On being discalculous


Me and my grandmother


Puppetry was a distraction from my learning difficulties

I was born in 1940 with a cleft palette so I was fed with milk being poured down my throat with a spoon. My speech was also affected until I was about 10 (very nasal) and my pronunciation continues to be, from time to time.

My mother and grandmother spent ages trying persuade me to put my mouth into the right shape to pronounce words correctly. Eventually I used to imitate others by listening and watching and, much to my mother’s dismay, became quite a good mimic.

My parents were puppeteers so there were long summer seasons away from London so I had lots of gaps in my education.   I often helped with the shows and came to relise that being laughed as a puppet clown was better than being laughed at for pronounciation problems at school

No one realised that I had what today would be classed as learning difficulties.  I did my best to stay away from school as much as possible even when my parents were not working. I knew I couldn’t tell the time or do anything but the simplest of sums.   l sat in maths lessons for hours doing nothing at all.   I did once ask for help but the teacher just got impatient. Subjects like algebra and shorthand, with all those squiggles meaning something or other, proved to be a nightmare.   Sitting next to my best friend, I copied her answers on and off for over a year. Finally I left school unofficially to run a summer season in Scarborough and the education authorities never bothered to check where I was.

Later I was in Variety with large cabaret style marionettes and in and out of work, resting is the unofficial title.   One temporary job I managed to get was typing orders and invoices for a commercial paint company. I left before I got the sack –  rather a lot of clients got the wrong sized tins of paint at the wrong price. I blamed it on the old-fashioned typewriter keyboard.    I had just about managed to teach myself to touch type but didn’t bother with that fiddly number line.   An offer of a tour in a show with Hylda Baker (a female comedienne  saved the day).

Now, of course, I know why I can’t set the oven timer or understand train timetables. Oh! and I can’t remember when either of my children were born, the year I got married or divorced etc.   If I’m not careful I can miss birthdays.

Today I have no idea of the date and can’t be bothered to get up and find out what it is, but this is because I am knackered!  I am also overweight but by how many lbs or kilos I have no idea, but as nothing fits me I guess I must be.

If you suffer from number blindness, which is the simple way of explaining being discalculous  I sympathize but at least it is not life threatening.

Unfortunately no one ever identified my number blindness officially so I went on to train to become a primary school teacher well over the age of 30 and specialised  in art as a main subject. It was possible at the time to train as a mature student without  ‘O’ levels,  instead I took an aptitude test at London University and passed. I got through teacher training and qualified with a distinction in Art.

It was as a primary school teacher that I realised something was very wrong and that teaching maths at more than reception level would be impossible. By this time I was studying part-time with the OU too, but decided I had to give up primary teaching before it gave up me!

However I now had two children to support on my own and needed a job.  I applied for a position attached to a large comprehensive school.   My role was to teach gypsies, who lived on a permanent site near the school, art and reading to CSE level. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.

After four years I realised that education for traveller children was a mixed blessing. I left and became Head of Education in a secure environment working with a multi disciplinary treatment team. Later still I moved to adult ed. where I also studied for an M.Sc.

If you suspect your child is discalculous, make a fuss, insist the school check it out.   There is now a lot more help out there for all kinds of learning difficulties.

If you are struggling to help your child yourself,  translate numbers into something tangible.  For example, if you cut an apple in four each part is 25% of the whole.  You can use beads for simple arithmetic and even fingers and toes!   You get the general idea? Being number blind is complex, it is a bit like dyslexia because it is a problem with many variations.

I’m fine with counting money by the way as long it is physically in my purse and  I can see it, touch it etc.  I took the money for our marionette shows when I was young and, as long as the transactions and the change came in round figures, it was fine. But I’d be no good in a supermarket checkout dealing with  transactions involving credit cards. I’d panic! Oh and I can’t remember anyone’s phone number either and posh mobile phones are not the answer – too many applications for ‘a bear of little brain’. Believe me I’ve tried.

For me it effects  conceptual things like map reading  (an uphill struggle)  reading music (nearly impossible patterns) and now, in old age, managing photos on Photoshop (all those numbers, plus and minus)  but then there is Picassa which is intuitive.


A musical number relying on mime.

I remind myself sometimes, when I feel  a bit out on a limb, that I have brought up my children on my own and earned my living with all manner of jobs.  I’ve lectured, been a senior manager in adult education, head of education in a multi-disciplinary treatment team for girls in security, an artist,  freelance journalist and a therapist. I’ve made lots of films currently on youtube,  blog and write poetry.

So all is not lost despite early speech problems and/or being discalculous or dyslexic for that matter.

Some of my stand-up comedy puts the whole thing into perspective. I learned to do stand-up seven years ago and was one of the acts in a local pub that raised over £700 for The Martlets cancer charity.  Please take the fact claim not to be able to read the bus numbers etc with a pinch of salt!

Good luck.

This entry was posted in Ann's memoir, Brighton - out and about, Cheer yourself up, Finding my feet in Brighton, Marionette and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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