'I Couldn't Do Math, a Surprising Diagnosis Revealed Why'

As a young child in Long Island, New York, I struggled to learn how to count. I relied on my fingers to get from one to ten, but what happened after my pinky went down was a mystery. Without physical representation, I couldn't conceptualize the difference between "five" and "six" in my head. My classmates entered their twenties and thirties at a fast rate. They added and subtracted with ease, while I remained stuck at eleven.

I asked my teacher why the numbers disappeared once I reached ten.

"They don't disappear," she said, brows furrowed. "They keep going forever."

But when does forever end? Infinity felt as if I was standing at the edge of a cliff, watching the digits fall into a void without a bottom. At what point did I get to stop grasping for an answer that would never come? Unlike words, these shapes didn't carry any fixed definition. They arrived entirely unaccompanied by any familiar image, lacking the heavy weight necessary to hold a thought down in my memory. Numbers were like hummingbirds that zipped through the skyline of my consciousness before I could see their full shape or understand their purpose.

If a teacher told us to imagine an orange, I saw the fruit. But say two plus four, and nothing manifested. I confused pluses and minuses with multiplication and division symbols. My brain became the throbber on a computer as new data struggles to load. It felt like my classmates were hardwired to operate on the most advanced system available, with instant solutions to their complex equations, and I was stuck as a glitchy rainbow wheel that wouldn't stop spinning.

In second grade, I couldn't memorize any math at all. I received special help with math in elementary school and I got my first tutor, one of eight, at the age of seven. These tutors remained, one after another, until I was 20 years old.

Soon, the length of homework we were assigned every night began to exceed my limits. I would labor for hours over worksheets that should have only taken forty minutes. I felt stupid because I needed more help than my peers on what should have been simple problems. This feeling amplified when I overheard classmates complain about how easy the work was.

Lara Boyle Struggled With Math
Lara Boyle struggled to comprehend math and numbers growing up. It wasn't until seventh grade that she received a diagnosis. Lara Boyle

"We could go over the problem, step-by-step, a thousand times," A tutor said to me once, at the end of a challenging session. "But each time you start over, it's like you're seeing it for the first time." We had spent an hour determined to finish my worksheet. There was a page full of questions. By the end, we only got to finish one.

My difficulties extended beyond school. One example of this occurred when I was 10. I had somehow acquired a $20 bill. My younger brother offered me five singles in exchange for my meager sum. I stared at my single slip of green paper, then back his impressive fortune. In a brilliant moment of deductive reasoning, I decided to make the deal. We shook hands. I grinned, thrilled to have finally outsmarted him. Not once during this exchange did it ever occur to me to check the little number on the corner near the face of Andrew Jackson, which, I would soon learn, determined the real value of money far more than the physical amount of currency you possessed.

My mother bought me an abacus to help me understand the value of numeric quantities. I can still feel the turn of the plastic beads as I spun them, the momentum of a concept moving faster than my comprehension of it. I knew their colors: blue, red, beige, green, yellow, not their meanings.

I just didn't get it.

My mom referred to my issues as "math amnesia." We didn't know how else to describe the loss of information I would re-learn every lesson. I was constantly playing catch-up, because as the expectations for my memory increased, my ability to succeed decreased.

In middle school, you were required to know foundational concepts to be able to complete multi-step equations. I ended up in remedial algebra, trying to reach the average skills for a sixth grader. We used blocks, calculators and cheat sheets to try to help me reach this point. I never surpassed a child's range of abilities.

Yet I took detailed notes in class. I watched the same Khan Academy videos on loop. I attended every extra help session I could. My dad and brother were always great at math, so I wondered why I hadn't inherited the same skills. Despite my best efforts, I continued to fall behind. In seventh grade, I failed the first month of algebra at my public junior high school.

I don't think anyone who knew me ever believed I would ever be able to attend a four-year college, besides my parents. My mom pulled me out of the public school I was attending and enrolled me in a small, private middle school where she hoped my chances of success would increase. I continued to stray two to three years behind my expected abilities.

Lara Boyle Struggled With Math
Stock image. Lara Boyle struggled with math from as early as learning to count to ten. Getty/iStock

At the sight of an analog clock, panic rose and fell in my chest. I forgot to turn in projects because I couldn't comprehend the reality of their deadlines. I bought a planner to fix the problem. But on the rare chance I looked at the numbers I circled, whether they were two days, two weeks, or two months away from the present moment, it didn't mean anything until the actual date arrived.

My headmaster only suggested that there might be something at the root of my struggle with numbers after he noticed a disparity between my excellent grades in history and English and my poor marks in anything related to math. In my geology class, I successfully memorized facts and information, such as the periodic table, so long as there were no formulas or mathematical equations involved. Why could I recall specific information about historical figures and complex works of literature but not the most simple arithmetic theories? At the end of seventh grade, I eventually got tested for a learning disability.

I wasn't stupid. I had dyscalculia.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), dyscalculia is a learning disability that "affects an individual's ability to do basic arithmetic such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Adults with dyscalculia often take longer when working with numbers and may be more prone to making mistakes in calculations."

I thought this would mean people would understand my dilemma. But instead, I was removed from the class where the rest of the kids in my grade studied algebra to a single room so I could sit in the hallway with my laptop and watch pre-made videos about basic foundational concepts without any help to understand them.

I switched high schools twice before I met someone who understood my disability. First to a private school, then back to a public institution. At that school in Long Island, I met Mrs. Ritchie, a specialist in learning disabilities. With her support and guidance, I passed my math classes.

She broke down problems in an accessible manner I could understand. She used visual representations and connected the subject back to real life examples to make them seem less abstract. I don't think any other teacher believed I could get into a four-year college except her. They only saw me for my weaknesses. Mrs. Ritchie focused on my strengths.

Then, during junior year of high school, I moved to Waxhaw, North Carolina. My third high school in three years.

"It would be a big ask for her to attend community college," My high school advisor in North Carolina told my mom. His southern drawl dripped like molasses in the conference room.

"With those grades, I don't see how she'll be able to succeed in academia."

"It's great that you want to be a writer," he said to me privately, "But you should consider vocational school. Something a little more hands on might be better for you."

I applied to three in-state universities and got rejected due to my poor math scores on the SAT. I didn't see why it mattered if I wanted to major in creative writing, but everyone else did.

Lara Boyle Struggled With Math
Lara Boyle received a diagnosis of dyscalculia after struggling with math for years as a child. Lara Boyle

My mom and I spoke on the phone to the director of one of these institutions and he told us that, "If you had dyslexia, we could take you, but we don't know enough about your disability to help you as a student." She spoke to a civil rights attorney, who said we would probably win for a discrimination over this claim, but it wouldn't get me where I wanted to be, so it wasn't worth it. Instead, I spent a semester at a community college taking computerized remedial math.

Then, halfway through my freshman year in 2020, I transferred to my current institution because of one person.

At Queens University of Charlotte, the director of Student Accessibility Services at the time, Dr. Cort Schneider, had not just heard of dyscalculia before, he understood exactly what it was and how to help me follow my dreams with my learning differences.

Since then, I have been on the dean's list every semester as a creative writing major. Dyscalculia taught me a lesson in overcoming not just my own challenges, but the low expectations of others.

It had seemed important to be good at math because the whole world runs on numbers. Figuring out distance, shopping, baking, managing money. Tips, taxes, time. All of this requires math.

Now, I am determined to make it as a writer and thrive in academia by pursuing my passion for literature, rather than focus solely on my deficits in mathematics. The education system should not operate as a standardized formula with a single solution. You have to take into account every variable to solve for "x."

And there can be more than one correct answer. My "x" turned out to be dyscalculia. I wish I could go back in time and tell my teachers that my worth as a student is not defined by my bad grades, but in my desire and willingness to learn. They believed I failed to learn the right way. But I just need to be taught differently to achieve success.

Lara Boyle is a writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can follow her on Instagram @laraboylewrites and Twitter @laraboylewrites

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.