Terror of Numbers

 There are all kinds of phobias in the world. One of them is the fear of numbers, sometimes called numerophobia, other times arithmophobia. I think I've got both.

I've told you before that I think in pictures, see Thinking in Pictures. Just writing that sentence causes a mental of image of me with an empty picture frame above my head. Yeah, it's that bad. So here is another window into my tiny (and oh so strange) mind. The way my mind works, numbers have always been a very hard thing for me to grasp. When I was in kindergarten I remember mentioning to my dear teacher, Ms. Boyle, that all my "finger numbers" were a family. That meant that on my left hand, the pinkie through the first finger were the children, from littlest to biggest. The thumb was moma. The thumb on the other hand was daddy (put your hands side by side, touching, and they are turned toward each other like they are talking). Pointer finger, or number seven, was an obnoxious aunt. Why, I'm not sure. Hey, it's what they are, I didn't get to choose! Middle and ring finger were a grandma and grandpa and the remaining pinkie was an uncle. Why weren't the aunt and uncle together? Why was the uncle the smallest? Why are you asking me- I just told you that it was just the way things are!
All was well when math was simple enough to think in pictures. 10 apples, take away 4 apples, leaves how many apples? I could see all that in my mind, including the lanky boy that looked a lot like my buddy, Aaron, who took said apples. I didn't do great with multiplication, but I managed to memorize the table so I could pass 4th grade. I could do long multiplication and division just fine, and it made sense. I just couldn't, and can't, remember the times table  from sevens up. Seven, that recalcitrant aunt! It's a good thing I can memorize just about anything long enough to pass tests. Other things I was required to memorize, things that were enjoyable, I still know. Ask me to recite the first page of Canterbury Tales in Old English. It's been 20+ years and I still can.

I passed algebra 1 and 2, again by memorizing. I remember the man who was my teacher the second year. I absolutely loathed the class and did the very least that I could get away with to pass with decent grades. One day he caught me after class, and he said he knew I didn't enjoy algebra. Would I like to be tutored so I could do it better and more easily? I firmly believe that one must tell the truth, but as kindly as possible in these situations. I told him NO, I appreciated the offer, but I didn't want to get to know it any better. Then I sat patiently while he worked through a variety of surprised and uncertain expressions until he gave me permission to go. Poor man. He was very nice.
Money is especially hard for me. It has no meaning at all. You can say 10,000 or 100,000 dollars and no pictures come up for me, not even an item of that monetary worth. It has been alternately a blessing and a trial for my husband. You might think that with no mental relevance to money that I would spend it like water. However, I am so frugal that I can get two weeks of groceries on next to nothing. That is a good thing. But when my hubby used to come home and tell me what a big job he was getting and how much money he would make on it, I would smile big and nod vigorously. But he could tell by my vacant look that I no idea how much he was talking about. I'm sure it was less than thrilling for him to share. 

So, what do you think would be the worst possible job for a nincompoop- I mean person- like me? It would probably involve numbers and money, with a little nervous pressure like a cherry on top. Perhaps someone who runs the register at a busy restaurant? Jackpot! That's what I do on Fridays. Don't blame me, I swore I would never have anything to do with taking money and making change; I would dig ditches first. But then moma's knees got too bad for her to stand all day at the Spoon. She was going to train me in, so I could be a back-up. But it soon turned into every Friday. I can't complain, it is the sweetest little restaurant, and I actually enjoy getting out of the house for the day and seeing folks (gasp, did I just say that?!). And I have the nicest boss ever. But I keep telling her she needs to can me and get someone who can count at the register.
It really is like a tragic comedy. I take money and have to make change. The receipt tells me how much to give back. But much like counting on my little "finger family", I have to think out every little thing. I hum and mumble to myself the whole time, but it is really because I am saying numbers under my breath. Ten dollar bill and three ones- "Hum, hum-hum-hum."

Now you think I am a blithering idiot. You are wondering how many brain cells it takes for me just to breathe. Seriously folks, I am not dumb as all that. I even got such a good score on my ACT that my picture was put in the yearbook and I got a full scholarship, the very first try. (I didn't intend on a second try, or college, but that is another story.) I can remember the plot of almost every book I've ever read; I am thinking of one from 3rd grade right now. Ask me the gestation period of the American possum and I'll tell you (13 days!), ask me that Latin name of every plant in my garden. Ask me to tell you the conquests of Britain starting with the Celts, or why Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia, because I can. 

Now ask me what ten minus seven is....
I would stare at you for a moment, a complete white blank where a picture usually comes up in my brain. And then, if I don't covertly use my fingers, perhaps in a wrap of my skirt, I count down from ten in my mind. But thinking ten, nine, eight, just doesn't do it. I have to give a tiny nod for each number and at the same time I make a mark on the "chalkboard" of my mind. Three. The answer is three! But if you get me very nervous the numbers get giddy and all leap around like devilish beasties. 

The first time I went to do an interview for a newspaper article I was writing, my pop dropped me off. We were five minutes from my grandma's house and he was going to take the boys there with him, then come and pick me up. There were no cell phones, so he asked if I remembered grandma's number. Of course I did, I used it constantly. Um, no, no, I couldn't think of it at all. So he told it to me, while I wrote it on my notepad with a shaking hand. I wrote it wrong. He told me again. I wrote it wrong. And then a third time. Just ten numbers, and I wrote the ones he said in a different order every time. Finally, he took the paper and wrote it. Numbers, they are tricksy little things. But the newspaper liked the article.

Here's an interesting thing though. I went to an auction a year or two ago and bought something. I showed my number to the girl taking them down. She came back a few moments later and asked for it again, because she had written it down wrong. At the end of the auction, my item wasn't on my paper. Turns out she had written the number wrong a third time! We got to talking and she told me that she had numeral dyslexia as well as directional. I asked her to explain, and she said she can't remember right from left. Me either!! I have given many a direction to a lost soul, waving to the left while telling them to go right. And then she laughed and said, "So righty-tighty and lefty-loosey doesn't help me at all when I'm working on airplanes." My jaw just dropped. Turns out she was in the Navy, working as an airplane mechanic. 

When I took the military placement test in school I scored very high. So high, that the Marines immediately called to sign up "Mister" Sam Mullen. It was pathetic hearing the disappointment in his voice when I answered. But they still wanted me- as an airplane mechanic. Turns out I'm  kind of a genius on those multiple page sheets of cogs, wheels, and gears. When they say, "If wheel A turn to the right, what direction will the last cog on page two turn?" I can look through it all and it meshes and makes sense, and I see it turning and working and gears grinding. So I am pretty smart that way. Just don't ask me to point left...

And if all this isn't enough for you to be shaking your head in pity, and for my boss to fire me a.s.a.p.-- I even dream about numbers and math.  I had this dream at least ten years ago, but it is still as fresh as ever. It was so hilariously tragic, that I told it to the boys immediately upon waking up.
In my dream, I was Maid Marion. Not a wimpy, helpless Marion. No, I was left behind to guard the camp while Robin and the men were away.  I looked up to see all the local village folks coming through the trees to our secret encampment. Turns out, the sheriff and his knights were coming to kill them for helping Robin's merry men. I sprang into action, and led them through the forest. We were going to an enormous tree, one as big as a house, and there was a door in the side. Robin had told me it was where to take people if they were in danger. I could see the tree and was waving at the people to hurry up. We reached the door to the tree and I saw a paper with directions tacked onto it. Apparently there was an enormous dial-faced lock that had to be worked to get in the door. And to find out the combination you had to do a series of algebraic equations to get the numbers.

I stared at all the people- men, women, and children- looking helplessly at me, waiting for me to open the door and save them. Over their heads I saw the sheriff and his men on horseback, racing towards us. I looked back at the paper of numbers, and then straightened my shoulders and turned resolutely to the people.
"I'm sorry, " I said. "If I have to do algebra, we are all going to die." And that was so awful that it woke me up, and I have never forgotten it. 

Don't laugh. Terror of numbers, folks. It's a real thang ;)


  1. Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Terror of Numbers":

    Dear Child...numbers may not be "your thing" but your writing, teaching, story telling and compassion for all creatures great and small are gifts from God. Love you, moma

    1. Thank you, moma! If not for your encouragement I might not have had the courage to do all those things...

  2. Holley m has left a new comment on your post "Terror of Numbers":

    I agree with your moma!!!

    1. Thank you so much, Ms. Holley, you are so sweet!


  3. Jenny has left a new comment on your post "Terror of Numbers":

    I MUST laugh...I just cannot help it. I am so glad that when we're very bad at one thing at least (maybe) we're good at something else? In your case I am confident it's true but I'm still trying to figure out what I'm good at.

    And I've paid you for many meals at the Spoon.....I would never have known you were counting on your fingers. ;) because I was doing the exact same thing hoping you wouldn't notice!


    1. My dear Aunt Nova Dee is 102 and always says it's better to laugh at something then to cry about it! It is a real trial and embarrassment, but I try to keep a sense of humor about it! I have never thought I was good at much of anything either, till God started getting irritated that I was ignoring what he was trying to do with and through me. I know one thing about you that I cherish- you are an encourager. Ever since I have known you, you have been there encouraging, lifting up, and nudging me to go outside my comfort zone, all the while telling me that you know I can do it!! And that is an immense and precious thing to have as a Gift, dear friend!!


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