Following yesterday's discussion regarding Sir Jim Rose's report on dyslexia, I have been thinking again about my own experiences in primary school. What follows is an extract from the book I have been writing about dyslexia. I don't usually post extracts of my work in progress on here, but in this case it seems relevant.
When I entered school, at the age of five, my teachers discovered that on the scale of ability with which they measured all pupils, I defined the lowest point.
‘You’ve had two bright children,’ they told my surprised parents. ‘You were lucky in that. But this one will never achieve anything.’
My primary school was a solemn looking building of grey stone and Welsh slate. Carved into the lintel of one of the two doorways onto the street was the word ‘BOYS’. The word ‘GIRLS’ adorned the other. But by the 1960s we all jostled through the same entrance in a co-educational scrum. There were thirty of us sitting on our small chairs behind small desks. Fresh faced and, to a greater or lesser degree, innocent.
The teachers must have clicked that something was wrong the first time they laid eyes on my exercise book. I was not the same as the others. My attempts to form letters on the page were no more than scribbles along a line. Every week that passed reinforced the initial impression. Other children wrote words then sentences. I wrote nothing that was legible.
I was inferior to the other children in almost every respect. I couldn’t read or write. I lacked that bad-boy charisma worn so effectively by the other under-achievers. Coming from an academically inclined family, I knew nothing of football or rugby. The least disastrous lesson for me was art, in which I achieved mediocrity and a blissful, if temporary, invisibility.
Not that I started out trying to be invisible. I toddled through the doors of that stone building and across the squeaky wooden floor with an innocent positivity and a belief that all children were more or less like me.
There was no single moment when I realised my mistake. Understanding grew in two phases. First was my dawning awareness that I was different from my classmates because of my stupidity.
I remember sitting, bent low over a comprehension exercise, my left arm forming an L shaped screen around the paper. I was seven and could string letters together by that stage, though I didn’t want anyone to see my clumsy scrawl.
I could also read some of the words on the printed page, my mouth miming the vowels as my finger hovered next to them. But to read a sentence was a challenge. I had to decode the words one by one. I had to keep them all in my mind, remembering the beginning of the sentence by the time I eventually arrived at the end of it. That took ferocious concentration. Enough to set up a tightness across my forehead, as if I was being gripped there by a vice. If at first the meaning didn’t come, I could always tighten the vice a little more. I was good at concentrating. I was getting lots of practice.
By the time I’d struggled through two of the ten questions, other children were finishing the whole activity. One by one, they trotted up to the teacher’s desk, books in hand, hopeful expressions on their faces. One by one she invited them round to stand next to her as she marked their work. A line of ticks down the side of the page. A smile. A word about something they could do better. One by one she released them to play or draw pictures.
Finally the allotted time had passed. I approach her desk, last in the line of stragglers, having attempted only eight out of the ten questions, exhausted from the effort. There was no time for marking. She had to move us on to a new activity. The bright kids were rested and now they were and starting to get bored.
It was the following day before I could collect my work. My scrawl of pencil shot through with red biro corrections. A line of crosses down the side of the page. ‘Three out of ten See me!’
I approached her desk with dread, wanting the world to disappear into blackness.
How, she wanted to know, could I be getting the spelling of words wrong, when they were there in the printed text on the opposite page? It could only be carelessness. I should take more pride in my work.
I was seeing her. That concerned expression. How could she get through to me? I may have struggled to read the words on the page, but I could read her clearly enough. I’d always been able to know what people were feeling, to feel the echoes of their emotions in myself. That over-active empathetic sense.
Such a nice boy I seemed. An enigma though. I looked to be trying. But the evidence was clear. I must be lazy. Or stupid. Although neither description seemed quite to fit. If there was only more time, perhaps she could have taken me aside and worked out what was wrong. But time only for an admonition. You must try harder. Try harder. Try harder. I don’t know what you were thinking of - handing in a piece of work like this. Were you day dreaming again? Next time, try harder.
So I did. Always harder. Sharpening and compressing my focus. There had to be a way of doing it. Everyone else was doing it. Just a little harder.
There is a point when an instrument has been strained so far beyond its tolerance that it snaps. But the brain it seems is not like that. There is always more concentration to be extracted. I just had to try a little bit harder...