Moments Matter

Hiding Behind X: My Story of Dyscalculia

Sitting directly across the table, the tester held up a single card with black dots. “How many dots are on the page?” he asked. “Uh,” I said, scrunching my forehead. I could feel my palms sweat, and right leg began to shake.

I then counted each dot one by one, and spit out the answer. He jotted down something on his clipboard. After hours of a tedious, mind-numbing assessment, I was told my results would be ready in a few weeks. This was my final stop before possibly dropping out of college – the disabled student services program.

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Graphic attribution

I recall my earliest memory of math frustration in the second grade. My teacher with her short dark hair and darting blue eyes hovered overhead. In a thick German accent, she slurred, “What is wrong with you? Use your fingers!” She firmly grabbed my wrist and peeled each finger one by one. “Two plus three equals five!” she said. Storming off, she muttered to herself in a German rant.

“I am so stupid, I am so stupid,” I whispered to myself through tears. During my school years, I spent many a recess attempting to “catch up” in math.

I never quite did, exactly.

Over the years, I failed math class after math class. I walked out of the pre-college testing in fear of my math incompetence. I sat through multiple low-level and remedial math classes with no breakthrough. Meanwhile, I excelled in English and journalism. For my high school graduation gift, I asked my parents for a large, hardbound blue literature book with gold writing on the cover.

I had words on my mind. No mathematical equations to be found.

My Rudy Moment
Entering junior college, I was determined to not give up on my dream of graduating from a four-year-university. Living in a small town, and coming from a working class family, this was a turning point. By not  successfully passing a math class, I would not be able to transfer to a four-year-college.

I feared being stuck slinging pizzas and wearing polyester for life. “What’s wrong with that?” my father asked. “It’s not what I want. I want more. I deserve more,” I said.

This was my “Rudy” moment.

Using my waitress tip money from the pizza restaurant, I hired math tutors. I took a math anxiety class. When I was on the brink of defeat, a kind math teacher, who witnessed my dedication and hard work suggested being tested for a learning disability.

Facing X and Y, Again
Clearly, math and I – we’ve never been friends. But, why do I bring this up after all these years?

Well, my own daughter is continuing to progress in her academics, and math is a crucial subject matter. I’ve shared parts of my history of “math challenges” with her. Yet, as her homework continues to advance and spiral, I find myself frustrated and helpless.

In sharing my frustrations with a friend, she asked if I had ever been diagnosed with a learning disability. And then it hit me: All these years of working with a calculator, Excel spreadsheets, estimating restaurant tips, and focusing on my writing and communications, I was secretly hiding, repressing – and perhaps coping – with my disability.

As we spoke, I flashed to the man holding the white cards with the black dots. The countless private math tutors. Throwing my books down on the college lawn in tears after failing college algebra for the third time. My second grade teacher leaning over me…

I had not wanted to think about math – at all – ever.

What is Dyscalculia?
Back in junior college, my results were confirmed: I was diagnosed with a learning disability called Dyscalculia. The term from the Greek “dys” and latin “calculia” means to count badly, and is used to describe people who have difficulties with numbers. There is no single type of math disability. Dyscalculia can vary from person to person. And, it can affect people differently at different stages of life.

Compared to other learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia has received little attention from the scientific community, and the familiarity of the general public with this problem is relatively low (almost as if being bad at math is normal).

My second proudest moment (first is becoming a mom to my daughters) as a college graduate.

My second proudest moment (next to becoming a mom to my daughters) as a college graduate.

It is estimated that at least seven percent of the population suffers from dyscalculia. However, advances in brain imaging techniques and improved understanding of numerical cognition in general, new insights into the disorder have begun to emerge.

No Fear of X
After my diagnosis, I received no-cost tutoring from the college’s learning center, increased attention from math professors, and an additional hour (or more) in an isolated, quiet testing room to complete my math tests. By the end of the fall semester in junior college, I aced my advanced math class, and was accepted to a four-year-college.

Sounds like a great ending, right? With a learning disability, though, it’s not that simple. It is not something you fix, or sweep up, tie it with a bow – and bam – learning disability cured! It haunts you at some level for your entire life.

In my case, I get to decide the power it holds. I decided long ago that I would not let my learning disability decide my fate. Little x does not hold that much power.

But I do.

Do you have a learning disability, or know someone who suffers from one? How do you (or they) cope? 

When you have a disability, knowing that you are not defined by it is the sweetest feeling.
– “In My Dreams I Dance” Autobiography by Anne Wafula Strike 

*October was designated Learning Disability Month in 1985 through a proclamation by President Ronald Reagan. Each year the celebration is used to educate the public about learning disabilities.


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The Grateful Trap (A Repost)

UnknownEditor’s Note: Well, it came back to me once again. As a matter of fact, it hit me right in the face. Humility. Gratitude. It started, actually, this summer. First, our water heater burst and flooded our home. I felt grateful for the walls of my little cottage home even though my ears rang from the deafening sound of the massive drying fans. Then, the dryer broke. I purchased a clothesline. Yep. My girls and I hung clothes to dry in our backyard for two months. While hanging the wash, I peered at the crisp blue sky to God. “I got the message – loud and clear,” I hollered.

So, we finally have the joy of moving back into our home.

With that, I thought it only appropriate to repost a piece entitled “Grateful Trap.” I can’t wait to turn the light on at my home. What are you grateful for today?


I wheeled the heavy cart filled with toilet paper, towels, sheets, bedding, cleaning supplies and a vacuum towards my first room of the day.

The early morning sun peeked. Yawning, I slowly cracked open the door of the motel room.

The stuffy room smelled of body sweat. The brown plywood furniture was crammed against the cream-colored walls. A painted picture of miniature gondoliers in bluish, white water hung crookedly on the wall above the bed.

Enter maid (that would be me).

I cranked up my Sony Walkman (AKA: popular 1980s portable cassette player). I was hoping to be somewhere else…

I poured sweat while cleaning – scrubbing counters, toilets and showers, dusting, vacuuming, stripping and making the bed.

Oh, the bed…each sheet corner had to be perfectly triangularly folded and not a lump or bump in sight. That only took ten-billion-times to perfect.

I finished off with a spritz of room deodorizing spray.

Of course, this was just my first room. Only 29 more to go…

We’ll Leave the Light On, Sucker
Yes, I was a maid at the cheap motel chain, Motel 6, during one summer as a teen. You may be familiar with the motel’s popular ad campaign featuring Tom Bodett, “We’ll leave the light on.”

The whole idea of getting a cleaning job was my older sister’s idea. I remember her persuasive hook: “I’ll do it with you. Don’t you want to earn some easy extra cash?”

At the age of 14, I bit…hook, line and sinker.

You can imagine the types of things I witnessed as a maid at Motel 6. I still won’t sit on top of a motel/hotel comforter – ever.

Really, I ‘d rather not remember all the gory details, but I do know that my experience as a motel room cleaner gave me invaluable gifts.

You’re thinking, seriously?

The intangible gifts of raw humility and gratefulness far outweighed the job duties as a maid.

After a day of back-breaking work at the motel, I was exhausted to say the least.

No Entitlement, Here
Fast forward 20 years. Enter mom and wife (that’s me).

I still feel the same sense of appreciation. Now, as a work-at-home-mom and wife with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children, I feel so blessed.

Another one of those blessings is that we have housekeepers who clean our house on occasion. Sometimes my daughters complain that the cleaners put their stuffed animal in a wrong spot, or their rug is not in its proper place.

Not only was it ironic that I had been on the other side as a cleaner myself, but most importantly, there was a sense of entitlement in their words.

Entitlement is the belief that one is deserving of, or entitled to certain privileges.

Coincidentally, I am reading the book “The Entitlement Trap” by Richard and Linda Eyre. The book discusses the issues and solutions for creating independent, self-sufficient children.

“It (entitlement) is fostered by our demanding, narcissistic society where wants are confused with needs and where everyone seems focused on the notion that he (or she) deserves what everyone else has,” the authors so eloquently explain.

According to the Eyres, the more we indulge our children we are robbing them of 1) joy; and 2) work.

With that in mind, I explained to my daughters that it is a big help to mommy and a privilege to have someone help clean our home.

I also told them that if they don’t like the way the housekeepers are cleaning their rooms they can do it themselves.

Beating the Entitlement Trap
After our conversation, my daughters’ complaints of the house cleaners not performing up to their standards ceased. Rather, they would come into their freshly vacuumed rooms and say, “Wow, mom, this is like a new room!”

I had also decided to formalize chores for both our girls so they had an increased level of gratitude.

Beating the entitlement trap one day at a time.

For me, I will never forget my roots of humility. I will also never forget those who believed in me throughout my education and career.

Most importantly, I will always leave the light on for my daughters when it comes to teaching them the joys of appreciation and hard work.

I’m hoping to set up the grateful trap – hook, line and sinker.

Did you have a job as a teenager or young adult that taught you the meaning of hard work and appreciation? Are you indulging your child, or setting firm boundaries or limitations?

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A Prank With a Lesson

Sitting at my mom’s old maplewood dining room table, I hit each key on my electric typewriter with slow and exacting precision. Glancing down at the revised definition of one of the week’s vocabulary word in sixth grade, I stopped for a minute and thought.

Me in sixth grade rocking the feathered hair.

Me in sixth grade rocking the feathered hair.

The conversation in my head went something like:

Is this right?
Yes, that girl is so annoying.
But she has feelings.
Really? You have to sit next to her every day.
No one likes her. Especially you. She really gets on your nerves.
Do it.

And I did. “Operation Donna” proceeded according to plan. My witty, know-it-all classmate-in-crime, Eric B, hatched the master plan to humiliate our classmate, Donna.

Donna, a loud, clumsy, brace-wearing girl seemed to get on the nerve of everyone in our sixth-grade class. Her cackling laugh, stagnant breath, and constant saliva spraying was too much for my classmate Eric and I to take. But she was also a human being with feelings.

Our teacher assigned weekly challenge words in addition to the regular vocabulary words.  When complaining about Donna’s daily annoyances, Eric had the bright idea to “teach” her a lesson.

“Let’s get her to shut up once and for all,” he said.

We had decided to take that week’s challenge word and retype the definition, and paste the new mean-spirited definition in Donna’s dictionary. When it came time to look up the new word for the week in class, I had already switched dictionaries with Donna, and pasted the made-up definition in her dictionary.

She opened the dictionary, and I saw her mouth gape open as she read. Donna glanced at Eric, and I as if she knew we were the assailants. Jumping up with dictionary in hand, she ran to the teacher calling, “Mrs. Dixon! Mrs. Dixon!”

With her hands on her hips, the fiery red-headed teacher turned in our direction, and said sternly, “I think I know who is responsible for this, Donna. Please let me get you another dictionary.”

Returning to her desk, I could see the look of hurt on Donna’s face.

What had I done?

Towards the end of the school day my sixth-grade teacher was determined to get to the bottom of who had played this hurtful prank.

As Mrs. Dixon held the silence of the class, she walked circles with wide-eyes on each student. “When I find out who did this, the punishment will be harsh, people. Harsh!” I sunk in my chair. Peering over at Eric, I saw his eyes darting.  He caught my eyes for a few seconds as if to say, “Don’t crack!”

At the end of the “harsh” speech from Mrs. Dixon, she slammed down the dictionary on her desk in full courtroom dramatics. The class jumped. Minutes later, the end of day school bell rang, and Eric darted out the front door, running towards the bike racks.

I slowly picked up my books, but the guilt was too much for me to take. “I did it with Eric, Mrs. Dixon. I am sorry,” I blurted. I began to cry quietly, and she gently placed her hand on my back. “Thank you, Kristal, for telling the truth,” she said.

“I see Eric decided to take a different road,” she said, while squinting outside at the bike racks. She called from the front door for him to return to the classroom. With his backpack on, and holding his bike lock, the skinny, beady-eyed boy with olive skin and dark brown hair glared at me as he entered the classroom.

Clearly, he knew that I spilled the beans and sang like a bird – as they say.

At first, he tried to deny any involvement, but Mrs. Dixon knew better. We both received punishments – mine being slightly less than Eric’s – of course. I knew this was a lesson, though.

I regretted acting like a bully. I did not want to be that kid who hurt others; and make choices that I knew were wrong. That was a life-changing moment for me.

Confessional Meltdown
I thought about this childhood prank recently when my daughter had a confessional melt down of sorts. She came to me with her head down, and began to cry in hysterics one evening after bed.

“I went on YouTube when you weren’t looking, Mom. I’m sorry,” she cried.

A few moments later, in between tears, she said, “I scared some girls with a fake story about the devil writing them notes. I made up the story to scare them. I am sorry, Mom,” she explained. She went on for at least 10 minutes with a slue of various immoral violations.

Frankly, her “crimes” were rather minor. However, it’s the fact that she feels empathy and regret is what overrides the crime itself – and she felt this overwhelming need and desire to confess. Most of all, she didn’t want to be that kid. Often times, guilt can be the worst part of the punishment.

As she sat crying in my arms, I shared the story of Donna, Eric and the dictionary. She nodded and listened. I explained that in life you are going to mess up, and hurt someone – even hurt yourself, but it’s how you take responsibility for what you’ve done that matters most of all.

I was proud of my daughter for feeling comfortable to talk to me. I told her that we would always love her no matter what.

Confessions, pranks and all.

Did you ever make a choice that hurt someone deeply? Did you regret it afterward? Care to share? Did you confess and feel empathy, or keep it to yourself? 

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