I was around four when my older sister told me if I could color a picture completely inside the lines, she would give me something. I no longer remember what that "something" was, but I remember sitting on the couch with my crayons while my mom cleaned, painstakingly coloring a scene with a snowman. When I showed my sister, she thought mom did it for me.
In Kindergarten, it quickly became apparent that I was advanced for my age. I learned fast and easily remembered what I'd learned. I questioned everything and soaked up all of those answers like a sponge. Over the next couple of years, I was the teacher's pet. I always finished my work before anyone else in class, and earned near-perfect marks. If I fell asleep in class, my teachers simply stacked it up beside me, content that I would have it finished by morning.
By the third grade, my teachers were testing me for the Gifted and Talented Program. I won more awards than I could count, for everything from reading to writing to geography and spelling. I became the kid everyone paraded out, pride shining in their eyes as they revealed my intelligence to other teachers, administrators, parents, families, and complete strangers.
In fourth grade, things changed.
The more advanced the math put before me, the more I struggled. Unless I could memorize the work (like simple addition or the multiplication tables), I couldn't understand it. It was all Greek to me. So were directions. I couldn't tell left from right, but I could recite the entire Declaration of Independence. I couldn't add without using my fingers, but I could read The Iliad to my classmates.
We began to suspect something was wrong, but my parents thought maybe I just wasn't trying. My father pushed me hard, keeping me up late into the night. He was frustrated with me. The more frustrated he grew, the harder it was for me to concentrate on the problems put in front of me.
I received my first B that year. I cried alone in my room for days. I was devastated, certain my parents and teachers would think I was stupid. I worked harder. Sometimes, the math was easier. During those times, I did okay. Others, I didn't understand any of it. I struggled along, embarrassed that what had always come so easy to me had suddenly become incredibly hard.
By sixth grade, we knew for certain something was wrong. I was pulling straight A's in Gifted and Talented courses for all subjects except math, where I was barely passing. I couldn't understand fractions to save my life. My teacher kept me inside at lunch to work with me one-on-one. I still barely squeaked by. I hated it.
When your entire identity as a kid has been wrapped up in your academic performance, failure is incredibly hard to process, let alone deal with. And my identity was very much wrapped up in academics. I was the kid who won contests and wrote awesome stories and won spelling and geography bees and captained quiz bowl and received all sorts of attention and recognition. But I couldn't do a fucking math problem to save my life.
That year, I went to stay with my grandparents in Florida. I was homeschooled while there. When my grandma realized how hard I struggled to comprehend basic math, she pulled out the instructional material from kindergarten and had me start all over from the beginning. I still couldn't understand division or fractions. I still couldn't tell left from right or North from South.
By the ninth grade, I dreaded math to the point that I hated going to school. My teacher that year didn't make it any better. I'd love to say she was compassionate and understanding, but she wasn't. She loved to berate me in front of the entire class, demanding to know how someone so smart could be so stupid. I learned a valuable lesson that year: sometimes, kids are a hell of a lot nicer than adults. They didn't make fun of me. If anything, they rallied around me.
I was in trouble all the time. I showed my ass just so I wouldn't have to go to her class. I hated that I performed so well in everything except math. I learned to hate being called smart, because I knew that, when I couldn't live up to the title, someone would be upset with me. It was easier when there were no expectations, because I wouldn't feel like a bad kid if no one expected me to wow them. My teacher wouldn't yell at me or berate me. She wouldn't relish returning my worksheets with giant red Fs on them. I wouldn't feel humiliation every time she asked me a question and I couldn't figure out how to work the problem, let alone give her an answer, prompting her to scoff, roll her eyes, and ask if I was stupid.
Eventually, my sister, who was in the same class, had enough of how I was being treated. When our teacher started in on me that day, she stood up and spoke her mind. Our teacher fled in tears. My sister was kicked out of her algebra class and was not allowed to be assigned to any of her future classes. The teacher didn't speak to me for the rest of the year unless I spoke first.
All I felt was relief. I managed to squeak by with a very low C.
The next year, I had geography. I excelled in places and totally bombed in others. My teacher took me aside to ask why I was in Gifted and Talented classes in every subject except math, where I was barely surviving a remedial class. I didn't have an answer for her. But she had one for me. Dyscalculia.
I'd never heard that word before, but I had a textbook case.
My brain doesn't see math like other's do. I can learn one concept, but as soon as we move on to something else, I forget what I just learned. No matter how much I practice, I forget. It's like I never learned it at all. I transpose numbers, or skip them. I have to visualize my hand making an "L" to remember which is left and which is right.
I don't know why it took until I was a sophomore for anyone to make the effort to find out what was really going on with me and confirm that I had a learning disability. That diagnosis was a weight off my shoulders and a big blow at the same time. As relieving as it was to know what was wrong, I was terrified I would be yanked out of Gifted and Talented and put in remedial classes across the board. I didn't need them in any subject except math. In fact, during standardized testing that year, I tested high enough IQ wise they wanted me to apply to Mensa despite my struggles with mathematics. I was fifteen. And I didn't have a fucking clue how to solve for X or divide by 9. What was I supposed to do around a bunch of geniuses?
I didn't apply. I didn't feel like I deserved it.
I left public school for an Independent Study program that year. With the brain lesions, I was missing so much school for appointments and illness, they couldn't pass me even though I was on the Honor Roll. I refused to take the same classes twice when I'd already aced them once.
The director of the IS program knew all about my strengths and weaknesses, and she worked hard to ensure I was challenged without pushing me to the breaking point with math. I was embarrassed to tell her the truth, but she did so much to ensure I knew there wasn't anything wrong with me for having a learning disability. I didn't do anything wrong. It didn't mean I was stupid. It was just a part of me. In fact, a lot of very smart people have learning disabilities, she told me. Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, even George Washington had learning disabilities. They were also some of the smartest people in the world during their time.
For the first time in years, I began to enjoy school again. I took astronomy and psychology and classic literature and so many classes I didn't have the opportunity to pursue in public school. And I excelled. No one called me stupid or yelled at me when I couldn't figure out basic math. No one asked why I needed so much extra help with math, but could teach myself any other subject they put in front of me. I began to accept that I didn't have to be embarrassed about being smart, because no one was going to torment or pity me for not grasping mathematical concepts.
With her help, I graduated on time and went on to college.
I spent the months leading up to college algebra on the verge of panic, terrified my professor and classmates would treat me like I was stupid. That they'd laugh at me, or yell at me. It took six tutors, sometimes as much as twenty five hours a week, to get me through college algebra with a low B. My professor knew about my disability and made exceptions for me. If I could show my work one way, but not the way she taught, she didn't hold it against me. She knew how hard I was working, and didn't question it if I could give her the right answer but couldn't explain how I did it. And I couldn't explain it.
I finished college at the very top of my class, summa cum laude, and went on to graduate school. I was one of four students chosen from the entire student body to work as teaching assistants. They didn't care that I couldn't do math, not when it wasn't relevant to what I was studying or to my ability to tutor my fellow students in those same subjects.
In 2012, I finished my graduate degree at the top of my class with a combined 3.96 GPA for all seven years of my schooling (undergraduate and graduate). That same year, I published my first novel. And I began to realize that what I'd gone through had shaped me in some pretty incredible (and devastating) ways.
I still feel a moment of panic when someone asks me to do anything math-related. I still obsessively check addresses and phone numbers to make sure I'm entering them correctly. I still stress when I go to the store because I'm afraid I've done the math wrong and I'll spend more than I can afford or that I'll somehow overdraw the bank. Even when it doesn't happen, I worry.
I'm still learning to accept that it's okay to fail. It doesn't make you stupid. It makes you human. I can't do math, and for a long time, I was made to feel that something was inherently wrong with me because smart people aren't supposed to fail. I failed though. Over and over and over again.
The taunts still linger. I get touchy when someone implies I'm stupid. I'll probably never be okay with people laughing at my piss-poor math skills. But I'm not stupid. And I don't give up. I'm a perfectionist. I am where I am today because I work harder and push myself more than most. For a long time, it's what I had to do to survive.
Now, you'll find me using that drive to do something I love. I write about heroes and heroines who do the same I did for so long: push themselves harder than most to overcome the challenges and obstacles placed before them.
Ayden (or A.K.) lives in the heart of Arkansas with her childhood sweetheart/husband of over a decade, and their five furry minions. She is the author of the Amazon bestselling Ragnarök Prophesies series. When not writing, she spends her time hiking, reading, volunteering, causing mischief, and building a Spork army. Ayden graduated summa cum laude with her Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology in 2009 before going on to complete her graduate degree in CJ and Law. She currently puts her education to use in the social services and CJ fields.
She is the author of six published novels. Her first, FADE, is an Amazon Top 100 Bestseller. Her latest, Rhapsody, pits a ballerina and a DEA agent against a violent drug cartel in a race to save lives and stop a deadly drug from hitting the international market. You can find her here at her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.