Friday, February 17, 2006


Shakespeare's Sister has an amazing post up dealing with undiagnosed learning disabilities. Specifically, she focuses on undiagnosed math disabilities.

Like the more widely-known dyslexia, which is associated with reading, dyscalculia manifests first in a struggle to work with numbers and understand associated concepts, and, left untreated, can lead to math aversion of phobic proportions. And also like dyslexia, it’s treatable. But it’s got to be diagnosed.

This section hit me right between the eyes. I remember the day in school when my teacher introduced subtraction with two-digit numbers. I remember the exact time, because it was a huge moment for me. As my stomach began to hurt, I realized that I could not understand what was going on. Up until that point, school had been my refuge. Schoolwork was the one area where I could succeed, and the only area where no one could put me down. But when the teacher started discussing "borrowing", my confidence evaporated.

My achievement tests throughout the primary school years were very bizarre. I scored at the top in everything but math. My reading comprehension was many years beyond my grade, but my math achievement scores were almost too low to measure. The huge difference in scores was never addressed, and I developed a life-long hatred of math.

Maybe I have dyscalculia and maybe I don't. But I never got the help I needed. Although shy, I asked teachers for help. I never got it. I finally quit asking for help when my seventh grade math teacher, Mrs. Hirtz, informed me that I just wasn't good at math. She helpfully added that she didn't see how I'd be able to get through high school. Well, so what? So I don't like math. It turns out this dislike (really, fear) of math had pretty profound consequences.

In college, my natural choice for a major would have been biology. I love the entire field! But my life-long love of animals could not progress to a degree in zoology or wildlife biology because those areas require math. A new interest that developed in college was immunology. I couldn't pursue graduate work in immunology because I needed a background in chemistry. To take chemistry, guess what you need? Math!

The things I wanted to study had prerequisites that I was unable to take. I ended up pursuing an interdisciplinary area of research in graduate school, but I never got over feeling that my preparation was incomplete. I *needed* math so I could fully understand other areas. The only way I survived graduate level statistics courses was to divorce the material from the numbers and think about concepts.

Now, really, I'm glad I'm not studying immunology anymore. It's a fascinating field that becomes, for me, incredibly dull past a certain point. However, I feel nothing but regret over not studying zoology. I want very much to work as a naturalist or zookeeper. Basically, I'd give a lot to be working in any field of conservation. Observing animals, teaching about them, or caring for them is my ultimate dream. For some reason, cleaning large piles of poop makes me happy. But the fields I want to break into are very competitive. I have an advanced degree, I have a little experience, and an intense desire to do the job. But I don't have the degree I should have. Why not? Well, I couldn't take the math.

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