I may be on the spectrum. I don’t love to be touched by strangers. I adore being alone. I see numbers. I’m not kidding. I see numbers.
Numbers exist in time and space and color. Say a number, and I will tell you where it is.
Three is blue. Just like this:
It’s to the right of two and and sits right there before that first turn at the switch back at five. Twelve is yellow and blue, but they don’t make green. The sixties go straight up and down like a ladder, one on top of another. Five hundred dips between 499 and 501. Dips. Like a swing bridge. Negative numbers below zero look like a roller coaster. They are RIGHT THERE. I am pointing at them as I type.
In first grade, I confessed seeing numbers as colors and in time and space to my first grade teacher, Katrina Kinsey. Mrs. Kinsey loved me, but she found my obstreperous nature to be a bit much in disrupting the class. She told my parents that she did not need another teacher in the class. She told my parents my conduct would not be tolerated.
“What does ‘C’ stand for, Hamlin?” she asked me one day when we were discussing the letter of the alphabet.
“Conduct,” came my reply.
The class erupted.
One afternoon, I approached Mrs. Kinsey’s desk. Above the blackboard loomed the cursive alphabet. We had just finished math where Mrs. Kinsey dictated the problems and numbers.
“Miz Kinsey, I see the numbers when you call them out. That’s why it takes me longer. I said please wait and you got mad at me. You always get mad at me in math.”
Mrs. Kinsey squinted and then titled her head.
In her raspy smoker’s voice she said, “Stay in from recess tomorrow. We will talk then. You want to beat the erasers today?” Of course I did.
I stayed in from recess the next day.
Mrs. Kinsey approached my desk and asked what I meant the day before when I told her about seeing numbers.
“I see them. Right there. All of them.” I was six years old living in Beaufort. South Carolina.
None of us knew about synesthesia at the time.
“Well, tell me more,” said my teacher. And, I did.
After my explanation, Mrs Kinsey said, “Son, everyone learns differently. If you see numbers just tell me, and we’ll figure it out.”
She told me we would make it work. She also told me to be quiet about it, too, as people would not understand.
Some people never liked Mrs. Kinsey as a teacher. I adored her.
I never told a soul about this until Calculus class in 1989. Not kidding. Eleven years of silence and struggle with math, but I made it work. My parents never understood why I struggled. They compensated for me. They hired extra help. Completely privileged. Math tutors never pried as to why I would I needed their help but it always took me longer than it should have with math problems most people found easy.
I loved Geometry by the way.
In the fall of 1989, I went to my Calculus professor at Andover to seek some help. That lady cared little when I explained that derivatives, parabolas and L’Hopital’s Rule vexed me along with the requirement of existing limits and such.
“I see the numbers,” I told her.
“Impossible,” she said.
I took my lumps from her in Morse Hall and never looked back.
I kept my mouth shut for years.
I dropped hints from time to time.
No one picked them up until one fall a few years back.
We were in the mountains at a friend’s for Fall Break. Something came up about autism, the spectrum, and brain function.
Our hostess said, “Well, you know our neighbors have synesthesia and MUSC [the Medical University of South Carolina] studies them. The mom and the daughter both.”
”What’s that?” I asked.
“They see sounds as color and numbers in color and in space in real time. Did you see that ‘60 Minutes’ with Marilu Henner and how she knows dates and what she was eating and wearing? It’s all tied in together. Photographic memories, too, can be tied in to this.”
I was standing by the door in their kitchen. Our hostess crossed over to the cabinet and reached for the salt. She was cooking. The rest of our crew were watching the Clemson football game. It was misting rain outside.
Can you tell I have a photographic memory?
“I have that,” I said quietly “I totally have that.”
I spilled the beans to everyone assembled. They all believed me.
One of our pals who was there is a doctor. He looked at me and said, “Makes total sense about you.”
They kind of got it but then quickly changed subject.
In subsequent years, I have brought it up with friends and family. Subjects change and move on quickly. It makes people squirm.
This past summer I read “A Mango Shaped Space.” I knew that story of a girl with synesthesia because I could have written the story, in theory, thirty years ago.
Mrs. Kinsey’s voice echoed immediately.
So did did my calculus professor.
Thirty (blue and white and three tens above ten which sits just below the double yellow eleven) years later, I don’t care who knows.
On the spectrum? May be.
I still no longer need to convince anyone that this is real.
Mrs. Kinsey believed me, and to quote Mr. Frost, that has made all the difference.