Sunday, 15 November 2009


Working in schools for most of the last year has made me very aware of what we think of as ‘smart’, as in booksmart, and the things that is assumed go with it: good behaviour, roughly equal talents across the board, ability to spell, social skills. But, a confession. I always did well at school, and was placed in top sets, yet I did (and still do) have difficulties with things that would have made a nonsense of early years National Curriculum Targets*, and still befuddle people I meet today.

I cannot tell my left from my right. And please, don’t tell me that my left hand makes an L-shape. It doesn’t help. It’s a bit like telling people who don’t read mandarin characters that they are pictograms: yeah, I can see how the character for ren (people) looks sort of like a human, but please tell me how that works with bei, the character for north.

It’s not that I can’t remember which is left and right, I just don’t understand the concept at all. How can left and right swop places when you turn around? How can your right and left be different if you’re standing opposite me? I just don’t get it.

People tend to react disbelievingly, as if it’s against the laws of the universe that an intelligent person can’t understand something so (allegedly) simple. I hate having to give directions to people I don’t know very well, especially when in a car, as despite my warning, people inevitably get frustrated. A few weeks ago I even had someone who was giving a left screaming at me. Strangely enough, screaming does not magically make me realise my left from my right.

I always thought that I was alone in this, until I learnt to drive two years ago. One reason that I didn’t pass my driving test until I was 25 was that my previous instructors had just become angry when they’d said right and I’d gone left, meaning that I went through each lesson in a perpetual state of nervous tension. And, being a teenager, I’d just taken it instead of telling themselves where to go.

My last driving instructor was the first person to tell me that, actually, there are a lot of adults who can’t tell their right from their left but that people are too embarrassed by not being able to do such a ‘simple’ thing that they don’t tell anybody. Now, I’m much more confident about telling people that, actually, when they say ‘go left’ there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll go the other way, and that if people scream at me when I’m doing my best then it’s their problem, not mine.

Incidentally, I’m a fantastic map reader and have an excellent sense of direction, and despite going the wrong way on my driving test, I still passed.

Other ‘dumb’ moments:

· I can’t remember not being able to read, but I can remember not knowing the order of the alphabet until well into primary school. I mean, why is c after b? Why?

· I also remember my dance teacher being horrified that at seven years old I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces. I remember a lot of practice. Knots still aren’t my thing. I still prefer slip on or buckle shoes.

· I was really good at maths in primary school, but I couldn’t tell the time using a regular clock. When I was 8, I persuaded my teacher to let me skip the time telling section in maths, telling her I already knew how to do because I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t understand it. I didn’t buy an non-digital watch until I was WELL into my twenties.

Anyone else out there have any similar confessions?

* For non-Brits, these are government educational targets that say each child should be able to do such-and-such by a certain age. I would’ve been judged both advanced and remedial at the same time!


  1. I, too, consider myself intelligent and well-educated, and yet I, too, get left and right mixed up. My husband is used to it, though he still gets annoyed when I tell him to turn right when I meant left. Then I read an article about male/female brain differences. Researchers discovered that many more women than men get left and right confused (also east and west, which is related to R/L). I personally attribute it to the larger bundle of nerves connecting the brain hemispheres in the female brain. We're so in touch with both sides of our brains that left is right and right is left! Whattaya think?

  2. I just did a google search and found that the bundle of axons is called the corpus callosum. Those axons go through a tract called the corpus colostrum. It's definitely a larger bundle in female brains than in male brains.

  3. Me too (left and right thing). I can tell you now which is which, but when I need to know for directions, or if I need to use them, I can't figure it out. My driving instructor made me feel so much better when he told me you can still pass your test if you go the wrong way, as long as you do it properly (with indicators etc.)

  4. I did very well in the book-learning part of school, but I'm truly directionally challenged. I usually get left and right correctly (although I have to think about it) but north south east and west are more confusing any time I'm not facing north. My daughter had a lot of trouble with telling time and tying bows when she was little. She learned easily in other ways, but those particular things were a challenge.
    So, you are definitely not alone!

  5. My suspicion is that you are not uncommon at all. I think everyone has areas that are problematic. I was good in school and learned most things quickly but I have NO mechanical sense, truly none. My daughter when she was in elementary school could figure things out before I could. A friend of mine tested my IQ when she was studying psychology. I think it would have been a high score had I not flunked the puzzle parts.

  6. Pat - That's really interesting research. Strangely, I have no problem with compass directions, only left and right! I'd be interested to know at what point humans started using the concept of left and I can feel myself getting nicely sidetracket from everything I need to be doing.

    Roseki - as I found out! :)

    Janie - Glad you have GPS for your rides then. Utah looks like somewhere I would NOT want to get lost in, seems like you could be out there for a while!

    mountain mama - I'm beginning to think that maybe the 'what are you talking about it's so obvious' crowd are actually the minority...or maybe they don't know either and are just bluffing!

    What's often puzzled me about IQ tests is the way that people really think that your score means how intelligent you are, when really it shows what our society thinks of as 'intelligence' - if, say, fishing, socialising or dancing were tested, well...some 'intelligent' people would be very dumb indeed.

  7. Confession - I still count on my fingers. I have a first class honours degree and a PhD in French, but I don't - can't - do numbers. Now I look at my children's maths and I neither understand nor remember ANYTHING mathematical I was taught at school other than functional addition and subtraction. Preferably with a calculator, but fingers will also do. (and I missed out the questions with numbers in my IQ test...)

    My teenage daughter also does not do right and left. She is a very talented musician, but right and left are a mystery to her.

  8. What a fantastic post!!!

    And so brave (though not at all surprising) of you to confess. It's what I love about your blog! How authentic and honest you are. I always tell parents expecting a baby and worried sick about screwing the baby up that it's the imperfections in people that make them so interesting. Perfect parenting = boring child.

    The brain will always fascinate me. Mr B's is quite the tangle -- and it makes him an incredibly creative teacher. He can hear every conversation going on in the room. (That would sound like a cacophony to me!) He uses the wrong words for things all the time--and it totally throws kids off and they are fascinated.

    I can't "dial" (what's the modern digital version of that?) a phone number right the first time to save my life -- unless I go very very slowly and deliberately. Someone once called it a sequencing disorder. Who knows?

    I also write "send" for "sent" and vice versa. I'm a horrific speller, but have been told I'm a good writer. I add extra consonants in words all the time--and they get published! (Horrors!!!)

    But worst of all, I'm cursed when it comes to domestic skills. I can cook a few things, but I mess up appliances left and right, accidentally set things afire, and the concept of baking positively gives me an anxiety attack

    So how's that for starters?

  9. Linda - There are some good things about the British education system - like being able to drop anything you hate at 16! I quite enjoy maths, and it's actually one of my favourite lessons to cover, but it just goes in one ear and out the other...Bad at remembering rules I guess (ha, perhaps that could be a new blog title!)

    Kathleen - Thanks. I think that if people could feel confident about saying what they can and can't do, and were taught that not being able to do something is quite normal, people would grow up with a lot more self belief and confidence.

    And yes, nothing like bat ears in the classroom. Given me many amusing moments over the last year or so! :)