Dyscalculia is inherited, like color blindness. My genetics has done me some favors, like I've weighed the same thing since I was 16 and I can see without glasses despite the spasms of accommodation. But that's balanced by migraines, acid reflux, the color blindness gene and dyscalculia. My brother can't spell but they don't have a name for that. I am grateful I can point to the part of my brain that's faulty and blame that.
Now when I was in first grade my mama knew I wasn't stupid. I taught myself to read when I was 4 and they put me in first grade when I was 5. But when it was time for us to do arithmetic I would stubbornly add when I was supposed to subtract if the number on the bottom was bigger. 12-7=? Hmm. 7, 8, 9, stick on a 1, 19. My teacher called my mama in for a conference. I don't know what mama said to her. I guess she told Mrs. High Eyebrows to worry about the little boy that peed every time he had to read front of the class and she would take care of my math problem. And she got me some flash cards.
|HP65 at Johnson Space Center Apollo exhibit.
My dad has one just like that.
Daniel Pinkwater scored high enough on the SAT to get in college by studying like mad and memorizing. I did the same thing to get through first grade. Then my dad got me a calculator. He has been collecting HP calculators since before I was born. He started me out with cheap drug store calculators when I was so little I was likely to gum it up it with whatever I was eating. He got me an HP11c when I got to high school. Reverse polish notation made all of my dreams come true. When I started Georgia Tech he upgraded me to an HP15c. I still have it and it still works. I paid $30 for the iPhone app so I can leave it safe at home now because they're worth about $300 on eBay.
When I was in middle school I found a book in a cabinet at the house that was about math. It showed how you could add a long column of numbers by picking out the groups that make 10 and then add those up. I studied that book and that's how I managed to do well on the SAT where they don't let you use a calculator. When I decided to go to graduate school I read somewhere you had to get a 600 on the math portion of the GRE to get in so I crammed like hell for a week on arithmetic. When I got in to take the test I wrote out the multiplication tables on the scratch paper before I started so I could quickly look stuff up. And I missed it. I only got 550 on math. I was heartbroken. Turns out I was on the wrong page on the FSU website and only computer science majors have to score that high. I overshot the requirements for Oceanography by 250 points overall. (I'm still mystified how I only ranked in the 30th percentile on the written portion of the GRE. You guys feel ripped off for reading my blog now don't you?)
Some of the flash card sums I still know. 5+7=12 is instant. I know that one. Anything +9 is easy because adding a 1 on the front and taking away one is not a problem. (I actually think of 1 and one differently. 1 in front of other numbers adds an order of magnitude but one is counting up or down to the next number on the other end of the line.) Anything doubled, I'm there. But when I was studying for the GRE I found out I don't know what 8+6 is. I know 8+8=16 though, and I know if I count down two I get there, 16, 15, 14. Now I am as curious about this as you. The whole time I was typing that I didn't know it was going to be 14 until I got to the end. Frankly I was rooting for 12.
When I was making up mnemonic devices for these things I used the shapes a lot, imagining manipulations of the digits to get the shape of the answer, which I suppose goes back to that geometry thing. My Aunt Jano says she sees a magnitude in her mind when she reads a digit. I don't see a magnitude. I see the shape of the actual arabic numeral but that's it. I think it is entirely possible that I cannot wrap my head around 8+6 because it is two round numbers that equal two digits with nothing round in them at all. 1 and 4 are just straight lines to me. How can two round things combine to be something so pointy? It's impossible, I refuse to believe it. Or apparently the artistic center in my brain that I have recruited to do math since the intraparietal sulcus is unavailable refuses to believe it.
I wonder what my life would be like if I had the sense Mr. Pinkwater did? If I had gone to a school to be a writer instead of one where I had to manipulate equations all day every day? They said in the Science Friday piece that people with dyscalculia are unemployed at a higher rate than other people. Well I certainly have been unemployed more than anybody else I know, especially other Georgia Tech grads. I wonder if it's because of the math or because the part of our brain we're using to do math instead of the normal part is the part other people use to put up with psycho bosses? I'm pretty sure my deficiency at arithmetic is less related to my unemployment as the character flaw of being intolerant of people I don't respect telling me what to do.