I recently read a very interesting feature in one of the national papers. It was about dyscalculia - a condition described as a specific learning difficulty for mathematics, or, more appropriately, arithmetic. 'Recognition at last,' I thought - because although everyone these days knows about dyslexia, very little is acknowledged about those of us who have similar problems with maths. And, as the author of the feature said, whereas dyslexia elicits sympathy and (usually, I hope, these days), understanding - if you mention being useless at maths it normally just seems to make people snigger.
The author of the feature was a woman - a professional writer - who had difficulties with numbers herself, although she mentioned that she had managed to get a GCSE in maths at school, which I could never have done in a million years. I know this for a fact because at my (very academic) grammar school, I was deservedly placed in a small exclusive group for those considered such no-hopers in maths that we weren't even allowed to attempt 'O' level. Instead, we were all given a 'basic arithmetic' test which was supposed to give us a mediocre kind of qualification that at least proved we could weigh our cookery ingredients and make curtains. Although this kind of sexism was still rife in the 1960s, I have to say my school was generally not like this at all, encouraging us girls to aim for university and 'careers', (albeit there were fewer career choices available for us than there have been for girls in more recent decades, and certainly less pay than for boys!). However, the maths teaching staff must have decided my little group of remedial maths girls deserved nothing better than curtain making and cooking from recipes - neither of which I've ever particularly enjoyed, to this day.
I tried my best with that test, honestly I did, but even those questions I knew how to work out took me so long, I got less than halfway through the paper in the time. My result was a miserable 29% and nobody was particularly surprised. I knew I wasn't stupid, because I'd always been very good at English, and reasonably good at foreign languages - I got A levels in English and French. I'd passed the 11-plus, so I must have got a fair proportion of the arithmetic questions right at that time, but I can still remember that it was at about this age I began to have panic attacks in the classroom when doing 'mental arithmetic', and particularly 'problems' (involving a bewildering combination of words and numbers concerning, for instance, how many men it might take to mow a lawn of a certain size, or how long it might take a train to get from A to B if it stopped at 15 stations).
So I can say with some degree of certainty that my maths ability is about that of a 10 to 11 year old. From that age on, it was all downhill, Long division is still a mystery to me, sums involving pounds shillings and pence used to bring me out in hot sweats, (thank God for decimalisation), and how anyone can add two numbers together without using 'carrying figures', I fail to understand.
In some ways I do manage better now I'm older. For one thing, I thank God I was forcibly made to learn my 'times tables'. I never have to work out what 12 times 12 is, for instance, because it's glued into my memory. And in the same way, over the years I've learned that, again for instance, half of 50 is 25, half of 100 is 50, and so on, so I don't have to wonder how to work these things out. So I'm not completely useless with everyday money situations, although larger amounts still remain difficult. I have to count their digits to work them out.
I've never been allowed to forget one occasion when my friends rather foolishly allowed me to take control of 'doing' the bill after a night out in a restaurant. We'd all had a few drinks and nobody wanted to do it, but I must have had the most to drink or I'd never have agreed. I couldn't make the amount right, no matter how many times I tried - I didn't have enough, and had to ask everyone to put in some more money, and then some more again. Nobody seemed to mind, and finally I seemed to have the bill and the tip covered. I felt quite proud of myself. It wasn't till the middle of the night when I woke up with a sudden shock, that I realised why I'd been short - I hadn't paid for my own meal!
Of course, in today's world we maths dunces are lucky - we have calculators, we have Excel spreadsheets, we don't have to do the hard stuff in our heads. Perhaps I do genuinely have dyscalculia and deserve more sympathy. Or perhaps it's simply that the 'Language' part of my brain is much more developed than the 'Numbers' part. Or it might be because of the flashbacks to my schooldays, the feeling of dread on days when we had double maths lessons, the humiliation of never knowing how to do the wretched calculations, the shaky, panicky feeling when it was my turn to have a question fired at me in class. Whatever the reason, I've never lost my horror of having to deal with sums. Just looking at a page of numbers gives me the creeps. Doing my tax return - even though in the logical part of my brain I know it isn't actually very difficult to do, on-line - is an ordeal every year.
So all I can say to the taxman is: if we self-employed people are going to be expected to do our returns four times a year in future, shouldn't there be some concession for people like me? I'd be spending half my life worrying and putting off looking at all those figures. How about, on medical grounds, 'prescribing' an accountant's services for all dyscalculics? Not too much to ask, is it ... but then again, how much is too much? I wouldn't know!