One day in May Bella started talking about the colors of numbers and how the Cuisinaire rods weren’t the right colors. I wondered if it was possible she has synesthesia. I thought it an interesting curiosity and made some notes but didn’t give it much thought beyond that.
She said that nine is an orange number and eight is a red number and twenty is a purple number. The numbers one to ten are white. 31 and up are gluey and sticky. 100 is a white number. Eight is sometimes red and sometimes white. Or maybe it’s red on its own but white when considered as a part if the set of numbers one to ten?
I wanted to know more, but she didn’t want to talk about it any longer and I didn’t push it.
* * *
Last week after watching her struggle through a page of what seem to me very easy addition problems I began to wonder exactly what the problem was. I know she knows how to do these problems, so why was she grabbing her head and closing her eyes and groaning? It struck me that this was something different than wandering attention, it was more like she was struggling to remember a word on the tip of her tongue, that sort of “I know this but I can’t think of it” sort of frustration that I’ve experienced myself with language but never with math. I asked her what was going on in her head when she was having these difficulties.
She says the number world can be enclosed in walls. “Each group of numbers has it’s own country and sometimes the country I need to get into to do a problem is locked up. On days when I don’t have problems the gate is open. On days when I do have trouble the gates are locked and I have to batter them down.”
Then she elaborated a bit more on the kingdoms and here came the synesthesia numbers and colors again. I jotted down notes as she spoke and noticed that the colors matched almost perfectly to what she’d told me before. She was just adding more detail.
The numbers 1-10 are the white kingdom and each number also has it’s own color, (1 is black, 2 is red, 4 is orange, 5 is green, 6 is yellow, 7 is dark black or purple, 9 is yellow)
11-19 is the black kingdom,
20-29 is the purple kingdom,
30-39 is the odd kingdom,
40-49 is the orange kingdom,
50-59 is the green kingdom,
60-69 is yellow kingdom,
the 70s are the soldier kingdom,
80s are red kingdom,
90s are the orange kingdom.
* * *
When she’s trying to batter the gate she hold her breath and closes her eyes and sometimes groans and grabs her head with her hands. It’s very dramatic. And she can be baffling stymied at the simplest sums: 3+4 can have her absolutely stumped. Not because she can’t count it out, but because there seems to be some block in her brain. She later told me that when that happens everything goes black and she just can’t see it.
She says the walls around the hundreds and thousands are not as strong and those kingdoms are easier to get into.
In 346, for example, the 4 and the 6 exist in the 300 kingdom and are easier to manipulate.
* * *
As we spoke, she and I both began trying to think of ways to make it easier to negotiate doing math problems. Cuisinaire rods can be hard to use because they are the wrong colors. I asked if painting the rods might help, but she wasn’t very interested in that idea.
She had this vague notion for a kind of peg board on which she could hang numbers and move them around. I could tell that she was grasping for a way to make her inner world into something concrete that she can manipulate. Then she thought maybe she could color in the hundreds board with the right colors and use it to do the math, hopping her fingers along the boxes to add and subtract. She colored in the background around the numbers with dry erase markers but after doing most of the board she decided that the markers were the wrong shade and didn’t look like the colors in her head. She was able to use the hundreds board to do some of her math problems, so it was a little help. But it didn’t make the struggle go away.
* * *
Interestingly, clocks don’t exist in the number kingdom. They are much easier to do for her. No walls, she says.
Letters have colors too, she says, but they don’t seem to have the same problem with being behind walls.
She’s told me that numbers have colors before, but this is the most she’s been able to articulate. I have a feeling that if she could just learn how to navigate those walls and gates that she could be a whiz at math. When things click they really click and on days when the gates are down she whizzes through her math. It’s like night and day.
I also wonder if for a kid with synesthesia if the Montessori method would preempt color assignment or if it would just frustrate them when their colors didn’t match up. I suppose it depends on how exactly it works. Does the child have control and assign colors or are the colors independent of the child’s intention? I really have no idea how it works. Bella was using the Cuisinaire rods pretty early and yet her colors do not match the rods.
* * *
A few days later, we watched a video of a young woman describing her number to color synesthesia and then Bella and I talked a bit more about her experiences.
I asked her about the numbers from 11 to 20. Interesting how they take on the color of the ones digit.
11 black lines, outline
12 reddish purple
19 yellowish orange
21 outline, some days I can see the purple, some days it’s not
99 the orange number squeezed up beside 100.
She gave me the rundown of the colors again and was a bit more specific this time:
2 purple a nice number
3 thin pencil line
5 darker green
8 always red
The times sign is green, she said.
And this time she told me her colors for letters.
c white, very nice
e bright skin color, a sort of orangey pink
f green lighter than i
i green (same as 5)
j orange (like e)
k blue closest to black
m darkish blue but not as dark as k
q like e orangey pink
r blue lighter than m, but not much
t like e orangey pink
v red, a sharp red
w light blue like the sky
She said that A is red because A is for apples. And Z is black because of zebras. She talked about letters that have the same color being in families. And M is a nice maternal letter.
* * *
She tells me today that the days of the week have colors too.
Sunday is yellow
Monday and Wednesday are blue
Tuesday and Thursday are brown
Friday is green
Saturday is white.
Part of me wonders: is she telling me this because the video mentioned that some synesthetes see the days of the week as colors? Or did these colors always exist? Does my interest create the phenomenon or does it exist independent of my interaction? One test for synestheisa I saw involved asking the person about their colors six months apart to se if there’s persistence.
* * *
But what I really want to know is, is any of this synestheisa exploration going to help us crack her math problems? Is the math blockage being caused by the synesthesia or is it just a coincidence, an oddity that has no bearing at all on her ability to do math? Can we use these colors and her awareness of them to some kind of advantage?
And what am I to do about math? If she can’t reliably even do simple addition how can I continue to teach her more complex math? She’s taken to multiplication and division and fractions pretty well, she gets the theory and can frequently do the math with no problem. But again the actual operations can often stymie her. I’m not the world’s greatest math teacher anyway. It’s probably the thing I’m weakest at as a homeschooler. So what do I do with this child who struggles in such an odd way?