Friday, May 29, 2015

Polly Is Vindicated At Last!

Apologies in advance for a self indulgent wordy post!

When I was younger it gradually dawned on me that I wasn't great at maths. Try as I might there was always that bug-bear waiting underneath my school desk waiting to trip me up with my sums. I've always disliked maths and with good reason, but in my own memory Mr Coleman probably had the greater problem as he was tasked with helping me understand fractions and it was a nightmare!

In class I found myself approaching Mr Coleman's desk again and again. It was always with the same problem. Just how does this stuff with fractions work? I felt so small. I just couldn't grasp what I was meant to do, principally because once back in my seat I couldn't remember what he'd just told me. At the time I was fearful that he might explode, not least because of the small nerve which started to twitch as yet again he taught me the rudiments of how fractions work in the context of arthmetical problems. Of course he never did explode, not once. After that Mr Coleman was secretly my favourite teacher, not because of his dark brown head of curls, his brown eyes or moustachioed good looks, but because he's the one the taught me how to do fractions!

Daddy on the other hand failed miserably on both counts. He was an accountant and systems analyst for a large multinational pharmaceutical company and clearly good at arithmetic. While he was well thought of by his colleagues and subordinates, as confirmed by the leaving gifts which came years later when we returned to live in his home country in 1977, he was a lously teacher. I suppose my inability to understand the rudiments of arithmetic must have been incredibly frustrating to someone whose whole career was founded upon them.

I remember sitting in the dining room of our three bedroomed semi in the town of my childhood on a bright evening struggling to understand what he was trying to teach me about the figures in my book. It was all double dutch to me with little hope that it would ever be anything else. Daddy used to twitch too, not just the small nerve which ran down the outside of his eye, with him it was more of a sporadic spasm of his entire being! The result would be me howling in despair as he'd become more angry by the second until eventually he snapped and that was the end of that. I never asked him for help with maths homework again...

For decades I've thought of myself as being S.T.U.P.I.D. After all, I must be if I can't do basic arithmetic, mustn't I? In fact I was so stupid that I couldn't ride a calculator either. This was something that totally defeated me, like how the hell couldn't I use a bloody calculator? It just wasn't possible, or was it? When I moved to Ireland things went from bad to WORSE. Not only was I excelling in my inability to do maths, but it was getting worse. How?

At this time in my life I was told that I couldn't use a calculator in school so it wouldn't make any difference. Like all rebellious teenagers I was damned if I was going to cow-tow to that sort of antiquated thinking and so I used one anyway. At least I used one when doing my homework and sometimes I got things right! In fact I can remember being stunned when I got an A- from the pickiest teacher in the school. That was around the time when things in maths started to get really complicated for everyone.

I had figured out that I could use my reciprocal tables as a kind of cheat methodology towards getting the right answers. So I was surprised when having checked by figures doubly, using both tables and calculator I still got the sum wrong. I was kind of relieved to learn that this was due to them only being accurate to two decimal points whereas the answer required had six of the bloody things! Damn it anyway.

What I also learned was that with what I now know to be overlearning I was able to remember and regurgitate various different algebraic equations, theorums, etc. I excelled in the science of mathematics but was crap at arithmetic and I was peeved to say the least, I mean algebra, trigonometry, theorums and the like were the stuff of honours maths which only the brainy were able for and all that was preventing me from being one of them was not being able to add up.

I don't see figures the way they're written and often I don't see them at all. That's why I can't use a calculator properly, I mean a computer aka calculator is only as good as the person inputting the data, ie numbers. On occasions I've had three different answers for exactly the same sum. The only rational explanation for this is that I must have entered the numbers incorrectly at least twice!

Regardless, I passed my intermediate certificate maths at ordinary level and went on to do the same at leaving certificate. I suspect this is because I always submitted my workings out to be marked by the examiner and was able to demonstrate a good understanding of the underlying principals of whichever branch of mathematics was being questioned! Despite this I always felt somewhat under par intellectually until well into my thirties and maybe even into my forties.

Believe me when I tell you that to feel that way isn't nice. I used to mask my inability with numbers by largely refusing to deal with them once I didn't have to and in nursing I always made sure that I did the drug calculations and asked my partner to check them which was standard practice at the time anyway. When I worked in the student's bar I seldom made mistakes either charging or changing money and never worried that I might which always mystified me given my shortcomings elsewhere. I used to half joke that I had "...dyslexia - only with numbers!" and eventually I began to believe that it was possible.

As an adult having trained in the UK, I returned to live in Ireland and be closer to my family in 1996. This was made possible by the fact that I was offered a permanent job at a time when permanent jobs were unheard of. I'm a theatre nurse or as the Americans like to call it 'an Operating Room Nurse'. Not many people know what this entails as thankfully few people ever get to see behind the closed doors of the theatre department and that's the way I liked it!

Shortly after my return to Ireland Daddy fell ill. At first it was an eye injury and then it was cancer. He spent time in a private hospital on the other side of the city from the hospital I was working in, which made it easy for me to grab a taxi, learn all the short-cuts on the way and visit him after work. In deference to my situation I was offered a place on the day ward, where I'd be assisting with day surgery, minor ops and endoscopy with better hours and the same pay grade. Needless to say I jumped at the chance. Sadly Daddy died before I was able to take up this post but I kept it anyway, figuring that I'd be more available for my family and my poor Mum if I did. And it worked out well.

The only problem was that in so doing I'd opened another can of worms involving basic arithmetic. I was asked to help out with the overflow from A&E which regularly swamped our 12 bedded unit with sick and dying people to care for on top of our scheduled work load. Thankfully the hospital provided agency nurses to care for their basic needs but it was seldom that they had their IV certificate which left a gaping need on the ward resulting in delayed delivery of intravenous drugs which had the potential to save lives. So the idiot here went off and renewed her IV cert and took on this role too, safe in the knowledge that any calculations would be double checked before I gave the drugs! Wrong.

The whole unit consisting of two wards was so short-staffed that I had to track down members of staff to check my calculations. It was a nightmare scenario. I'd been trained never to dispense any drugs unless checked by someone else and here I was in a situation whereby any checking consisted of a cursory glance at best! Like I said, it was a nightmare. Luckily for me my calculations improved quickly and dramatically and nobody got hurt but the stress it put me under was something else.

Fast forward ten or so years and you'll find myself repeating the horrors of Daddy trying to help me with my maths homework. Only this time it wasn't me as the student rather the hapless tutor. As each battle raged between my youngest son and I the old feelings of despair began to resurface in me. I recognized the frustrations in his behaviour towards me as it was how I wanted to behave all those years ago, of course I didn't as children just didn't in those days! Actually it would be more accurate to say that the adult behaved pretty badly back then and that I just took it. Oh how times have changed.

With this in mind I started to badger the staff in my son's school about his reading and writing which were the two areas proving the most difficult for him, except for his general behaviour which was proving to be disruptive in class. His junior infant teacher had suggested early on that he be tested for dyspraxia which was something I'd never heard of before. The psychologist from the National Educational Psychology Service was lovely, a silver haired gentleman with a smooth deep voice whom I took an instant liking to. He gave me the Connor's Parents Scale to complete and the teacher the Connor's Teachers Scale to complete - two years later.

The results were encouraging. Obviously my assessment of my own child was more subjective and worse than his teacher's. There were a couple of areas for concern, but in the educational psychologist's opinion they were age related and he'd grow out of them. What a relief! Phew. I'd been so worried that he'd be diagnosed with ADHD or autism or something and now this? Wow, I could breathe again. All this, and the man had never even met the child...

Despite his reassurances that LB would outgrow his issues and learn to sit still in class and do his homework life was a constant battle with epic three hour plus homework sessions on top of a thirteen hour working day (including the four hour commute.) Often I'd collect the boys from our child minder late, as I couldn't face the battle ahead. Once I did get home I tried to get the homework out of the way as I made dinner, it worked for a while until the youngest started to get homework. I was now a single mum of two boys and it was hard going. It was a life of drudgery.

I often went to bed with no dinner having fallen asleep early with the boys. Our childminder fed the boys and I made sure to eat at lunch time (everything can be managed with a little thought!), but it wasn't easy. After years of unsuccessfully badgering LB's teachers about his literacy skills; he wasn't so bad as to be dyslexic, I was sent an appointment to see the school doctor. I'd deliberately hammed up his anti-social and disruptive behaviour on the referal form from the school. I reasoned that one way or another I'd get the help I so desperately needed with him. After all, I couldn't afford a private assessment at £500 a shot!

So, without further adieu LB was assessed by a health board psychologist and found to be dyslexic. Her words were magic to my tired ears and breathed new life into us both. That very night LB went home and read a Darren Shan book by himself and I slept peacefully for the first time in years! As a result of his assessment he and other children in our area have benefitted greatly from Literacy Workshops delivered by the Offaly Dyslexia Group. I say other children because there wasn't any local support for us initially, until we got together with friends whose daughter had also been diagnosed and formed the group. That was eight years ago and the group is going from strength to strength, having helped over 100 kids since its inception.

LB has since left school. He's an early school leaver with a vocation. He's pursuing his dream and is determined to make it work for him, allowing him to progress on the qualification ladder and attend college in his chosen field. Currently he's pursuing a fetac level four qualification which is the equivalent to the leaving certificate in what he's always wanted to do. I rather think that despite early failures he's one of the lucky ones, having had his difficulties identified clearly at a young age he's received the supports he needed to enable him to succeed. He's now a tenacious reader and avid on-line gamer, with numerous and disparate interests which make him a pleasure to know and be in the company of and maybe one day he'll be a rocket scientist. In the meanwhile I'm just happy to see him happy...

As for myself I discovered that there is such a thing as dyslexia with numbers. It's called dyscalculia and while it's not as well known as dyslexia there are supports out there for people like me too. It's a relatively new diagnosis but there are inroads being made. Meanwhile, I've championed my demons for the most part. I've developed coping strategies and thanks to my colleagues in Dublin am now aware that much of my problem during the early years over here are down to the fact that I was using a different method of arithmetical logic than had been taught to either my peers, my teachers or indeed my parents! This is how kids in Ireland are now being taught, so finally I can at least understand the journey even if I still get the wrong answer. It's just such a shame that none of my teachers ever sat down and looked closely enough to see what the problem was. Still, at least my examiners did, eh?

If you want to hear a wee bit more about dyscalculia why not tune into the John Murray Show on RTE Radio One and listen to Donald Ewing (Dyslexia Association of Ireland) talking about it yesterday...

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