Things weren't going well with my math placement test—things have never gone well for me on any math test. As I tried to solve 13 – 5, I lost track while counting on my fingers, and as I calculated 3,869 x 6, I couldn't remember the rules for carrying numbers. I decided to enroll in a math prep course when I realized I was unable to help my then fourth-grade daughter with her math homework. For this Human Guinea Pig—a column that requires a willingness to debase myself—I planned to go back to where numbers and I parted ways, to see if I could learn enough math to keep ahead of my daughter for a few more years.
The placement test was to determine at what grade level my education would start. I took it at the Kumon Math and Reading Center in Bethesda, Md.—one of 26,000 such centers around the world at which more than 4 million children get after-school instruction. As this New York Times story makes clear, many American parents are sending their kids to Kumon because they are afraid the current math curriculum will produce idiots like me. My instructor, Lopa Shah, sat down next to me with my results. The red pencil marks that covered it, indicating wrong answers, were a remembrance of things not passed. Flunking math tests was such a regular part of my childhood that I have lived the rest of my life trying to avoid anything numerical. (I wouldn't dream of doing my own taxes. I've never tried to balance my checkbook. I can barely make change.) There were 60 questions on this test, and I got 15 of them wrong, placing me at the 2A level. What grade was that? I asked Shah.
"That would be first grade," she said in a neutral tone. I was in first grade during the Kennedy administration. I admired Shah's restraint in not laughing at someone who had made no mathematical progress since then.
I have long nurtured a list of excuses for why I am so bad at math: I wasn't breast-fed; my hometown's water supply was full of lead; I was a victim of sexism. But these results forced me to consider that the real reason for my abysmal math skills might be that I was profoundly stupid. Yet even the stupid are supposed to be helped by the Kumon method. Founded 50 years ago by Toru Kumon, a Japanese math teacher, Kumon is not one-on-one tutoring, but a highly regimented system in which students progress by moving incrementally through increasingly advanced drills.
I was intrigued by trying mathematics Japanese-style. I found encouraging a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that pointed out that while more men score very high on math in the United States, in Japan the sexes do equally well. Then there was the Brookings Institution study of international math achievement, which found that the U.S. ethic of trying to make math relevant, as opposed to the Japanese ethic of just getting math right, meant the Japanese swamped us in world rankings.
As Shah explained, Kumon was no quick fix. I originally hoped that if I took a crash course in math instruction, I might get to high-school level in a few months. But since I was starting at first grade, the actuarial tables were against my ever reaching this goal. My new plan was simply to know more math than my daughter. I agreed to make a commitment to spend five months doing Kumon, at a cost of $100 a month. By then my daughter would have started fifth grade, and I should have reached the sixth-grade level.
To get there I needed to do daily drills. I would start by doing 400 Level A problems a day. Level A covered addition and subtraction for numbers up to 200. All the repetition should get me quickly past first grade. "When you see the numbers again and again, that should help you stop using your fingers, although I can't guarantee that at your age," Shah said.
I left with a pile of homework and an answer booklet so I could correct it myself. For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps I had an undiagnosed learning disability. Searching on the Internet, I discovered that if I do, there's even a name for it: dyscalculia. Maybe instead of another heartwarming movie in which a middle-aged illiterate learns to read, Hollywood needs to make a movie in which a middle-aged dyscalculiac learns how to leave a tip.
There had to be something wrong with me because here I was, literally back at 2 + 2. As I came up with the answer—yes, I got 4—I had a vivid memory of tormenting my first-grade teacher when she wrote this calculation on the blackboard. I insisted she explain to me where the second 2 came from (this makes no more sense now than it did then). The Kumon homework quickly moved into two-digit territory, and down came the curtain that descends in my mind whenever numbers come up. Amazingly, I really didn't know addition and subtraction of sevens and eights. I forced myself to keep my fingers still as I figured out 8 + 3. My daughter looked over my shoulder when I got that, then watched as I hesitated at 8 + 4. "Mom, just add 1 to 11!" she said, adding, "Mom, you're hopeless."
Shah assured me that the constant repetition that is the Kumon system would nail the facts into my brain. I was worried the scaffolding was so rotten that the nail wouldn't hold. But slowly, I started to learn how to add. I was excited to realize I could apply my knowledge to real life. For one thing, I could play blackjack without embarrassing myself. I always marveled at people—normal people—who could instantly tell what their cards added up to.