I will never forget that awful day in fifth grade when my teacher—a miserable wretch of a person who never should have been allowed in a room full of 10-year-old kids, let alone in a school—announced to the class that I was flunking math “because Arnie doesn’t know his times tables.
I felt deep shame—but also rage at this man for turning what should have been my personal business into public knowledge. Was humiliating me before my peers going to make me a better student? No. Math was difficult for me. I was desperate and relied on the original calculator used by generations of students: counting out numbers on fingers hidden beneath the desk. But to my dismay, I had only eight fingers and two thumbs. I needed more than ten digits, but I couldn’t remove my shoes to add in my toes.
I had other number and spatial-related issues. For years I couldn’t tell time off an analog clock. While other kids picked up on the skill by the end of first grade, I managed to sidestep that proficiency for another six years, somehow faking my way through it until I finally able to master the coordination of hour hand, minute hand, and second hand. As another example, I was always confusing left from right—and still do. I couldn’t read a map, which meant geography was another difficult subject.
Different, Not Stupid
I have dyscalculia, a learning disability when it comes to numbers. Of course, back when I was a kid, dyscalculia wasn’t a “thing.” If you weren’t good in math, a basic element of school, you were written off as stupid. I knew I wasn’t dumb. But it was frustrating to be struggling while the other kids at school seemed to get through mathematics with ease.
I didn’t get the dyscalculia diagnoses until well into adulthood. When a doctor explained it to me, I felt both relieved and vindicated. Now I knew why I couldn’t do my times tables and confused left from right. I often reverse the digits in my head but don’t catch it, another symptom of this learning disability. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve driven to a destination miles from where I’m supposed to be, all because I couldn’t write down the address without unconsciously flipping numbers and not catching my mistake.
Today when people give me a telephone number, I transcribe the numerals in large block print lest I get it wrong. I’ll ask a customer service person to repeat a credit card number I provide, just to make sure we get it right. Checks are another matter. Once a utility company overcharged me by a significant amount. It turned out I wrote out the proper figure on the check line but flipped the digits in the numbers box. The powers-that-be at Weecheatum Utilities decided that rather than inquire about the discrepancy they would just go with the higher figure. I spent hours on the phone trying to straighten out the situation.
After fifth grade and my consistent failing math scores, it only got worse. High school algebra was a nightmare, with all its X’s and O’s and parentheses and lines and arrows. Somehow, I passed (it is a memory blur on how that happened). Next, I was shoved into a geometry class. I might just as well have been forced to read ancient Greek without a dictionary, a fitting analogy as the geometric disciplines were pioneered by Euclid of Alexandria in the third century B.C.E.
Within in a matter of weeks, I was not only failing geometry: I failed to understand why I was required to take it. I wrestled with pedagogy, trying to justify why geometry would be helpful to me. I couldn’t come up with an answer. Why was I was required to take a class where the odds of my failing were one hundred and ten percent? If you know math better than me (and you probably do), you know that there can only be one hundred percent of anything.
By senior year, after taking and retaking geometry, I finally found a holy grail that relieved my arithmetic quandaries, courtesy of afternoon programing on my local public television station. You may be thinking “Aha! He’s watching an advanced form of Sesame Street.” You’d be wrong, as wrong as I was every time I miscalculated something like A = π×r2.
Voilà! Le cinema.
No, my broadcast savior was films of La Nouvelle Vague (or The French New Wave) directed by Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut. In the stone age before cable or streaming, my local PBS station, WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago, would show these films at 2:00 in the afternoon. This was a time conflict with my last period of the day, Mr. Weidel’s geometry class. I was of that impressionable age when romance of cinema (and not “movies”) pulsated throughout my very being. I devoured books of critical analysis by Andrew Sarris and his cronies. Why should I care about the incomprehensible formulas and theorems when there was À bout de souffle, Les Quatre Cents Coups, and Jules et Jim (Breathless, The 400 Blows, and Jules and Jim to those plebians stuck in the classroom). My real problem to solve was how could I get out of geometry and head home, while my parents were at work and the television was waiting?
Note from Self
The answer was easier than I expected. This was the age when all you needed to get out of class was a bonafide note signed by a grownup saying that you could not be there. Thus began my foray into adulthood as I signed my name “Mr. Bernstein” for the first time. My missives were simple:
“To Whom It May Concern
Please excuse Arnie from class. He cannot be there.
Sincerely, Mr. Bernstein.”
Technically speaking this was true: I was Mr. Bernstein, and I couldn’t be in geometry class. No need to explain that Jules et Jim took precedence. I skittered out of the school building, jumped on my bike, hurried home to the empty house, switched on my TV, and was swept away. Whereas trapezoids frustrated me, Jules et Jim transported me. It was an intellectual plane not to be found in any math class. I knew what was important to my overall education, and it didn’t require protractors or slide rules.
Somehow, I passed geometry (again, just how I did it is lost to memory). On graduation day I confessed my crime. My mother was furious, but I just laughed. “Mom,” I told her, “Someday you’ll see that watching Jules et Jim was better for me.”
Minus as a Plus
Still, I was not done with mathematics. In college I had to take a statistics course. Again, the numbers confused me, the formulas were a struggle, and I wondered once again why I was being forced into a situation that was less of a learning process and more of a sixteen-week exercise in frustration. When I came home that semester, I told my parents “I’m getting a D in statistics and you’re going to like it.” Imagine my surprise when my report card arrived with a bright and shiny C in statistics. It was as though I had earned not just an A, but the best A ever for any student of statistics at any university.
Years later my parents and I saw Peggy Sue Got Married, Francis Ford Coppola’s magical realism film about a woman (Kathleen Turner) who is transported back to her high school days, though she remains fully aware of her adult self. In one scene she dawdles during an arithmetic test, scribbling and doodling rather than answering complex problems. When her teacher sees this test and asks her what is the meaning of this, she responds “I happen to know that in the future I will not have the slightest use for algebra, and I speak from experience.” I shot an elbow into the ribs of my mother, who was sitting next to me. She got the message.
All this to say, that while my learning disability has been a lifelong source of frustration, I’m good with it. I grew up in an era where dyscalculia and its close cousin dyslexia weren’t considered “things.” If you didn’t do well in a subject, you either were not applying yourself or were just plain stupid. I knew I wasn’t stupid and that there was no sense in applying myself to something that was clearly not part of my destiny. I was different, and that was okay. Complex equations were something beyond my abilities. So what if I inadvertently reversed numbers or had to think twice about differentiating between left and right. If I could do simple math, like balancing a checkbook with the aid of a calculator, I would live a happy life. And yes, Mr. Fifth Grade Teacher Whose Name Who Shall Be Wiped from the Earth, I still cannot do my times tables. Stick that in your ear and multiply it.
Fin and Fine
As for my love for Nouvelle Vague cinema: it paid off years later when I was asked to provide entries for a definitive encyclopedia of French film. I wrote about Jules et Jim, Les Quatre Cents Coups, and other films and filmmakers I still love. In the end, young Mr. Bernstein was right. I couldn’t be in school as I had more important lessons to learn, ones that were intended to be part of my future. It would just take the rest of the world a few years to catch up to this wisdom.