Gifts in Disguise
By Christine Gunderson
The best gift I ever received was a total surprise. The package was deceiving. It didn’t look like a gift. It looked like a disability.
I opened this gift in first grade when I brought home a math worksheet covered in red ink. My parents sat down and patiently explained what I did wrong. I filled in the correct answers and went back to school, confident the problem was solved. But that was just the beginning of my lifelong struggle with numbers.
I can’t do algebra. I can’t remember dates or phone numbers or zip codes. I have trouble reading the hands on an analog clock. Don’t ask me to hang pictures, because I won’t read the tape measure accurately. And I never use maps because I just can’t read them.
My brain also assigns genders and personalities to numbers. Yes, I know this isn’t normal. Six is a beautiful ingénue and eight is rugged and handsome, sort of a numerical Marlboro Man. Six and eight are destined to be together but nine is an evil and jealous witch who tries to keep them apart.
This made math difficult when I was in elementary school. Every long division problem was like an episode of Days of Our Lives.
For a long time I thought I was weird. Or, perhaps, just not very smart. Then about a year ago, someone told me about a learning disability called dyscalculia.
Wikkipedia describes it this way:
“Dyscalculia is a difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic…Dyscalculia can occur in people from across the IQ range—often higher than average—along with difficulties with time, measurement and spatial reasoning.”
This is me. If learning disabilities held pageants, I would be Miss Dyscalculia. But my struggles with math, maps, rulers and clocks took place back in the 70’s and 80’s, way before we knew about things like dyslexia or dyscalculia. There wasn’t a way to fix it. So I just accepted that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be good at math.
This is the gift.
I’ve never been confused about what I should do with my life because I knew that I should not, under any circumstances, even attempt to become an astronaut, a physicist, an accountant or a mathematician. I learned to focus on the things I can do, like writing. And talking. I’m great at talking. Just ask my husband and kids.
I became a television reporter and then a press secretary on Capitol Hill. They told me there would be no math in these occupations and they were right. I loved my work. I had the gift of knowing what I shouldn’t do.
Over the years I’ve seen many smart, talented people struggle to find their passion. They’re cursed with the ability to do everything well. Nothing is off the table. Anything is possible. But how do you identify your strengths when you excel at everything you try?
I’ve never had that problem. My inability to do math is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. It’s given me clarity and focus.
Yes, it’s humbling to fail at things other people find easy, like reading a map. It’s embarrassing to admit that by the time my kids reach fifth grade I can no longer help them with their math homework.
But I know my strengths and I don’t take them for granted. I’m grateful to be with good words since I’m so bad with numbers.
Writing plays to all my skills. I’m clumsy and hate to exercise. But this is now an asset, because writers are required to sit in a chair for hours at a time moving nothing but their fingers.
I excel at this.
I’m also grateful to have found writing because it led me to other writers, many of whom can’t do math either. I found my tribe. My people. Just don’t expect us to split a check and figure out the tip. That’s what engineers are for.
So if you’re talented at everything you attempt, you have my sympathy. But if you have an area of struggle, rejoice and be glad. Sometimes our limitations are priceless.