by Aries Hines
For eleven thousand, three hundred and seventy eight days of my black, queer, fierce femme life, I’ve battled with how easy it was for me to get lost. While in school, math treated me worse than my first love and my favorite x, worse than I could ever treat myself. With every math class I encountered, I felt insecure, incapable, ashamed and, eventually, painfully accustomed to failure. The stress I experienced was traumatic and unnecessary; so, today, I stand here, with red lips and open arms, sharing my experience with learning disability realness. No one ever told me dyscalculia existed until it was taking over my life.
Math was the thing I ran from, even as a child—math, steak, and bras. Every math teacher, math test, math homework assignment, math answer read aloud in front of the class was my unending, head in the toilet, worms down my pants, bully. No matter how hard I studied, how much homework I reviewed, or how many days I stayed late with the teacher, I had to come home and show my mother my failures. I failed every math class my entire life, and passed everything else with such ease it looked like I wasn’t even trying. I loved reading the dictionary, caressing the covers of books I planned to buy, and spending hours in the library. Education was my favorite wonderland.
* Standardized Failing
It’s the spring of 2005, junior year, and I love college; I wear cut off tops doing my best Aaliyah, make chocolate chip cookies for my hall mates, and start to feel pretty. My heart and mind open to all forms of knowledge. Then, a standardized test changes my life. I pass every section, except for math, with flying colors, and I fail every math course that allows me to opt out of testing. Eventually, I get motivated, pay a tutor on my cereal and Rice-A-Roni budget, create my own workbook from various online resources, and regularly review the material. Still, I fail the same standardized test every 31 days, can’t take any upper level courses, can’t graduate. I feel caught between the system and my desire to attain my degree, and began to wonder why standardized testing was created and who its supposed to serve. During WW1, the United States was experiencing its 1st Industrial Revolution and, because there was no standard educational system, standardized testing was created to level the scoring for both student and educator. Today, standardized testing keeps me, and other students like me, in the margins.
I decide to get tested for a learning disability because there are no other options and I refuse to quit school. The cost of testing is covered by my financial aid and it takes 3 days, 2 hours per day. I’m 22 years old, sitting in a small office in St. Petersburg, Florida, and my mother is holding my hand. I fear that if he says I have a learning disability, my mother will let go of my hand and, possibly, me. The words come out of his mouth like Hello or Goodbye, “this was easy, you definitely have a learning disability.” My mother only holds my hands tighter. I am diagnosed with Dyscalculia, a Latin word that translates to a dysfunction in mathematics. Dyscalculia is the sister to dyslexia; instead of transposing letters, people with dyscalculia confuse numbers, directions, spatial distance, sequence, coordination, and time among other things. Each person’s experience is different.
*Race and Disability
As a queer, African American woman, I am consistently judged by my abilities, my language, my memory, and what the world believes to be inscribed on my body and in my history. I work twice as hard so there’s never a question about my intelligence or integrity, carry my invisible disability with me like a razor hiding in my mouth. It is my secret and my weapon. Despite the work I have done to love and embrace myself, I, have faced ridicule and denial when I tell other adults—friends, lovers, colleagues, employers. Because of misogyny people transpose their stereotypes on my person and conflate them with the integrity of my struggles. Racism attempts to turn my disability into laziness, just as it did when I was child and my teachers didn’t consider testing me for a disability. For anyone similarly struggling in their education or watching their children struggle, I’m writing this so you know that disability is a real possibility. Finding out that I had a learning disability came with a lot of stigmas to deconstruct; I questioned my own intelligence, my sexiness, my social value as a friend. But, on the other side of those questions, I recognized my resilience, the intricacy of my beauty, the potency of my self-love. I’m not a stereotype. I’m not a failure. I work hard and I deserve opportunities to succeed. If someone could’ve said these words to me when I was 8 or 10 years old, they may have empowered me to be more open to my ability to succeed in the classroom. So, I stand here, in solidarity, hoping you tell your story, too.
I’d be lying if I said the experiences of dyscalculia end with childhood and math tests. It’s an everyday frustration, ripe with anxiety, spatial misdirection, poor coordination and athletic failure. Its means that in an aerobics class, an 8 count is excruciating for me. While most people are letting their bodies feel the rhythm, I am counting, flailing. I have to see exactly how the counts work. When it comes to coordination, I look like the tin man low on oil. Dyscalculia means that when I lived in Oakland, I called my girlfriend every day to ask which Bart trains would get me home. It means I can drive down the same road 50 times, but if I haven’t done it in a while, it’s likely that I’ll get lost and not remember how I got there at all. It means that one wrong turn gets me lost for 30 minutes to an hour. It means my memory can be a trickster or a warm blanket.
*Coping and Battling
These days, I plan my trips to new areas the night before and I talk myself through the directions so new street names are recognizable to me; I need to do this in order for my GPS to be effective. It takes me three years to feel comfortable getting to most places in a new city, and even then, there are still plenty of incidents where I take a wrong turn, where my brain feeds me the wrong memory, where nothing in front of me makes sense and it feels like I’m drowning. I’ve learned to breathe, to calm down, to call myself stupid only 20 times instead of 100. I have friends and family that I can call when the moment rushes through my body, when the trauma of being lost is still ringing in my voice.
I am like origami paper learning to bend and shape into something beautiful. The most important coping skill I’ve learned is NOT blaming myself. This is not my fault. If you struggle with learning, it’s not your fault either. I write this battle cry for all people who feel stranded in the educational system, for people fighting for their futures or just fighting their memories to get home. I hear you. I see you. I believe in you. I am a queer, African American woman with a learning disability and this is my battle cry.
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Aries Hines is a writer, fierce femme, and mermaid. She holds an MFA in Poetry that looks good on paper. She has a ridiculous amount of books and loves nebulas, burritos, cable TV, and NPR. Her work explores race, identity, queerness, and family. She is currently at work on her memoir “Failed Daughter, Failed Scholar” and resides in San Diego.