Dyslexia and Me

In the 70s, my father was considered an ‘enemy of the state.’ This ultimately meant that my family had to move in great haste from Apartheid South Africa to England when I was 5.

Within days of arriving in England, I started at my first school. By the age of 16, I had moved to 3 different countries and attend 8 different schools.

I remember feeling overwhelmed and discombobulated by the first few years at school. As soon as I had started to settle, I would be moved to another school and or country.

It was in my second school that it became apparent that I was not learning to read (or write). I remember the anger and frustration of both my parents, as they painstakingly tried to teach me to read words on one page of a book, only to turn the page and I would have forgotten everything.

I would stare at the pages of books desperately willing myself to become a reader. I loved books, they seemed to hold untold mysteries. Yet reading was a world that seemed wholly unobtainable to me. The letters and the words remained resolutely indecipherable.

Teaching me how to tell the time and to tie my shoelaces was equally torturous. Even today I don’t tie my shoelaces the same way as everyone else. I only learned my left from my right, after my thumb was slammed in a door and I had to wear a large bandage for 6 weeks, my left thumb throbbing in pain underneath.

Because I struggled to learn the basics of reading, I was dragged around various ‘professionals.’ I was eventually diagnosed with the learning disability Dyslexia. I then spent countless hours with frustrated, but well-meaning remedial teachers, who wanted to help me, but who’s teaching methods were misguided and resolutely ineffective.

They tried linking words to pictures or breaking the words down into phonetically based sounds. I even had to wear horrible pink framed NHS glasses with a fuzzy patch over one eye. There was a belief that this would help me focus on text. I have no idea if this reuse would have been effective, as not surprisingly I quickly lost the ugly glasses. No intervention was successful. All these experiences sent me the message that something was fundamentally wrong with me. I was not good enough.

Just before my 9th birthday, my family moved to a recently independent Zimbabwe. I still could not read. I was furious with the universe. Why me? It was so hard not being like everyone else. Not being able to perform in school, when in every otherway I was just liek my peirs. At my first school in Zimbabwe, I was put in the remedial class with ‘the special kids’. The shame and the social stigma was crushing.

The teachers employed public shaming as a form of control and punishment. Bad behaviour or poor test results had consequences. There were punishments of humiliation; where we were made to stand in a corner with a D cone hat on our head or made to stand with our nose pressed to a red chalk dot on the blackboard for an hour. There were also physical punishments, such as the smack of a meter long wooden ruler on the back of the knees, a rap across the knuckles, a Plimsoll smacked on your bottom, your head slammed into the desk, or a ruler put under your tongue and flicked. The most serious crime was punished with a trip to the headmaster where the cane was  liberally applied to both boys and girls.

All punishments were administered in front of the class. I only experienced some of them, but I saw all them acted out on others. The threat was real. I found it hard to understand what was being asked of me and frequently resorted to cheating. I was not keeping up. I spent my school hours petrified that I would be humiliated in class. I put in a lot of energy trying to shrink, be invisible, to not be seen and picked out by the teacher. I worried that I would be asked to read out loud, that I would get shown-up for not keeping up with comprehension or that I would get the lowest score on a tests. School was a living nightmare.

I hated my life and I hated myself.

When I got hit for getting one word wrong in a spelling test; my mother descended on the school full of fury.  Shortly after I moved on to my 5th school.

My parents heard about a remedial class from our next-door neighbours. The class was before school started. I took my anger and frustration out on my Dad; who’s job it was to get me up and out of the house, extra early twice a week. I hated going to the remedial class. I was ashamed. I wanted to be like everyone else and I was furious that I wasn’t.

The remedial class was taken by an exceptional teacher, called Mrs Meadenkendrick. She had found an ingenious and counter-intuitive way to teach dyslexic children to read.  Her teaching technique took me from a reading age of a 5-year-old when I was 9 to the reading age of a 13-year-old, by the age of 10. The first book I read from cover to cover was by Wilbur Smith . I seemed to become a bookworm overnight. I started hoovering up books.

For the rest of my academic life, I refused to divulge my dyslexia. I didn’t want it to define me. I was embarrassed. This meant that I didn’t get extra support, such as a computer or extra exam time. I reasoned that the world of work was not going to give me any dispensation for being dyslexic. I thought I needed to learn how to survive as a ‘normal’ person. This stance had a negative impact on all my exam results.

One of my tutors on my Art Foundation course noted that I seemed to have a natural ability for picture placement. So what I thought, it’s not exactly rocket science, anyone can move pictures around a page, so their adjacencies work well together. I dismissed his observations. It never occurred to me that this was a natural talent. This meant I didn’t choose a degree that might have capitalised on this natural ability, such as graphic design.

So much of what I have achieved in life has come from hard work and determination or years after everyone else has mastered the skill. The things that come easily to me, I tend to dismiss or undervalue. I am continually amazed at how bad people are at picture placement, even the professionals.

Education consumes so much of our formative years. Our capabilities and therefore our self-worth is inextricably attached to our academic success. I struggled so much in school and had to work so hard to achieve average results, my self-worth was not in the right place to be able to identify and capitalise on my innate skills and natural abilities, and thus I didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to take-up opportunities as they arose.

I applied for art college, but didn’t get in, and opted for an academic joint degree, at a top university. This meant that I had double the essays to write and 3 more modules to do a year, compared to my single subject piers. I got a 2:2, I missed out on achieving a 2:1 by 2%. I felt like I had put in twice the effort of my peers only to achieve paltry results.

The combined experience of conventional education and dyslexia make a perfect storm for a lifetime of underperformance and dissatisfaction.

For years I avoided reflecting on my formative years. I had little recollection of my emotional state before learning to read. I had tried to blank out my memories, as they felt too shameful to remember. I am eternally greatful to have encountered Mrs Meadenkendrick when I did, as I have never seen or heard of her techniques being taught anywhere else.

Now when I tell my friends that I am dyslexic they are shocked. They don’t believe me,  they even challenge me or dismiss the fact that I am dyslexic as something trivial. It would seem that people have preconceived ideas about what a dyslexic person will be like and I evidently don’t fit that bill.

I wonder what my different learning style means for how I approach the world. What benefits does dyslexia give me? Where would I be if an equal effort had been put into nurturing my natural abilities as well as teaching me to read?

The lived experience of Dyslexia doesn’t leave a physical mark, but the scars are there. The shame of not being like everyone else. The humiliation of not being good enough.  The low self-esteem. The legacy of my early school experiences are my dark matter, my constant companions, my shadow side, but they are also my strength. I am tenacious, determined, courageous, socially skilled, adept at seeing the big picture and an accomplished leader who is not afraid of nurturing others to success.

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