90,000 Miles to Me

20,200 Miles • Math Confessions

Despite what you may think about me, I am not actually smart. I am not good enough. I am never going to reach the high potential that my parents and teachers thought I would because I am not in fact as good or as capable or as smart as you all think I am. I am faking it, have been pretending all my life, and one day you will all find out how inadequate and disappointing I really am. 

That day is today, because I finally have the courage to tell you my deepest fear. 

I am not afraid of spiders or public speaking, have no problem with heights, and monsters under the bed never frightened me, but I have been terrified since my early teens. Of not being smart enough. Which I equated with not being good enough.

There. I’ve said it. Now you all know. 

I also know, finally, conclusively, for the first time in a very long time, that I am smart. I am good enough. I belong here. I have worth.

The problem didn’t start in algebra class, though that is when I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It started with all the praise I got since I was knee high to a grasshopper for being so smart. Not only did my loving and admittedly biased parents praise me for being smart, so did every teacher, neighbor, friends’ parents, even strangers at the park. People we just met would exclaim, “wow, she’s such a smart little girl.” Being the smart one became an integral part of my identity.

I wasn’t one of those know-it-all children, it was more that I would see things differently and so ask more interesting questions than other children, or come up with more insightful comments than other children, and figure out solutions to problems when most children would have given up long before. Yes, I also learned more quickly than average—the normal standard for being “smart”—but I think it was more often the former qualities that impressed most people.

Then I started pre-algebra in 7th grade, a year earlier than usual, and no one had any doubts that I could handle the material. But the problems soon became long enough that I could no longer do all the work in my head, and I started to struggle. I made it through, barely, and went on to algebra in 8th grade, again a year early, and again I struggled. That would be the story of my math classes for all of high school and college: I always got through, but I struggled. 

I made “stupid mistakes.” That’s what I called them. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t struggling with the normal issues so no one could figure out what was wrong. Usually a kid has a hard time because he doesn’t understand the material, but I did understand it. I understood it all and could sit next to the teacher and explain, step-by-step how to do the problem, and what it meant, and she would confirm that I understood it correctly, but then I would write it on paper and would transpose two numbers or add a number randomly or leave one out or mix up plus and minus signs, and so the answer would come out wrong. Yet when the teacher pointed out my mistake, I would look at it again and wonder why I had done that because it was obvious to me that it was wrong and what was right.

I would mess up over and over, consistently, and not for lack of concentration, please believe me, I concentrated on it harder than you can imagine because I wanted so desperately to get it right and was so desperately frustrated that I was so often wrong. 

Yet no one could figure out what my problem was, and I tried so hard, so so hard. My teachers, too, knew that I understood the material yet they didn’t know what was wrong, either. My parents got me extra tutoring and that helped me get by, but it didn’t solve the problem. I spent hours every day after school doing math and asked questions and went to the teachers for extra help and gratefully went to tutoring and tried so, so hard and still got things wrong more often than right.

Yet, despite my difficulties, I loved math. I could see the inherent beauty in it. I liked the logic of it, the certainty that if you did the right things in the right order you would get the right answer. Except that I was doing the right things and wasn’t getting the right answer, and couldn’t figure out why.

And that confusion, knowing that I understood it all and was following the correct procedures and was still getting problems wrong, was extremely painful. All the work, the countless hours, made very little difference, and that, too, was painful. 

Gradually, over several years, a fear grew and took hold inside of me that there was something deeply wrong with me, that I really wasn’t as smart as I thought I was—as everyone had always told me I was. My identity was on the line and I was afraid that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. But if I wasn’t smart, what was left of me?

Math was my most obvious difficulty, but it wasn’t just the math. I struggled in every class, reinforcing that secret fear. 

Science was always my favorite subject, and I was always placed in classes two to three years ahead of my grade and when I ran out of high school science, I went to the community college for more. But beginning in high school, science classes relied heavily on math to figure out the problems, so even though I understood all the science, I struggled with getting problems right.

Reading had always been a major part of my life because I loved learning about everything and anything and so would devour books, but I was an incredibly slow reader. To make matters worse, I often found it difficult to retain what I read so would have to read everything two to four times for it to stick, and each time was painfully slow. When we were supposed to read something during social studies or English classes, I would only be a third to half way through my first pass when the teacher would declare we should be finished and would start talking about what we had “just read.” I learned to fake my way through discussions. And no, I couldn’t skim, and yes, I tried.

German class was another love but even in year four I still hadn’t figured out most of the grammar we were supposed to have learned in year one, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Often when I got the grammar right it was purely by chance, though I was terrified of admitting that. I largely made up for it by doing a completely ridiculous amount of extra credit projects, spending hours on each one to earn only a point or two, but those measly points (and the teacher taking pity on my enthusiasm) added up to saving my grade every semester.

One last example. I memorized four years of violin lessons because I never learned to read music. Honestly. I could tell you the names of the notes and lines and the different types of notes and knew what it all meant, but if you asked me to identify a single note on a piece of music paper, I couldn’t do it. If allowed to put my finger on the note and take a deep breath and concentrate really hard, I could probably name it correctly, but you can’t do that with every single note as you are playing. So even though I had talent, I eventually gave it up, frustrated and feeling inadequate, convinced that I wasn’t good enough and at a loss as to why. For a long time I blamed my quitting on other things, and those were factors, but this was the crux of the issue.

I didn’t talk about most of my struggles with anyone, and absolutely did not talk about my secret fear and would have vehemently denied it to any astute observer who dared bring it up. I just buried it or pushed it down and tried not to think about it too much and through a ton of hard work and persistence I managed to get mostly As and Bs in every other subject and consistently Cs in math. Good grades, but not top-student-smart-kid-grades. I pretended it didn’t matter to me.

Then when I was seventeen or eighteen and making college decisions, I applied to only two colleges, got in to both, and went to my second choice. St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You see, I didn’t even apply to my first choice. I knew I wasn’t good enough to get in, so why bother? 

Looking back, I still agree with that very rational assessment. With my grades, I couldn’t have gotten in to prestigious Caltech—one of the leading science schools in the world—and if by some miracle I had gotten in on the strength of fabulous recommendations, I couldn’t have kept up with the intense load of math courses. The bad grades I would have earned, coupled with comparing myself against the hundreds of young geniuses around me, would have equaled absolute confirmation that my deepest fear were true. I would have branded myself a failure and been much worse off. 

You see, what I really wanted to do with my life, what I spent years obsessing over, why I put so much effort into math, was to study physics. Theoretical astrophysics, to be exact. Studying the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. Steven Hawking and Roger Penrose kind of stuff. In short, math stuff. Really, really intense math stuff.

But I wasn’t good enough for that. And even though I still agree that the decision I made at seventeen to study history and philosophy and literature was the correct choice given the situation at the time, it was still a deeply painful choice. It also cemented my looming fear as a new part of my identity. 

St. John’s was a great school for me and I have no regrets going there—that’s not where this is going—but in the back of my mind I always worried that I wasn’t smart enough to really belong there, either. This would be a consistent theme for the rest of my adult life, always worried I wasn’t smart enough, good enough, that I was somehow broken in a way that no one could understand and so I often—unconsciously—held myself back from pursuing things I really wanted, advancing my education or aiming for the big dreams, because I was terrified that I would rise to my level of incompetence, that I would be exposed for the fraud that I really am.

This Grand Journey has been a fascinating and uncomfortable roller coaster of emotions and personal insights. I never know what is going to come up that I need to heal and have no idea why this came up now, seemingly out of the blue, but I guess I’ve trudged through enough other stuff that this finally was able to be seen. Maybe I finally trust myself enough, love myself enough, to be able to face such a deep, dark fear. For that I am grateful.

And I am trying to be brave and let myself actually feel these feelings for once so that they can finally heal. For so long, I have pushed them down and ignored them or rationalized them away. I was so good at that and it became so natural that by my late teens I didn’t even realize I was doing it anymore. 

In reflective moments I have admitted that I was disappointed about not going to Caltech, and frustrated about the math situation, but followed that up quickly with how much I love how my life turned out and so have no regrets. While that last part is true, sort of, it doesn’t make that decision or what I went through less painful. And I am trying to finally let myself feel that.

And you know what? Feeling that pain, the grief over a lost possible future, did not lead to a bottomless pit of depression. I did spend several days crying in a fetal position and several hours on the phone complaining and reliving it with my mom and a couple trusted friends. But then it wasn’t so bad. 

I needed a good cry, needed to acknowledge how much it hurt, and then it didn’t hurt so much anymore. 

In fact, after that personal pity party, I felt able to try something that I’ve both been wanting to and terrified of for a really long time: math.

Okay, there is one more thing you need to know. 

I did actually figure out what the problem with my math and reading was twelve years after graduating high school.

While reading about different learning disorders in children, one of them sounded very familiar. Too familiar. So I started looking up everything I could get my hands on about Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, also known as Irlen Syndrome, named after Helen Irlen who first identified it. 

As I understand it, scotopic sensitivity syndrome is a sensory perceptual disorder in which the brain does not correctly interpret certain visual information. The eye may work fine, but some signals from the eye do not arrive in the brain intact or on time, and the brain tries to compensate for the double image by filtering out bad information, but ends up distorting or confusing the location and appearance of images.

The distortions are most prominent in situations where small distinctions between things that are very close to each other make a big difference, like in sequences of numbers or letters, like in reading and math.

Scientists aren’t entirely sure yet why this happens, but one of the leading theories is that it has to do with the brain’s perception of certain wavelengths of light. While there is still something of a debate in the scientific community about what causes scotopic sensitivity and even if it is real, it has been gaining acceptance for 30 years and is now recognized by most of the scientific community. Personally, I’m sold. I’ll tell you why.

Helen Irlen first identified these visual distortions in the early 1980s (view some samples of distortions) while researching adult remedial readers—specifically, college students who were good readers, like me, but still had a lot of difficulty doing it. She also identified a simple and effective treatment: filtering out the problem wavelengths through a specific color—because color is a wavelength!

While not a cure, placing a colored overly on the text or wearing colored glasses effectively reduces or eliminates the distortions for most people, including me! When I left the Irlen diagnostic center I had a set of colored overlays in my eager hands. They went through a whole slew of different colors with me, and combinations of colors, and figured out which worked best for me (different brains need help with different wavelengths). When I put them over the pages they had just tested me on, the words, pictures and diagrams that I had to concentrate hard to decrypt a moment before, suddenly stopped jittering, pulsating, and swimming.

It was a deus ex machina. Let there be colored light. And there was colored light. Let there be a stillness in the light. And there was a stillness in the light. And the stillness was good.

I’ve been using the colored overlays since then, and they have helped immensely. I put them over books, printed pages, even my computer screen. I also got colored glasses that filter out my problem wavelengths for everything I see, not just things I can put a plastic sheet over. When I read with the glasses or overlays, the flashing and pulsating lights go away, the text stays still, and my field of vision expands from one or two words wide to seven or eight. Which means I can see more of the text, and instantly read about twice as fast! And I comprehend more of what I read and don’t tire out nearly as quickly. With the glasses, my depth perception improves and I get far fewer migraines and headaches.

That was eight years ago, yet in all this time, my fear has still kept me from trying to do any math more intense than my monthly finances.

Because what if the glasses worked with reading and with sheet music and German grammar and everything else, but I were still bad at math? That would mean that it wasn’t the Irlen Syndrome and it really would be me that was at fault. But if I didn’t test it out, if I didn’t try math again, I could comfortably content myself with the story that it was the Irlen Syndrome all along and I wasn’t to blame and that if I were to try math again, it would be different. But since I have been too afraid to actually test it out, there has remained this tiny, lingering doubt.

It has now been twenty years since I made that fateful decision not to apply to Caltech, and essentially gave up my dream of becoming a physicist.

That was one of those defining moments in life. It wasn’t just choosing one college over another, or one career path over another, it was choosing one version of me over another, and in doing so it solidified a nagging doubt into a part of my identity that has been an active, though unconscious, part of my decision making ever since.

I still have no idea why any of this came up now, but since it did so while visiting my friend in Oregon, I was talking to her about it and about how I have wanted to, but have been afraid to, try some math again. We were sitting at the dining room table as her youngest son doodled nearby, and she walked out to the garage and came back a couple minutes later with a book.

It was algebra. She told me to take it and try it out, and I was thinking, “algebra? I left off with calculus!” But then my humility reminded me that I struggled throughout algebra and should probably start there.

But that would mean testing my nicely-unchallenged assumption about the Irlen Syndrome. Ouch.

I took the book back to my van, unsure whether I would do it or not, and although I am becoming more comfortable with my discomfort, this is a really big deal for me. It is about my self-identity, my ego, who I tell myself I am.

But my ego is not my SELF. It is not who I AM. And if it depends on being smart for me to think well of myself, and I have a brain injury or age poorly, and that is taken from me, I will have a really hard time coping, and if I can’t, I’ll likely end up miserable and making everyone around me miserable.

My ego can no longer depend on being smart. And in a very real sense, even though I want to think of myself as intelligent, being intelligent is not who I am. So whatever happens with this algebra book, I think, I hope, I can cope.

So I started at the very beginning, using my Irlen overlays, and the first chapter was on absolute value, so easy, ugh. I got all the answers right, but that was just because the topic was easy, right?

And then came multiplying positive and negative numbers. Positive numbers times positive numbers make a positive number, and positives times negatives make a negative, good, but negatives multiplied by negatives? Yeah, I know the answer is supposed to be positive, but what does that mean?

Indulge me for a moment. Positive times positive: say I have three cats, and each has a litter of four kittens. That’s three times four, and I have twelve, a positive number, of hungry, mewling kittens. Now say I have three students, and each owes me a four page essay, so I don’t have twelve pages, a negative number, of essay pages to read. All well and good, but what happens with two negatives? Negative three people owe me four dollars each? What is a debt of a debt? A lack of a lack?

I spent a few days pondering this. See, I told you that St. John’s was a good college for me. This is exactly the kind of discussion we had there all the time.

I kind of wrapped my head around it in visualizing it on a number line. So there are three items going off to the left of zero, and four things drag each of them back the way they came, the negative direction from their perspective, across the zero to the positive side. So…is a lack of a lack a having? A debt of a debt a fulfilled promise??? (Please comment if you have a better way to think of this.)

This was fun!

The material got more complicated pretty quickly, but I kept up with it, and as long as I used the overlays, and did my work on colored paper (the paper equivalent of the overlays), no matter how complex it got, it never got hard. With each new chapter, I would catch my breath and think “here it is, the point at which I’m going to start messing up,” but that never happened. Not in quadratics, not even in factoring, my sworn enemy through middle and high school.

Except when I ran out of pastel blue paper and had to switch to white. Then I started making mistakes. Lots of them. When I found some cream colored paper, the mistakes went away. (My overlays are teal, so I usually buy pastel blue or green paper, or cream in a pinch, and those work the best.)

So the color does make a difference. It’s not my personal failing. I am not broken, dumb, or fated to be terrible at math. My brain may be wired differently, but now that I can identify what is going on, I can manage the effects. And I can finally let go of more than 20 years of guilt.

While at my friend’s house, I worked through more than half the book in a week, getting everything right, and understanding it at a level I never have before, largely thanks to my St. John’s inquiry training.

I ended up finishing the rest of the book over the next few weeks, even working on it on the California coast while listening to the waves crashing against the shore. Not a bad place for some math fun. I even solved the last chapter on logarithms, which I never ever could keep straight before, yet on cream colored paper they were suddenly simple. And I had a lot of fun doing it!

I got a couple more math books (secondhand math books are cheap and abundant), and may end up working my way through to calculus, or going on to get a degree in pure mathematics (math is fun!), or finally tackling that physics career. Or none of that.

Maybe I’ll just enjoy knowing that I could do any of that. I really could. Because I am smart enough. And yet, even though my ego has been validated, it paradoxically doesn’t feel as important anymore.

What does feel important is understanding myself much better.

And I feel free in a way that I have not since at least 7th grade.

* * *

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2 thoughts on “20,200 Miles • Math Confessions

  1. I have a tendency to go out and celebrate when I get a breakthrough like you have just described. WOW!!! it may be time to reconsider going back to school. I was over 40 when i went back to school . i am really impressed with your determination to get to the bottom of things, anyone else may have abanded this search long ago. I think that you are proving how smart you are by going on this journey and making these discoveries. I so can’t wait to see you again. LOVE YOU, aunt georgetta

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