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"Bad at Math": Learning Disabilities with Numbers

The Man Who Felt Nervous Around Numbers



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a Four Baby Boy

Emergence Techniques Used: Visual Dialogue
Personal Skills Age (estimated age at the time of the original injury): 6
Key(s): deciding which direction to make the "hat" on a five; learning situations, drawing

the "Call"

Brian was the nicest boss I've ever had. One of the most competent, too.

Considering how crazy my temper was back then, he was also something of a saint.

No surprise then that I kept in touch with him long after I left that company. And he with me.

Many years later, Brian called to say he, too, was leaving that company. Retiring actually.

He told me he was calling to ask if we could meet for lunch, that he wanted to "pick my brain" so to speak. When I asked what about, he told me we had once spoken about how I love what I do for a living and that he wanted to feel this way too.

Of course I said yes.

the "Drive"

As I drove to meet Brian that day, my thoughts naturally went back to him and what he was like.

Brian is a very gentle man. And a very genuine man.

He is also a very intelligent man. And someone who is quick to learn.

Somehow, though, despite these good qualities, Brian had never been promoted as far as he seemed to deserve. Promoted? Yes. But promoted as far as you would have thought he would have been? Not even close.

Now if you were to have asked me at the time what I thought had caused this, I would have said that it probably had something to do with Brian's lack of confidence, and that this was something I had never understood. Why?

Brian was not only a good "people person" but also a man who could find solutions for problems far more quickly and more ingeniously than most. Further, he never solved problems at anyone's expense. It just wasn't in him.

No surprise, then, that everyone who worked for Brian liked him. And saw him as a good boss. Only Brian himself didn't see himself this way.

Unfortunately, Brian's bosses probably couldn't get past his lack of confidence either and so, promoted him only up to a certain point; the corporate mentality and all that.

All this was going through my head as I pulled up to the restaurant that day.

the"Lunch"

As is typical for me and my friends, Brian and I quickly progressed from the usual, "Hey, how are you. Good to see you. Remember when..." stuff right to the real deal. Nothing wrong with that. Within minutes then, we were into what was then my current exploration; that "the wound is what you can't see."

As usual, Brian put me first and asked, "What's that?"

Granted, this idea is not an easy one to get. After all, it contradicts the way most normal people think, including for most therapists. Even so, Brian was his usual self; genuinely attentive but acting like he was unable to get it.

This"acting" part was what always got to me. I had never understood this. Why would Brian feel he needed to act like things were beyond his ability? Humility? Maybe a part of it. But there was always something else. Why?

Brian is a very smart man. Above average even. In fact, for many years, he had managed a large number of people in a very demanding job, a large data processing department for a Fortune 500 company. More than once, too, I had seen Brian solve what had at the time seemed to be an insolvable problem.

What I had also often seen though was his never taking credit for how well he solved these problems. Somehow, Brian just couldn't see the true measure of what he did. Except of course if he did something wrong.

What kept him from taking credit? And we continued to talk, this was what kept running through my head.

Finally I asked, "So what are you going to do now, Brian?"

"I'm not sure."

"Is there something that you've always wanted to do but lacked the education to do?"

"I have always liked working with money," he said.

"What about doing financial planning," I asked.

His response? Brian acted like he always did. He hemmed, and hawed, and mumbled, and read the carpet, and begged off, as if what I had just suggested was way beyond his ability to learn.

God, these reactions confused me. Brian was the best boss I had ever had. He was intelligent, likable, and a good manager. And he truly liked working with money. In fact, he truly loved working with numbers period. So financial planning would seem to be a natural for him and a career in which he'd be happy. Yet Brian just didn't seem able to take a firm stand on this, even though he too saw how this might make him happy.

As we went on, then, I continued to ask myself, "What the heck keeps Brian from believing in himself?" What is the "missing piece" we can never see?

Finally, I asked Brian if he'd be willing to let me try to help him discover what was BLocking him; more over that all I was asking him to do was to try to picture a few things.

Brian then looked at me with the oddest mixture of need and uncertainty, and reading the table top, said, "sure."

the"Planner"

Now before I go on, let me add something to what I've already told you about Brian.

Brian is pretty reserved guy. In fact, when it comes to being emotional, he's downright private, more so, when he's out in public.

Brian is also a man who likes to appear professional in public, perhaps a bit too much at times. And here we were, mid afternoon, sitting in a fancy restaurant in earshot of others. And here I was, asking him to do emergence, knowing how easily people can "unzip," often within minutes.

My point? I was a bit worried I would embarrass Brian, that he just might break open in public and that this was not what I wanted to put him through. After all, we are friends, not client and therapist. Can you picture this scene?

After considering this "unzipping" part for a few moments, though, I simply vowed to keep my explorations to something casual. With this in mind, then, I started simply by asking Brian if he could picture his planner in five years. I asked him to picture it and to see if he could see anything written there.

"Just make it up," I said.

Immediately, Brian could see the planner cover and a bit of edge of the pages. But beyond this, he said he couldn't see a thing.

OK.

I then asked him to try to picture the opening the planner. I then asked him to try to picture the day and date printed at the top of the pages.

Here, Brian could picture opening the planner but could just not see the day or date.

Now I figured I'd narrow it down. I asked him to try to just picture the year 2005 and to try to see it in the upper right hand corner of the right page.

Once again, Brian couldn't see any of what I'd asked him to picture. In fact, he couldn't see anything at all.

How strange, I thought. Both Brian and I had been living out of planners for as long as we could remember, Brian longer than I. Yet he couldn't even picture the year on a page. At this point, I knew we had stumbled onto something.

Now I tried changing the year. I asked him to picture the year 2000.

This time, he could do it. With ease, actually.

I then asked him to picture 2001, and again no problem.

We then went through the years 2002 and 2003. Here again, no problems.

But when I asked him to picture 2005, again, he could not do it.

Now I tried the integers themselves, starting at zero.

Again, Brian could see 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4, no problem. And 6, 7, 8, and 9. But he just plain could not picture 5's.

What a weird thing, I thought. He has no problems seeing any integer but 5's. Now I was really sure we were onto something.

Finally I asked Brian to try to imagine drawing a five in the air, a stroke at a time. At first, he struggled a lot and couldn't do it. Finally, though, he burst into tears, and looking down at the table top in shame, he said, "I didn't know which direction to make the 'hat' on the five's."

Oh, my God. All there years Brian had had a BLock with one of the ten digits. No wonder had been struggling with all his life confidence.

More over, no wonder he had been drawn to work in a career which was entirely based around numbers. In fact, one of the departments he managed was the key punch department, wherein operators spent their whole day inputting nothing but the ten digits. They even called their key pad, the "ten key" pad.

As Brian recovered his composure, I asked him to see if he could picture the scene. He then began to tell me more details.

He began by describing the room he was in, a first grade classroom. And that he was six years old.

He told me about the paper with the lines on it and how he remembered struggling to learn to write this number.

Finally, he told me how he in essence had faked his way through this class. And every math class afterwards.

Can you imagine what Brian must have felt like all these years? He felt dumb but never knew why. And all the while, all that had been happening was that he had been reliving that painful moment in first grade, the one in which he came to believe he was bad at math.

What Does All This Mean?

To begin with, at this point, I had never even considered that such a thing could happen let alone how profoundly it could affect someone. At first, then, I though Brian's case might be somewhat unusual. After all, how many people could share this same BLock?

How wrong I was.

Months later, I was eating lunch in a crowded mall, killing time before my next session. As I ate, a young mother approached me and asked if she and her son and daughter could share the table with me. Looking up, I smiled.

"Sure," I said.

Not wanting to intrude, I continued to eat and read. Soon, though, I felt drawn to open up a conversation with them, and as is often the case for me, soon this family and I were engaged in a wonderful talk.

Somehow, as I spoke to the six year old, our conversation turned to school. What did she like about school? What was hard?

I then turned to her brother and asked him the same questions. Soon I learned he was ten year old and already believed he was "bad at math."

Of course, after Brian, I wondered, can it be? Another BLocked digit?

Long story short, I asked the boy if he would be willing to try picturing himself drawing the digits in the air, one at a time. Sure enough, as he went through the numbers, he had trouble drawing one; the number 8. Somehow, he couldn't picture where to begin.

Having learned to recognize this kind of BLock, I found it relatively easy to help him. Within minutes, then, I had helped this young boy to be able to draw 8's in the air. More important, I had helped him to see the beauty in eight's. What do I mean?

Within minutes, this ten year old was showing all the signs of having had an emergence; not only could he easily picture what he had previously been unable to picture; drawing the number 8; but he also was excited and enthused by having gained this ability, so much so, that he continued to want to picture his new discovery. The point. He had genuinely learned to love drawing eight's.

Looking back, now, I wish I had exchanged numbers with this mother, as I never knew how these few moments of emergence had affected her son. Even so, remembering his smiling face is still a wonderful moment.

As for Brian and his BLock with five's, we've spoken to each other a number of times after that day. Each time, Brian tells me he is still finding places in his life wherein the number five had been a sticking point.

More important, even years later, Brian is still amazed and awed by how this seemingly insignificant BLock could have affected his whole character and life. And never fails to tell me no matter how many times we speak.



Books by Steven Paglierani

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