Shreya holds an MA in English from the University of Delhi. She is a lifelong bibliophile, daydreamer, and (over)thinker. Her work has appeared on Elephant Journal, Quiet Revolution, The Bombay Review, The Remnant Archive and The Punch Magazine. If she’s not daydreaming, she’s writing; and if she’s not writing, she’s reading. She needs paper and ink like a fish needs water. Shreya is a fiction writer, and this piece reflects her relationship with her dyscalculia.
Aftab tells his daughter, “Seven years ago, I was seven times as old as you were then. Also, three years from now, I shall be three times as old as you will be.” Represent this situation algebraically and graphically.
“And now, class, let’s all look at Aakanksha, who’s in her own world, as usual. Aakanksha, who can never, ever solve any maths problem that’s written on the board.”
The green board in Class X-D seems to give off an unreal glow. The maths problem seems to leap out at Aakanksha, with the white chalk as ominous as a bandage on a head injury. Her brain feels like it’s stuffed with mashed potatoes. Unlike what her classmates and teachers think, she knows exactly what’s going on in her own head. She feels like a deer caught in headlights. Numbers are the lion and she is its prey.
“Aaaa-kaaank-shaaaa!” Veena Ma’am’s voice – so high that it could shatter the windows – pierces through the din of 40 teenagers giggling, smirking, nudging each other and sending furtive glances in her direction. Some of her classmates are openly hostile; others less overt, but just as antagonistic. Aakanksha has grown used to it. She finds it easier to pretend as though she’s floating above all the petty miseries.
She pastes a weak smile on her face and tries to say a few words in response to Veena Ma’am’s taunt, but her heart is pounding far too loudly for her to formulate a coherent response. Aakanksha bites down on her lip so hard that she tastes blood. Her head is swimming. What are those words on the blackboard? None of them are making any sense to her. They might as well be Russian script that she’s just been told to decipher.
“My dear, are you going to sit there looking like a dazed fish out of water all day long? Hurry up and solve the equation on the board before I physically wrench you out of your seat!”
“Y-yes, ma’am. Can I have some time to think about how to approach it?”
“No! You will come up to the blackboard right now, or else…or else I’m going to tell the entire class how disgracefully you’ve performed in the past three assignments and tests. How you almost failed. How your answer sheets are full of nothing but utter rubbish. Honestly, a student like you makes me question why I ever even became a teacher in the first place, you know.”
Murmurs run through the classroom. To Aakansha’s left, a girl is laughing hysterically. She feels a scrunched-up piece of paper hit the back of her head. Startled, she spins around to see who did it, but is met with poker-straight faces. Her own face burning, Aakanksha bends down, picks up the crumpled paper and smoothens it out. The word “loser” is written beautifully, almost calligraphically, in black ink.
The bell chimes. Finally, an end to a long and painful school day. Aakanksha is too distraught to gather her books and walk to the bus stop along with everyone else. All she can replay in her mind – in excruciating detail – is Veena Ma’am grating voice and her threats. She sits on her seat, frozen, until a tap on her shoulder makes her turn around.
“Hey, Akku. What’s the matter? Why are you still here?”
It is all Aakanksha can do not to become a weeping mess in front of her best friend, Niyati. The two of them have known each other since they were giggly six-year-olds. But she knows better than to lie to her. Niyati has always had a sixth sense when it came to sensing Aakanksha’s shifts in mood.
“I swear, Veena Ma’am is out to get me, Niyati. That woman…she’s positively witchy. She’s like Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull brought to life. There couldn’t be anyone in this entire goddamn school who hates me as much as she does!” Aakanksha’s words spill forth with the force of a waterfall. Her stoic expression belies the turmoil that’s churning inside her. She digs her fingernails into her palms and feels some sort of relief. “What have I ever done to deserve this learning disability? Dyscalculia. A seemingly easy-sounding word, but it holds so much weight. Especially now, with my ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression. Why isn’t there anyone who can see me for who I really am – away from these labels?”
“I see you, Akku.” Niyati’s gaze is steady as she looks into Aakanksha’s tear-filled eyes.
Aakanksha sighs. “I know you do, Niyati. I didn’t mean you, specifically. I just… I just wish that our teachers were more understanding. Especially since they have so much experience in dealing with a diverse set of students year after year. I mean, they ought to be trained to spot the signs, shouldn’t they? There are so many other kinds of learning disabilities, apart from dyscalculia. What about students who are dyslexic or have additional sensory and comprehension difficulties? What about the ones with attention-deficit disorder, or ADHD? The ones who are autistic? Are all our teachers completely blind and deaf to this sort of thing that must be talked about so much more than it actually is?” Aakanksha’s shoulders slump and she buries her head in her hands.
Niyati rubs her back gently. She knows that Aakanksha needs the space to air her feelings in a space that is absolutely non-threatening and non-judgemental. “Go on, Akku. Tell me more.”
“What is there to say, really? You’ve seen it all. You’ve seen me struggle with numbers for the past two years. You were there with me as I took all those psychoeducational assessments and bounced around from psychiatrist to psychiatrist. You’ve seen me taking my medication every
day – just to keep my anxiety from spiralling into something uncontrollable and ugly. Week after week, I spend an hour with my therapist, hoping to make sense of my complex feelings and wondering if I will ever be able to resolve them. When will it ever end – the taunts, the
jeers, the sneers? Will I always be filled to the gills with shame and self-loathing? Every time I catch sight of Veena Ma’am from a distance, my heart starts racing and I break into a cold sweat. Every time I even so much as see a maths problem, it’s like I’m being held underwater and can’t come up for air. All those red marks on my answer sheets give me actual nightmares. It makes me feel so fundamentally inadequate…in a way that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t describe.”
“You’re forgetting other aspects of you, Akku. You may have this learning disability. Okay. Since we can’t deny its existence, we can find constructive ways to integrate it into our lives. But… you know what? I want to remind you of last year when you were the youngest to chosen to be on the students’ editorial board, from a pool of 50+ applicants. And the day Jaishree Ma’am called you up on stage to confer that honour on you – that small trophy which has “Positive Personality Trait: Self-Discipline, Class VI” written on it. We were such awkward pre-teens, but I remember you on stage, beaming from ear to ear. And there are so many more memories that are running in my mind like the snapshots of a camera reel. I want you to remember that girl. I want you to remember you. And I need you to know – we all need you to know, all of us who have got your back – that your disability does not define you.”
Aakanksha squeezes Niyati’s hand. “Thanks, Niyati. I truly don’t know what I would do without you. But it’s… unbelievably difficult, you know…? All of it.”
“I know, babe. I know.”
A few days after the incident with Veena Ma’am, Aakanksha is in her favourite corner of the library during break time. That’s the only place she feels safe enough let her entire guard down – around the endless bookshelves that surround her like a cocoon. She knows that these pages, so many thousands of them, would never judge her. They’d never point fingers. They’d never whisper conspiratorially among themselves while giving her dirty looks. They’d never stand on a chair and yell “Whoa, guys! Look what I found – Aakanksha’s Maths assignment. And guess what? She’s got 6/20! Of course, we can’t expect anything more from her, since she wears ugly thick glasses and doesn’t have 20/20 vision anyway!!!”
Books would never do any of that.
Recalling that particular memory makes Aakanksha want to throw up. It had happened around an hour before Veena Ma’am had so cruelly torn into her. What was it about Veena Ma’am and her ability to rip a student’s self-worth to shreds? Did that woman genuinely not care? Of course she didn’t. Her brand of torture specialised in public humiliation and shaming. Aakanksha has lost count of the times that she’s been the target of Veena Singh’s malice. No matter how many times Aakanksha tries to approach her and explain the concept of dyscalculia to her, she is met with either a sneer or a glare: “I know your kind. You’re a lazy, ungrateful,
irresponsible girl. And you’re just making excuses. Now, if you would just apply yourself and learn from your brilliant classmates…”
Once, Aakanksha had come dangerously close to losing her temper and outright yelling at Veena Ma’am. But she’d held her tongue just in the nick of time. The last thing she wanted was to be suspended for having sassed a teacher…a teacher who, admittedly, hated her and brought out the worst in her, but who was a teacher nonetheless. It just wasn’t fair. None of it was.
Aakanksha feels the frustration simmering inside her. It feels like a slow-burning fire. She wills herself to take several deep breaths and focuses on her immediate sensory stimuli. The notebook that she has open in front of her is thick and smooth to the touch. She can hear, somewhere far away, the cry of a peacock. She can see rows and rows of chocolate-brown bookshelves in front of her. She can smell paper and ink. She can taste minty Orbit sugar-free gum.
She breathes and breathes and breathes. Break time ends far sooner than she would like it to. ***
Three years later
“My dyscalculia wanted to teach me something. The message was there all along – in the abysmal grades and marks, the stifled sobs inside the too-cramped bathroom stalls, the migraines that flared up when I looked at a page full of maths problems, the difficult parent-teacher meetings. I didn’t know it then, but the constant discomfort was a key to more patience, tolerance, acceptance and gentleness towards myself. My lack of felicity with numbers does not in any way diminish my worth as a human being. I recognise that learning to accept this truth is a process. And like any process, this, too, will take time. I’m not there yet. But I will get there. Someday.”
Aakanksha’s purple notebook (320 pages, A4, with creamy ruled sheets) and white Pilot pen are her faithful companions everywhere she goes. Over the years – starting at the same time as her diagnosis of dyscalculia – she has come to realise something: that she’s better at writing than at living in the real world. She’s never been more certain of anything but the existence of pen and paper.
And that comfort means more to her than she can ever possibly describe. The existence of numbers will always stir up unsettling flashbacks – but with her words, she’s fearless.
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