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Go Ask Mom

Retired banker turns childhood fear of numbers into confidence-building book for kids

Posted July 31, 2016

Leigh Ballance at a book reading

H. Leigh Ballance is a retired banker, who was once afraid of numbers as a child.

Now a father and grandfather, the former Boy Scout troop leader decided that he wanted to guide children through an adventure with numbers that leads to confidence. He penned, “The Secret of Gum Swamp,” a read out loud story for children between 5 and 9 years old.

His friend, Rocky Mount artist Marion Clark Weathers illustrated the book for him. “The Secret of Gum Swamp,” is available on and Page 158 Books in Wake Forest. He'll be reading from his book at noon, Wednesday, Aug. 3, at Page 158 Books.

Ballance, 70, lives in Raleigh with his wife of 48 years, Patsy, a retired counselor at Lynn Road Elementary School. I checked in with him by email to learn more about the book. Here's our email conversation:

Go Ask Mom: A childhood experience inspired you to write the book. Tell us about your early experience with numbers.

Leigh Ballance: As I sat on the school bus on the way to school, I started seeing older kids trying to memorize the multiplication tables. The idea of having to learn all those number facts frightened me. As a young boy who was just learning how to add and subtract, I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to memorize all those numbers. My fears were confirmed on my bus ride home. Those same kids who had studied the multiplication tables on the way to school that morning would all have failing grades that afternoon. I didn’t realize then the kids who waited to study on the way to school in the morning were the ones who were not the smartest students.

GAM: What got you past that original fear? Eventually, you became a banker, dealing numbers all day!

LB: Fortunately, I began to dream about numbers, who came to me as characters having gender and personalities. Those dreams of the number characters were reoccurring. They became my friends and, in return, I became their friend. There was always an adventure associated with them in my dreams. It was as if they knew that I would have teachers to teach me math, and their job was to relieve me of those fears. It worked. I began to see numbers on the black boards and pages in the same way I saw them in my dreams with their distinctive personalities. I started every math test with friends on the paper in front of me. I have had them as friends all my life.

GAM: What inspired you to write the book?

LB: I wondered if other young children might be frightened of numbers and I remembered how not being afraid of numbers and having them as my friends helped me in learning math. Fear can be debilitating and can have a lasting effect on children. By introducing my number friends to children early in their learning experience, I believe it could help them approach math problems with confidence. You can’t give children too much confidence for life.

GAM: Tell us a bit about the story.

LB: The Secret of Gum Swamp is a story about a boy, Henry, who has already overcome his fear of math and learned how powerful the knowledge of numbers can be. Henry dreams of the numbers 0 through 9. They have become his friends. Henry’s dreams lead him to explore Gum Swamp, the mysterious forest near his home. Henry finds himself in a strange new world where the number characters are not only real, they desperately need his help.

An evil force, Hem, has come to the swamp and wants to dominate the numbers and their woodland friends. Individually, the numbers are too weak to defeat Hem, so they ask Henry to use his math knowledge to enhance their strength. Using special gifts and talents he acquires Henry leads his friends to victory over the evil forces.

GAM: What are your hopes for the book? How do you hope it will help kids and their parents?

LB: My hope is that children will enjoy reading the story of The Secret of Gum Swamp and will identify with Henry, who is brave, resourceful, and good with math. The other underlying message in the book is that Henry has a great imagination. It takes him to a strange and mysterious place. Imagination is not just for the young but can be a valuable asset throughout life.

Go Ask Mom features local parents every Monday.


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