I’ve always had a problem with numbers. My brain just can’t handle them. I can’t remember them, add them, subtract them, and I can barely tell time. It’s just this weird thing that I can’t do for some reason. It takes me forever to calculate a tip, or give change. I usually just give the waiter five dollars no matter what I ordered.
When I was little, this manifested itself in timed math tests. I’d stare at a sheet of numbers and watch as the entire class blazed through the problems. My brother Jim was usually the first done, and others would follow, putting their pencil down with a “smack!” as if to say, “I’m DONE!” By the time everyone was finished, I would still be on the first problem.
I never really got down on myself for it. I knew I was smart in other areas. One day, I found a creative way to battle the numbers: I imagined that every number had a tiny dot in it. So for example, the number 2 has two dots. One on the tip of the 2 and one on the bottom end of the 2. “3” has three dots, one on each tip. A 4 has four dots, one on each corner. I did this for every number all the way to 9, which had three small invisible dots, which each needed to be counted three times over. To this day, when I add numbers, I am really just counting tiny dots hidden inside the numbers – it’s the only way I can do it!
Algebra is much easier for me to do. When I got to Algebra in the 7th grade, I was in heaven. It wasn’t so much dealing with numbers, as it was dealing with characters. Like a little cartoon strip, or a movie. All those Xs and Ys jumping all over the place, like a sword fight. The X leaps to the right of the equation, then slides under as the numbers chase it to the other side. He takes out a minus sign and skewers the offending number in half, with the final result revealed, X = 4. It was so obvious to me for some reason.
This number handicap extended itself to other problems in my life. I have trouble with months. To this day, if someone says September, I have no idea what they are talking about. I have to quickly in my brain whisper, “January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September . . . okay, now I know where September is.”
I do this same trick when someone mentions a number in conversation. They might be saying, “So my aunt and her four kids were walking . . .” then I have to quickly in my head go four. What’s four? Okay, 1, 2, 3, 4. Okay now I know what 4 is.
Sometimes a person will say a lot of numbers, and my brain has to work over time. “We went to Valley Fair, and we must’ve gone on eight rides. No, maybe it was seven? Well regardless, we had a free pass for six months, so we ended up going back about fifteen times.” By the time they’re done with the sentence, I have steam coming from my ears.
But the one area where this number handicap has hurt me the most has been in music. I think I have a severe music handicap, where it’s just hard for me to get really skilled at any instrument. Now I know many will protest and say, “No, Joe – you are so amazing at piano!” But they don’t know how hard I work at it. I work extremely hard to produce the most mundane results. And yes, I can play, but it doesn’t come natural to me at all.
I remember when I was little, and my brother and I started taking violin together. I was still on the first book, when Jim shot up to the fifth book. It was like, WHOOSH! It never really made me sad or anything – I just thought of it as some people have talents here, and some people have talents there, and my talents were just hiding somewhere else. I struggled through 10 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) years of violin and viola, only to give it up still on the first book.
But there is something that I have gained from my handicap. Something that someone who is naturally skilled could never have. And that’s the ability to explain things to others who aren’t naturally gifted at music or numbers. I consider it a profound gift that I can get a class of Kindergarteners to conduct better than college freshmen. I find it miraculous that I can ignite a thirst for knowledge in a class of 5th graders. And I always prided myself on being able to teach high school choirs to could convey the emotion and mastery in a piece of music better than I could convey it myself.