COVID Teaches Me I’m … Good at Math?

Hi. My name is John, and I’m a COVID Longhauler.

There are several truths in my family, among them:

  1. When my wife says we’re leaving someplace in 10 minutes, go ahead and get comfortable because she means an hour. At least.
  2. My youngest son is biologically unable to close the front door without force he does not have in any other situation, a force that shakes the house’s foundation.
  3. I suck at math.

I’m not upset that I have the reputation of sucking at math. It’s one of those universally known things if you’re somewhere in my orbit. My old high school friends know it. My parents know it. My wife (a math major in college) knows it. Even my co-workers have at least a vague idea of my ineptitude.

I was doing fine with math until fractions were thrust upon me by my evil third-grade teacher, Mrs. Taylor. Somehow, I managed to plow through that to continue in my schooling.

Then came letters.

Letters have no place in math. None. Letters belong in books and blogs. Not with math.

It seems, however, were I to discuss this position with the elite from the mathematics field, I would be in the distinct minority.

Me and algebra didn’t play well together in the sandbox. Me and geometry routinely met behind the school to try to settle the score. (It won.) In a miracle on par with the whole water-into-wine thing, I somehow was good at trigonometry. Owning my own limitations, I didn’t even attempt calculus and instead took a computer science course on what turned out to be the precursor to PowerPoint.

The only reason I got through math in high school is because I spent great swaths of time after school getting extra help from my teacher and at a tutor my parents knew I needed if they had a hope of their baby boy’s head not exploding.

The worst thing about the tutor was that her daughter — a year behind me in school — was a math genius and in my actual math class. She’d be bee-bopping around the house trying not to catch my math stupidity while her mom explained for the seven-hundredth time some concept I don’t remember now and truly never understood then.

Back in class, I’d get called up to the front to pick up the latest test for which her mom had spent hours trying to prepare me. On the way back to my seat, I’d make pitiful, apologetic eye contact with her while trying to hide the fact that my paper was soaked in red ink.

Anyway, sometimes it’s good to challenge old assumptions.

This week, I went for a neuropsychological assessment. My wife and I went downtown to St. Louis and met with a kind man in his mid-50s who, a few years back, got sick of the corporate healthcare world and ventured out on his own. After almost getting stuck by the pandemic while working in New Zealand (which doesn’t sound like a bad place to be stuck, actually), he came back here and set up a private practice to help people figure out what brain issues they might have and the best way to help our great thinkin’ organ recover from any difficulties.

When I called him, he seemed particularly interested in the fact that I’ve had at least four concussions in my life and am suffering from some nasty cognitive effects from Longhaul COVID.

For the first hour, I detailed my sordid medical history for him. I have not been kind to my body or mind. My wife filled in the gaps. Then she left, and it was just me and the doc.

For the next two-plus hours, he pounded me with assessments. Things didn’t start well.

He read me a list of what felt like a bazillion words.

Apple. Celery. Couch. Giraffe. Horse. Onion. Spinach. House.

By about the eighth word, my brain was hearing the teacher from Charlie Brown.

By what could have been the 20th or 2,000th word, I was staring blankly out the window behind him.

“Now tell me as many words as you can remember.”

I think I named, like, six. The three at the beginning, those I knew. And the three at the end, he’d just said those, so I got them.

All those words in the middle? They might as well have been sucked into a black hole. I had no clue.

“OK. I’m going to read the same list of words again.”

And he did.

This time I remembered, well, still six. But they weren’t the same six! I’m not sure if that was progress, but maybe we were building toward something here.

He read them two more times, and I got up to about 10 words correct.

Then he read me a second list.

What the bloody hell was he doing that for? Couldn’t he see I was still working on the first list?

“OK,” he said when he was done. “Now tell me what words you remember… from the first list.”

Oh, you dirty rat.

Needless to say, I didn’t do very well. My brain wanted to remember. It just… couldn’t.

Then he read me words one at a time and asked me to tell him if each was on the first list.

I’m not sure most of those words were on either list.

The result from this assessment and similar memory-based ones that followed were shocking to me. Memory used to be my thing. In the past, I was definitely in the “above average” range when it came to remembering stuff. It’s part of what helps me be a good observational storyteller.

Not anymore, evidently.

The assessments rolled on, bobbing and weaving through things besides memory, thank God.

“Now we’re going to do some math.”

I laughed.

He proceeded to start reading me word problems. I hated word problems in school, if only because my third-grade teacher (again, the evil Mrs. Taylor) deposited deep inside my brain her belief that the designers of word problems were always out to trick you. At the time, I assumed these folks were part of her witches’ coven.

Because of her, I have a natural suspicion of word problems and never accept them at face value.

Sally has 2 rocks and Tommy has 4. How many rocks do Sally and Tommy have all together?

Well obviously Sally is a covert operative who is hiding at least two more rocks behind her back and has probably used them to kill people in foreign lands, so I’m gonna say the answer is 27.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how word problems go for me.

“What the hell?” I thought, as he launched into his first question. “Just have fun with it.”

And then something funny happened. I realized I was knocking these problems out of the park. Never in my high school math days did I ever have confidence that I got any question right. If I was asked 2+2, my answer, at best, would be “4?”

6×6: “36?”

My sentences constantly ended going up.

But this time? This time I knew my stuff.

“OK. Last one: A shipping company ships 20,000 units in September. In October, it ships 10 percent more than September. And in November, it ships 5 percent more than the previous month. How many units did it ship in November?”

Within seconds, I — he of chronic math stupidity — confidently answered: “23,100.”

“Wow,” the doc said.

Now, in the past, “Wow” following anything math-related spoken aloud by me is typically followed by: “I never knew someone could suck at math so badly.”

But this guy? My favoritist doc ever? He said, “You got them all right. And fast too.”

He hit me with another math assessment — this one dealing with things like “21×4” and “18+9-4.” No paper to work anything out. “Go as fast as you can.”

I got all of them right.

All of them.

My wife came back in after the assessments were done and the doctor had time to evaluate the results. And we learned a bunch of things.

  1. I learned that I have an IQ of 136. Damn right I do.
  2. I learned that I have some pretty major memory issues going on right now, both rote memory and working memory. It is quite apparent that this stupid virus affected my prefrontal cortex, which is just wonderful. He recommended brain workouts — things like reading and mental puzzles like what can be found on Lumosity. I’m doing that.
  3. Oh, and I also learned that I kick ass at mental math.

When the doctor turned to my wife — my wife the math major, my wife who loves to jokingly scoff at my math abilities — and said, “Your husband is basically a genius at mental math,” you’re damn right I smiled my brightest smile at her.

So now we’ve altered some of our family truths.

  1. When my wife says we’re leaving someplace in 10 minutes, go ahead and get comfortable because she means an hour. At least.
  2. My youngest son is biologically unable to close the front door without force he does not have in any other situation, a force that shakes the house’s foundation.
  3. I am the family rock star at mental math.

Just don’t ask me to remember what you read me from the grocery list.


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One response to “COVID Teaches Me I’m … Good at Math?”

  1. Fantastic bit of writing that made my day. Your IQ is the same as mine per my 7th grade nun teacher! Since Mom has the same feelings about mixing numbers and letters that might be genetic too. Hope you are making progress in the long covid fight. LOVE YOU AND PROUD OF YOU. DAD

    There is never a wrong time to do the right thing!—————————————————————————————————   We are but a moment in the world’s history: teach us to store up treasure in heaven by the good we do on earth!


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