By Gaby Roughneen
It’s a terrible thing not to be able to do sums, to have to do battle with them every day, as if you were dealing with them for the first time. That’s an aspect of a learning disability called dyscalculia, which has been part of my life since I was first told to ‘carry one’ in 1949.
What Sister Fintan meant by that, I had no idea, but she was the nun, and it had to be done. After a lot of pencil chewing, I arrived at the conclusion that ‘carrying one’ meant tagging it on to another number but I hadn’t a clue as to why or what it would do.
The mystery of mathematics had begun!
Everything else at school was alright, but sums collectively formed a monster on my horizon. I sweated over my obair bhaile, and envied my friend Mollie, who used to stick any old number under the line at the bottom of an addition sum and then laugh and go off and play. She didn’t care a hoot if they were right or wrong, and she’s now a fine upstanding member of the community.
Further complications set in with division with the number ‘going in once’ and something or other ‘over’, and they went completely off the rails when the symbol was turned upside down for long division, which also roped in subtraction. This was fiendish.
There was a slight reprieve when I reached Fourth Class at age 9. The nun gathered us around a big flat board on which she arranged chestnuts in groups to teach us fractions. At last, something made sense. I could SEE the numbers and what they meant and how they could be divided, and how each fraction was named according to its size.
But she should have left well enough alone. Instead, she told us that when you put ‘of’ between two fractions it meant they were to be multiplied. This foolishness brought the monster up over the horizon once more. It was hard enough to multiply whole numbers, but now bits of numbers? And ‘of’ told you when to do it!!
During this emotional time, I had to go to the local shop to buy some bread. My mother gave me a pound note. Alice, the elderly shop keeper, slid the bread over the counter to me, and I handed her the pound. She told me how much it would cost and then said,
“So, how much change should I give you from a pound?”
Wasn’t she just supposed to get me the bread – not get me to do subtraction? She wasn’t the teacher. I muttered that I didn’t know. She looked up to the ceiling, and said, “What in the name of God are they teaching you above in that school?”
She opened the till, threw in the pound, slammed the drawer and gave me the change.
“It’s a holy disgrace, that’s what it is!” she snapped. I hated Alice as much as I hated arithmetic.
In preparation for the Primary Certificate, my mother hired a teacher to tutor me after school. Five bob an hour – a waste of good money. All she did was get me to do pages of ‘Simple Interest’ sums, the formula for which just skittered out of my brain every day. There were more red Xs in my copy book than ever before. But I scraped through arithmetic, and passed the Primary – how, I have no idea.
Well, First Year brought me out of that frying pan, and into the fire of geometry and algebra. Geometry was fine. I could see it and it made sense. Algebra was lunacy and it completely stewed my brain in preparation for trigonometry. That was like travelling endlessly on a bus in a foreign country, not understanding any of the signs and getting off at all the wrong stops.
The Inter. Cert. loomed. Our arithmetic book contained hundreds of problems, couched in little stories, but always with a nasty twist to unravel.
They invariably held bits of information about the speed at which something travelled and the weight that it carried, or about water filling a bathtub at a particular rate through a pipe of a particular thickness, and we had to calculate something or other related to the plumbing.
Such problems were somehow linked to circles, their size and their centres. And it seemed that you had to know an awful lot of other stuff about volume and the like before you could fill that wretched bathtub.
My head pounded over such a problem one night and finally, I had to ask my father for help. I tried to avoid doing this as much as possible because he was an engineer and spoke the foreign language of mathematics fluently. He was at home in that bizarre world and he had little patience for wanderers.
“How do you find the area of a circle?” I asked.
He lowered his paper, and sighed. “Do you know the pi sign?”
I stared at him. Had he gone mad? Of course I knew the PYE sign. It was right there, in front of us on the wireless that sat on the book case. What did that have to do with anything?
‘Yes, I know the PYE sign”.
“Well, it’s simple. Just multiply the radius squared by PYE.”