I was all too young the first time mathematics beat me down. I learned multiplication not by using times tables but by counting my index fingers. I never spoke loudly to begin with, but in math class my tears always came across louder than my words. There were so many math teachers disappointed and angry with me for not understanding the equations on the board.
In high school, I had to take the math portion of a standardized exit exam. I studied with my math teacher at my house, during my lunch breaks and sometimes after school. I failed the test three times before finally passing. Had I failed just one more time, I wouldn’t have graduated high school. It has always been that way for me with math: I fail every time. Math was not only the thing that nearly halted my graduating from high school, but it was the also the thing that changed the journey of my college career.
I did poorly on the ACT and the SAT. But I was accepted into college on a provisional basis if I completed a summer program and some remedial math courses. For the next three years, I never took a math class. But finally my avoidance caught up with me, and I received a notice to take a state-required exit exam for students who hadn’t received a 2.0 in either mathematics or reading. I didn’t know much of anything about the test (called the CLAST) that I was demanded to take. All I knew was if I didn’t pass the test or receive a 2.0 in two math courses, then I would not graduate college.
Maintaining nearly a 3.0 GPA throughout college while working three, sometimes four jobs, while being the president, treasurer and secretary of my own student organization—I did all that but measured my self-worth against my failure with mathematics. Black women are not seen as intelligent, what with the pervasive media portrayal of crack mothers and welfare queens, or booty-shaking video divas. I knew I had to fight for myself, and every Black woman and little Black girl in the world.
So I prepared each time to take the test like I was preparing for a boxing match. I trained my brain to remember and forget—all at the same time. I trained my confidence to slip back into my fingertips and guide me each time I took the CLAST test. For every time I failed the test, I was put on academic hold and was not able to take the necessary courses to finish my degree.
I couldn’t pass, and so I couldn’t graduate, and I couldn’t move forward. Mathematics was pulling me into a quicksand of depression, fear, self-doubt. I stopped believing in myself.
Finally, in my research of talking to people and gathering all the information I could about the test, someone mentioned a learning disability. I knew I couldn’t have a learning disability. I knew I just wasn’t pushing hard enough or trying like I was supposed to. And I feared, with every failed attempt, what I really was: just plain stupid.
But out of sheer exhaustion, I signed up to be tested for a learning disability. I sat with my mother in the proctor’s office while he told me that I tested like a genius but my mathematical skills were below the lowest level because of a disability. Everything that I had been holding on to for years—my self-sabotage and rage—came to the surface. I couldn’t control my tears. I felt like I walked in new skin.
I have dyscalculia, a learning disability that allows the mind to transpose numbers like dyslexia with words.
I graduated college, but dyscalculia is never over. I still get lost often; because of the disability I forget where I’m going and how I got there. I’ve been mad at my brain because it sends me the wrong memories—so I get lost, and I panic, and then I’m right back before my diagnosis, anxious and afraid. I work against this every day. I try to tell people about myself so others can come forth and at least try to get tested. I try to spread my wings and forget every day I ever called myself a stupid B lack girl.
Aries Hines is a poet and student at Mills College.