoticed, because the two balance each other out. For me, it meant that I’d always carried two seemingly opposing views of myself, that of being told I was gifted and talented, while also hiding my “stupidity” regarding numbers/maths, lest anyone find out that I was, in fact, dumb.
I muddled my way through both high school and college maths, constantly worrying that someone would discover that I could barely add or subtract, let alone multiply or divide. I found ways around and through every math course I ever had to take, all without actually learning how to add or subtract. Carrying this secret shame of being “stupid” with numbers, as well as with other things I now know are related to being dyscalculic, made me feel like a fraud in the things I loved and was gifted in.
Hearing that I was dyscalculic brought such a resonance to my life and inner knowing. Like an invisible thread that had always woven bits of me together, I now saw the dyscalculia connections over my entire life. The invisible thread of unknown dyscalculic shame now became a lively, colored thread of known dyscalculic beauty and hardships. Knowing my brain is just wired differently enables me more and more to embrace with joy and delight my differences with numbers, time, directions, and other dyscalculia related things. There is nothing wrong with me as I am. If I wasn’t dyscalculic I might not be as creative, or as empathetic and sensitive to other people as I am.
To this day, I don’t know my left from my right. I have different tricks I do to remember directions, but they don’t always work. In high school, it took me five tries to pass the written portion of my driving test, and seven to pass the actual driving test (I actually remember these numbers only because I remember every town I tested in: Westby, Viroqua, LaCrosse, Desoto, and Sparta). When I bake or cook (neither of which I particularly enjoy), I don’t use measuring cups or spoons, and rarely use recipes. I always saw this as just a quirk I had, but now I can recognize the anxiety, overwhelm, and frustration that occurs in cooking and baking, due to the numbers involved. Now, a few years after discovering I am dyscalculic, I still have “lightbulb” moments, where I recognize another aspect of myself currently or another moment or area of shame in my past that is likely related to my dyscalculia.
I’ve always been drawn to both words and what I would describe as “wordlessness,” but rarely a marrying of the two. All throughout high school and college, nearly every teacher I had said the same thing: “You should be a writer.” Writing felt to me the same as music. I’d always been able to pick up any instrument and figure out how to play it by ear. So, to, with words. I could weave anything I wanted with words, whether written or spoken. Today, I engage words with creativity through writing stories and poetry, and I draw attention to wordless things through drawing anpainting. I am an artist.
The other day I was watching the sunset from the dock near my house. I had been walking in the woods earlier that day and as I watched the sunset I thought about people and how we are like sunsets. I will always find an analogy or metaphor between nature and humans, life, and relationships.
So often with nature we try and manipulate and change it. We plant a tree where we like, create and structure our yards and gardens exactly as we want. We cut and trim hedges just so, make trails in the woods so we can walk in the wild. I am thankful for trails in the woods, and the design, care and intention that many people put into green, living, things.
But you cannot change a sunset, no matter how much you might want to. A sunset just is. It unfolds and expands in all of its spacious, colorful, lively beauty. You can sit there and watch it and take it in and delight in it but you cannot change it.
And so I think that people are like sunsets, and I hope that you have people in your life that let you be a sunset. Expanding. Spacious. Alive. Colorful. Full of potential, no matter how “different” or “normal” you are. Able to just be as you are, whether dyscalculic or anything else.