Acalculia Anonymous


14 March 2016

I had to get my multiplication tables right. Mom in the kitchen busy making dinner. Dad expected anytime. The doorbell would ring and that would signal the beginning of the evening chores – laying out the plates, having dinner, cleaning up the table and then crash! However it’s the all-inclusive timetable prior to the ringing of the doorbell that has stayed with me. Sitting cross legged on the kitchen floor, with a math book in my hand and dampened senses (at least I made it seems so), I was crying out loud the multiplication tables, striving to memorize it. Any dip in the inflection, tone or for that matter anything that could even distinctly allude to a lack of conviction that 5 x 5 is 25 would mean a repeat recitation!!! The entire event of trying to memorize the scores was turbulent – the pain was not so much in going through the process as much as watching your sibling, the young master at work.. someone, who had gotten the entire thing (dare I say phenomenon) right. A person who could unravel the mystery using a magic wand of some sort. My brother had cracked the Numbers and I hadn’t!! And guess all of sibling rivalry started there… on the kitchen floor!

Every child goes through the process and over time learns to deal with the rivalry and of course in my case of not being able to spin the numbers right through school and what more even through college. For many years, I wasn’t sure of how to deal with the fact that I wasn’t good at something (that something being numbers!!!) that my brother was so good at. He just seemed to know it all and here I was, older than him struggling and ALL that mom did was to get us together to memorize them … the operative word being “together”. Guess, she was the only one who knew what was happening there and the WHY behind it all. The principle for bro was simple – get it right the first time and scoot off with friends. I didn’t realize for long that there was a blueprint at work here.

Years pass,… and there are still times when I live through the image- and this time with a smile. I continue to struggle on what 5 x 5 is! Bro helps me out when I go shopping. All’s well that end’s well.

It was only till a few days back that the image came back – and this time like the brush strokes of a water color painting – emerging out of the shadows of some secret fissure. The process that for so long I had struggled with explaining to my colleagues, co-workers and to so many who have sought an answer to the ‘concept of differentiation’! I was struggling through a position paper on Performance Management, the famous (or should I say infamous Bell Curve) when the image of me sitting on the kitchen floor, next to my brother rang out aloud. And with that, the years that followed of me struggling through the maze of numbers. As if like an impulse, my experience of that many years back seemed to be the most logical of moments that I have had. I had been struggling for the last so many years explaining to so many people the need for differentiation through the bell curve – In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rival because they succeed in adapting themselves best to the environment. Darwin had come to my rescue to explain the so called rational basis of why my brother could do what I couldn’t. He had figured it all out… and I hadn’t – and this difference was the only thing that mattered to me THEN. A figment of an idea that explained the emotion of anger and perhaps jealousy too.

My mother, on the other hand, ignored Darwin and had played the calculus card. Differentiation was a method by which one could find the derivative for a ‘function’ at any point. Mathematically speaking, one could look at a derivative geometrically (as the slope of a curve) or the physical way (as a rate of change). The slope of a curve translates to the rate of change and the way one could find both is the derivative. She had banked on everything possible that could influence the slope of my learning curve and thereby bring in that change in me.

The math / derivative has played itself out in its entirety. Everything required by the definition was true. And considering that everything was true, therein was an example of the concept – of a positive differentiation. Not once had she tried to push, cajole or pressurize the learning process. I had gathered over a period of time, the motivational factors that governed my brothers learning process, learned that it was not just a brush of luck that he had gotten the process right. It was a well thought through function / a derivative that got him out of the kitchen ASAP. He was in the moment playing out in his head what he needs to do ‘now’, the speed with which it needs to be done to ensure he is elsewhere the next moment.

I had unconsciously perhaps embedded that process in many other facets of my academia. His ability to be ‘in the moment’ irrespective of what he did – memorized the multiplication tables of the famous speech of Mark Antony, actively skimmed through the voluminous books of Irving Wallace or narrated the humor of Jeeves is something that has stayed with me. I see him today with his daughter in his arms – so totally in the moment....

The feeling of dislike towards math which got directed towards a sibling, had translated itself over a period of time to a change in me – the beginning of a slope that branched off on its own. There is no need to work twice as hard to be as successful. There is no glass ceiling. Guess, I have learned to live in the moment too since then. I have realized it just now. There is the new fangled approach now to the bell curve which I could perhaps propagate – all born on that kitchen floor at some point of time in the past. I need to flesh the ingredients out well.