Damn the Three Times Table – Jess Blackburn

Damn the Three Times Table – Jess Blackburn

For as long as I can remember, numbers have not been my friend. Words are easy as there can be only so many permutations of letters to make sense. Words do not suddenly divide, fractionalise, have remainders or turn into complete gibberish because if they do, they are gibberish. Even treating numbers like words doesn’t work because they make even less sense. Of course numbers have sequences and patterns but I can’t see them.
Numbers are slippery.

Below is an account of how I came to realise I have Dyscalculia and what fun it is to live with.

How many beans make five?

Blackadder was on the TV laboriously trying to teach Baldrick how to count. No matter how slowly they counted, Baldrick’s answer was always the same: ‘Some beans.’ There was a shout of laughter as everyone pointed and said ‘Oh look, it’s Jess!
Haa haaaaa!!’
Ever after, if I was found counting (equally laboriously) on my fingers, someone would whisper ‘some beans’ in my ear and go off thinking they were funnier than a funny thing. What this would actually do was throw me off track, my counting would go to pieces and I’d have to try again another day as there was no way anything would add up right after that. Things are regularly returned for repayment, sometimes more than once. It’s irritating but I’m used to it.

I’ve never been good with numbers, but, being articulate and an excellent reader, it was dismissed as me being lazy or disruptive. I changed schools a fair bit and somehow always managed to get on the wrong side of anyone who taught maths. They seemed to take it as a personal insult that I showed no aptitude, interest or understanding where their subject was concerned so things just muddled along with me avoiding numbers altogether or overcompensating in other areas.

Pretty soon I realised that maths was one of those things that wasn’t going to go away so I developed systems for occasional blatant cheating. It was irrelevant that I didn’t understand any of it; all that mattered was diverting attention away from me. I’d team up with someone else and we’d swap pens to mark each other’s tests and write the answers in during class tests; exchange my maths homework for anther’s biology homework so both of us would pass; pinching an answer book and copying out pages to save a term of grief and easiest of all, good old-fashioned sneaking at a neighbours’ answers. It was never cheating to win but cheating to stay in the race. I hated doing this but it seemed the only solution.

From the age of 6 when I stood stuttering and red-faced, yet again unable to recite my 3 times table and the class genius was invited to smugly recite his 13 times tables immediately after to show how easy it was, I thought something wasn’t right. Not only was it not right, it wasn’t ruddy fair. Hot tears would run down my cheeks and I’d creep away feeling stupid, angry, miserable and very, very alone.

This was to be the scene for the next 10 years; I’d be singled out in class for mathematical ineptitude time and time again while the class sniggered. Ultimately, the only effect this had was to make me so disruptive that I was removed from several classes and the cause for my behaviour put down to a ‘clash of personalities.’

It was obvious to me that numbers made little sense and but there was no-one to tell this to even if I might have been believed, so what was the point of saying anything? Stroppy adolescents aren’t always approachable, especially ones that are labelled ‘bright but troublesome.’ My ‘troublesome behaviour’ wasn’t physical or violent, more disobliging and downright bloody-minded as I learned how to make a shell around me that prevented anyone looking twice.

Senior school was a nightmare as the head of maths was a thin-lipped, joyless woman who took an intense dislike to me and we’d have daily confrontations. We both knew I could think rings round her so she would take her petty revenge by waiting until I had spent the entire lesson staring out of the window and then demanding I stand up and give my answers to the class. What would follow was dull, repetitive and not very constructive. Occasionally, we’d be set some problems I could actually do and do instantly. When this happened, the Joyless One would
create a scene and accuse me of cheating which was a bit rich because just for once, I hadn’t cheated at all.

Night after night I’d sit in floods of tears trying to make sense of maths homework. It was as if everyone else had been taught the language except me. Imagine trying to translate a page of Chinese; you know it makes sense to a lot of people but somehow you missed the class in Oriental Script. After a while, translating the Chinese became almost possible but only using a Chinese-Russian dictionary and Russian-English phrasebook that was printed in 1946. The results were not promising.

I knew I wasn’t doing it all on purpose as the numbers just swam away from me and even after something had been explained time and time again. It was if the information had seeped out of my brain. Mathematical explanations don’t stay in my brain, no matter how slowly, patiently or often they are said. I have no maths brain-glue.

After being removed from physics, chemistry, geography and music -all subjects that to me follow the laws of maths – and after some blindingly good exam results ( 16% for physics was one) and more class disruption, school would have been tolerable but for the Joyless One. The time came for us to be divided into ‘O’ level and CSE groups and she successfully argued that I should be streamed as CSE for everything: I was basically unteachable, you see. After a noisy intervention from home I was put into the O level classes and went on to pass every one I took. Except maths. Oh, and history. The Crimean war didn’t start in 1584, as I had put, and things went downhill rapidly from there. If I had known geography was also about rocks and weather and not solely
longitude, latitude and pie-charts of production from industrial countries things might have been different. Music, I later discovered, isn’t all about trying to read nonsensical floating dots and chemistry is loads of fun when numbers aren’t the primary concern.

It should have been obvious that there was a genuine problem somewhere as I routinely got A grades for other subjects and always had done from the start of schooling. With hindsight, it must have been grinding rectal-ache to have me in a class but there is no excuse to treat any child with routine humiliation and let them flounder year after year. To do so is plain wicked. When a teacher leans into your face screams: ‘What do you mean you STILL don’t understand it? Are you retarded or something? with spittle flecking out of their mouth, there are several possible courses of action: a) say nothing and hope they go away b) adopt an idiot expression and convince them you are indeed retarded and hope they go away c) burst into tears or c) damn the consequences and say ‘No, I don’t understand it and it’s your job to help me understand it. One of us isn’t doing what we’re supposed to do and it isn’t me, wouldn’t you say?’ Frustration and suppressed rage can make the nicest of us slightly rude from time to time. <cough> After one confrontation too many, the Joyless One was led away for hot, sweet tea never to return. She was replaced, for the last two terms, by a lovely woman who gently offered to help. No more shrieking, desk-slapping or throwing my books in the bin. This kind lady simply said ‘you need extra help and I’ll sit and explain it to you until you get it.’ And she did. I got a D grade for maths O level and I was over the moon. Her explanations didn’t make it to the long-term memory though; as soon as the exam was over I forgot every last thing.

I am now 36 and the memories of school and maths-related problems still haunt me. It was a horrible, horrible time. Maths became a bogeyman for me for years as I was clearly doing it on purpose; no-one can get a degree or a post-grad when they can’t count, surely?

Even now I cannot tell the time on a 24-hour clock, use any button on a video recorder other than ‘play,’ read music OR recite my 3 times table. I get as far as 3×4 =12 and counting on my fingers begins. Only now I’m an adult, I can count with them in full view as no-one is going to slap my fingers or I’ll poke their eye out.
If I look at a 24-hour clock, I don’t see the time. I only see the time it isn’t. I’ll be waiting for it to say ‘15.25’ ( collect children from school time ) and unless it says that, then it is irrelevant. Even if I have a clock in front of me where I can count each minute, time on the right side of the clock is ‘now’ and on the other it’s ‘non-time.’ Any time on the left side is impossible to understand and even counting each minute, I can’t put the hands to say ‘17.47’ That whole ‘forty-something’ area is a black hole of confusion no matter how many times it is explained to me. Time is for other people.

It makes for interesting travel as I’ve missed countless trains and buses or got on the wrong train on the wrong platform at the wrong time. Travel directions have to be written in minute detail as I have no understanding of the motorway network and anything more than ‘take the next left’ goes in one ear and out the other. I can get lost in a box.

Yesterday I had to add £36 to £5 and dutifully wrote a cheque to pay for some school trips. Later, after a bemused conversation with the school secretary who wondered why I had sent them far too much and a page showing how to add 36 to 5 being sent home from school, my other half asked me ‘what genius of calculatory confection have you come up with today, dear?’

I cannot measure things and but I know what 2.5 inches looks like even if no-one else does. Decimalisation of money was a blur and this current attempt to make me ask for a ‘whatsit’ in weight of something that bears no resemblance to a pound of Cheddar is plain silly. Pound of sugar, pound of cheese; identifiable quantities. A gram of anything, as far as I’m concerned, comes in a paper wrap and gets fired up the nose of the terminally stupid. A Kilo? A what? Couldn’t tell you anything about a kilo if my life depended on it. And what’s more, I don’t care.

I have a dial telephone because it gives me time to check back to the number I’m dialling but tell people we have it to stop the kids from playing with the buttons on an ordinary phone. We’ve had the same mobile phone number for 2 years but I still don’t know it and regularly forget the home landline number.

Work is incredibly difficult as I’ve lost jobs because I can’t count properly. It somehow implies untrustworthiness if someone doesn’t want to handle money or avoids using figures. It got so bad I seriously considered paying someone to take my maths O level for me just to bypass the rigmarole of explaining why the maths grade didn’t tally with all my other qualifications. This didn’t happen because I couldn’t find anyone to agree to do it and then realised that it was a
pointless thing. People would just have to accept the fact I am utterly, utterly useless with numbers.

Medication is another fun area: If it’s not written on the calendar then it won’t get taken and the chances are, it’ll be taken on the wrong day anyway because I get very confused with dates. Months are judged by seasons and birthdays, and appointments, etc. are just headache material. Games are fine as long as I don’t have to keep a score and my ‘guesstimates’ for anything are legendary. Knitting patterns are a joke and Chess is a blank past ‘the horsey goes in a L-shape.’ My bank manager makes his living out of the vortex which is my overdraft; the swine. My short-term memory for most things is poor and long-term memory for events is worse unless I can hang a date onto an event and work from there. It’s like living intuitively only with added chaos.

However, annoying as it is that there is no savant-like compensation for any of this, I do have an excellent memory for some things and almost photographic memory for words. I can draw, sculpt, write and teach all tolerably well providing numbers don’t have to come into it. I can think laterally and enjoy abstract philosophy and psychology because they have concepts with variable rules. Hands-on work is easy and so is driving providing I don’t think too hard about which pedal is which. If this happens, it can get a touch emotional especially if the wave of panic rises up when road numbers appear.

In order not to appear a complete spanner I have perfected two solutions to dealing with those who think I am thick. One is to adopt a vacant facial expression (similar to Dougal in ‘Father Ted’ but often end up sounding more like Jack ) so they move on swiftly or to bark ‘Dyslexia but with numbers. Don’t make me count.’ Both stop any conversation dead as they don’t expect either response. It was only after saying ‘Dyslexia with numbers’ to someone that I found out about Dyscalculia when they replied that there was ‘no such thing.’ Even after showing them various web sites about Dyscalculia, they still thought it was a made-up condition to justify lazy thinkers.

This is what those like me are up against. Dyslexia is now an accepted disability and is seems obvious that a similar disability with numbers should exist but it is virtually unheard of. There are no sympathetic characters in soap operas who can’t count and to say you have problems in this area is tantamount to admitting gross stupidity.

Dyscalculia is where Dyslexia was 20 years ago and it needs to be brought into the public domain. The misery and frustration that goes with Dyscalculia is so unnecessary and I predict that once it becomes better known, there will be a tidal wave of people all desperate to share their experiences. Some will burn with shame at their memories, others will be angry or upset, but they will all feel, as I did, the wonderful relief that goes with knowing it wasn’t their
So, how many beans make five? Dunno; past caring. You count them.