Living With an Inability to Do Math

Commentator Daniel Pinkwater has a real problem stemming from childhood: He is incapable of doing mathematics. Teachers called him lazy. But he could read and write like a whiz.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Commentator Daniel Pinkwater once faced hard choices, too. It was back in school, when he says he had a number of loose wires in his head.

DANIEL PINKWATER: There are a number of things most people can do that I just can't. One of my loose wires has to do with arithmetical computation. I think the term is dyscalculia. When I was small, I had incredible difficulty with numbers. Adding and subtracting were painfully difficult for me, and I was not able to learn the multiplication tables. Long division is a mystery to this day.

On the other hand, I had an early facility with language, but it was my complete hopelessness with arithmetic that was the single dominant experience of my young life. The approach taken by my teachers from first grade through high school was that I was lazy, stupid or both. I was punished for not knowing the multiplication tables and kept in during sports and fun activities until I had completed arithmetic assignments, which took me probably four times as long as a normal dullard.

I was teased and abused by the teachers and the kids. It was fairly Dickensian. I knew that because I had read most of his books. In high school, I was not allowed to sign up for algebra nor in fact to take any science courses. The guidance counselor told me I should look forward to a career as a day laborer. I was told not to think about going to college.

I hired a beatnik mathematician who gave me a two week cram course, apparently circumventing those parts of my brain that didn't work regular. Every bit of what he taught me I forgot after taking and doing well on the SAT. I applied to colleges that did not have a math requirement.

I remember my high school homeroom teacher giving me special attention. This consisted of taking me out into the hall and screaming at me. Look at you, you big lumbering slob, she screamed. You aren't even capable of running a newsstand because you can't make change fast enough. You won't even be able to tell if you're being cheated when you get your pay envelope for digging ditches.

She was trying to inspire me to try harder, you see. What, do you think you'll be able to go through life with a tiny calculating machine in your shirt pocket, she screamed. That would be cool, I told her.

NORRIS: Daniel Pinkwater's next novel, The Neddiad, will be published next spring, but you can read it in serial form by going to NPR.org.

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