An Assessor’s Perspective – Karen Farmer

An Assessor’s Perspective – Karen Farmer

Karen Farmer is an assessor working at the University of Luton, and works regularly with students who have dyslexia/dyspraxia. Karen, herself has dyscalculia. She wrote the following in response to reading Jess Blackburn’s description of the difficulties faced by dyscalculics.

I have just read Jess Blackburn’s wonderful piece on dyscalculia with a smile of delight. To hear that someone else has a similar experience is a treasure in itself, but to have it expressed so beautifully makes it a thing of wonder. Dyscalculia does not have to ruin your life – it may try to, and others may unwittingly help it, but you can hold it at bay, you can even beat it if you have the right sort of support.

The difficulties Jess describes with numbers are so familiar to me. The gut wrenching feeling when, as a small child, my dear old Dad would come home from a long day at work and ask “If it takes two men two days to fill a bath with one bucket, how long would four men with two buckets take?”

Who knew? Who cared? Why didn’t they turn the taps on? What sort of a bath doesn’t have taps? And why did they want to fill it anyway? It would be stone cold by the time it was full, wouldn’t it? My mother always moaned if I took too long in the bath. Surely two days was far too long for any sort of bath?

My mother always stood and watched, without comment. After all, she was not the one being put on the spot by Dad, but I always felt that she was thinking about how stupid the question was. Either that or she was hoping that we wouldn’t have to do a practical demonstration up and down her nice, clean, dry stair-carpet.

I knew that Dad meant well, and that he somehow thought that if only he chipped away at it long enough, then somehow I would discover ‘the secret’ and find that maths wasn’t as hard as I seemed to think. I always felt that I was somehow letting him down, failing to live up to his expectations where maths was concerned. I would have loved for him to have been proved right, for the problems to become obvious, and for the solutions to have appeared to me in glowing letters, but they never did. Dad did try, and so did I, but it inevitably ended with me in floods of tears, and with him feeling bad that he had not only not succeeded in preparing me for a world in which numbers were everywhere, but also that he had upset me (yet again) in the process.

I could never get the hang of the clock thing either – and still wear digital. Why struggle? I also drive an automatic car. Probably says something very profound about me… Or maybe not?

As for Jess, looking at a clock with hands (as my Dad would call it) was an unnerving experience for me as a child. Dad would sit, and move the clock hands around. The hour hand was fine – it was small and non-threatening. I could tell the time quite accurately just by looking at that. See it there, halfway between two and three? Must be two thirty. Bit further on?
Probably nearly three… ah, looking at Dad’s face, then again maybe not. The long hand, the minute hand, was sinister, and I hated it. Lucky for me that there wasn’t a sweep (second) hand…

My lessons were carried out on the big clock in our living room. It didn’t help that it was in a modern style, with a round beaten brass disc forming the centre of the clock face with numbers made from silver letters mounted on rectangular shapes, stuck out from under the central disk on thin black sticks.

Did I mention that I have Irlen Syndrome and find black on anything light to be a bit of a pain? No? Well – I do, and the living room wall, behind the clock and showing through the gaps, was peach coloured. Not my favourite.

The clock had roman numerals and followed the odd convention of four capital I’s being four, instead of IV. So I would stare at the numbers that I couldn’t touch, and couldn’t see clearly either, and I would have to urgently ‘guestimate’. Two and three were confusing, but three and four merged shamelessly. I eventually learned that four was next to five and three was at the quarter so the thin black stick which led to three was horizontal. That helped a bit. The ‘something to’s’ were just as bad.
Dad eventually gave up with the clock and he and Mum bought me a lovely digital watch for my birthday, as soon as they could afford one. Digital technology was expensive, even in those days.

When it came to things mathematical, it probably didn’t help that my brother, seventeen years older, was an exceptional mathematician… Still, as my Dad often said – my brother ‘couldn’t put a nail in straight’, by which Dad meant that my brother was not at all a practical person. Nails I could do, and fuses, but not maths. Dad was a very practical person, and tended to try and make the best of any situation.

I mastered some aspects of maths. My times tables were learnt – laboriously – by rote on the way to and from school. School involved a one and a half mile walk each way, with my mother, who was no academic star herself, and so had a bit more understanding of how things could be made worse by people getting angry when you were trying but not succeeding. I learned the tables, each one, parrot fashion, and could recite from beginning to end the one times, through to twelve times, tables. What I could not do (and still can’t – with only a few exceptions) was to produce a given portion out of sequence. Six times seven? Oh…

What I realise now is that I had learned the sounds, but not gained any of the sense behind them. Still, something is better than nothing. I work the same way with phone numbers, and can still hear in my mind Dad’s cheery changes of tone as he confirmed our home number to each caller.

I often thank my lucky stars that I have no problems with words; I even did proofreading for a time. Thankfully although I have a “two blinks and it’s evaporated” short-term auditory memory, my short term memory, and indeed long term memory, for anything written, has saved my metaphorical (and actual) bacon on many occasions.

Numerous times I would walk to the corner shop as a child, only to stand outside with that sinking feeling. What was it Mum had asked me to get today? Bread? Sugar? Loo rolls?

I would search my mind frantically for any memory of the words which I knew would have been repeated for about the fifth time as I closed the front door on my way out. Nothing. De nada, zip, zilch. Yes, there HAD been meaningful words, but by now they were just sounds with no sense attached to them, and only five minutes after hearing them.

Whenever I gave up on remembering the ‘listening bit’ I would find that I could usually see an image in my minds eye – assuming that the thing had been written down at some point. In one instance I recalled a list of cake ingredients, with ticks against everything except ‘butter’. Saved again.

But oh, the humiliation if anyone queried the amount of coins that I had given them, or expected me to count the change! Count it? What, now? Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine…

On her regular visits, my grandmother would bring me little bags of the old pennies and halfpennies, her change-bag. “Here you go, it’s all yours if you can tell me how much is there.” Oh dear. Panic started to set in at this point, and still does.

Over 40 with a good degree (and mostly non-mathematical) and I still can’t tell you how many coins there are in a given stack, unless I can physically touch each one. Not a good attribute in most situations. Too slow! How many times have I heard “Must be stupid, or blind…”

Neither actually (nor hearing impaired), and it’s a bit insulting to those who are, don’t you think? I’m sure that many totally blind people can count out £12.55 in less time than it takes me to get to “here’s ten pounds, eleven, twelve, and what was that other bit?” You learn to take notes with you, and to just shove the change into a purse as quickly as possible.

My two sons, who have never been stressed about numbers, and who have a dyslexic, but thankfully, blissfully numerate father, wander around the shops with me, cheerfully advising me that what I have just picked up will push the current balance beyond the cash than I actually have in my purse. I love plastic money! Finally I can shop without stressing over the final stage. I look at the page and verify that the figures are the same as those on the till display (I can do that – it’s not maths to me, only comparing symbols) and then sign on the line.

My beloved takes care of the bank balance – tells me how much we have spare, reminds me that although I have a reasonable job, I don’t earn enough to spend like that too often! I take care of the letters, correspondence, bill deadlines, and time management. Not that I’m good with dates, but I make ‘to-do lists’ and use software where necessary.

Actually I have found that I can work quite well with figures, monthly budgets etc, providing that someone has told me that what is in this column should be the same as the figure in that box, and always assuming that no one sneakily changes the layout on me – ever! At least not without giving me some warning!

I temped for a very large telecommunications company for quite a long while, just before giving up work to have my first son. They must have been desperately short of staff, as they put me, a temp at that time, in charge of a seven hundred and fifty thousand pound budget (and no, I couldn’t write that in figures with any degree of certainty). I confess to being terrified – until I found that all I was actually expected to do was run my fingers along the two different computer printouts (ours and the Customs and Excise) and check that what they had charged my division for, was actually on our sheet. No calculations required! Why didn’t you say so?

Comparisons, I can do. Symbol matching, I can do, just don’t ask me to say what’s written there. Most of the time the amounts I was looking for were so big they weren’t money to me, they were just chunks of numbers, and abstracted like that, reduced to shapes, they lost their power to terrify. 2003.00 on my sheet, and 2003.00 on their page – matched up. Sorted! Put a line through it. Next. Highlight any bits that don’t occur on our page. Check if they belong to another division (another list – this time of site codes, look down another column and match them up if you can). Job done. They must have been happy with my work, as I went there on a two-week contract and ended up staying for eighteen months.

I still can’t work maths. Luckily for my job, I don’t usually have to. I have also discovered a free software calculator for my PC (SmartSum – free edition) that talks to me, and displays a till-roll of everything (including mathematical operators such as + or -) that I have pressed on the display. This helps.

I feel that I’m not phobic about maths any more, though I used to be. I have revisited the territory as an adult, while doing the foundation course for my degree, and even passed Statistics – with a lot of coaching, and while I can now read about the principles (being words), and understand at least in theory, how certain processes work, and can look over a given example and describe how the end results were achieved, if you change the figures and give me the problem to work out, then beware! Gibberish!

If I can use an original example as a template, and the question hasn’t changed beyond recognition, then I MAY just get the right figures in the right places. It is also possible (but not likely) that I could also get the working out done correctly (given a calculator), and assuming that all the necessary steps were correct then I could, just possibly, get the right answer.

But I wouldn’t count on it.