Sunday, 4 November 2012

Dyslexia - The secret of success

About six months ago, I had an on air ding dong with BBC London 94.9 presenter Jeni Barnett. One of the topics she was discussing on her show was dyslexia. She made a comment that dyslexia should be treated as a wonderful gift and how lots of dyslexic people she knows have "special talents". I was livid. This is the sort of ignorant claptrap which is at the root of all the problems people with dyslexia have to endure.

What did my "special gift" give me? It gave me 14 years of misery at school. Every test I ever did was a major source of anxiety. If you are not dyslexic, you won't understand what it is like to do a test, think you've done well and then get a low mark because your brain has meddled with the answer you actually wrote down. It made me endure years of pisstaking and humiliation at the hands of teachers, who would use such encouraging phrases as "were you dropped on your head when you were born" or the even more motivational "I taught your brothers and sistes and they were quite intelligent, what went wrong with you?" or even better "Tichborne, I think you were Gods consilation prize for your parents". The mistake they made was to confuse stupidity with dyslexia, they are not the same thing. When I got to age 13-14, I decided that I wasn't going to take it anymore. I remember well one teacher at FCHS asked the question "Tichborne, you are a complete idiot, do you have any explanation as to why?" To his complete amazement, I shot back "Yes sir, I think it's something to do with the fact you are not a very good teacher". Now in the 1970's such things were dealt with in a different manner. You would get physically beaten for such "insolence". You had a stark choice humiliation or physical violence. I was sent to the head of year, for a beating with his cat o' nine tails. The beating was duly administered. I was asked the question "Tichborne, have you learned your lesson?" I responded "What lesson is that sir?" I was given another beating. He then asked "Has the lesson sunk in then?". I responded "what lesson might that be sir". The saga was repeated three more times. I was then dismissed with "You have an attitude problem".

Later that day, I had the year head for a lesson. He smiled darkly as he came in "Tichborne, are you sitting comfortably?" I replied "Yes, sir never sat more comfortably in my life". I was given a detention. When I got home, I had a look in the mirror. My backside was literally black and blue. Strangely enough, the year head never beat me again. In fact he was quite nice after that. When  I was fifteen, about four weeks before our O levels, I turned up an hour late for school. If you were late, you had to report to the school office. The headmaster (who I had numerous run ins) was in the office. We had a conversation "Tichborne, why are you late?" I responded (lying) "Sir the bus was held up". He responded "How come no one else has been held up?". I replied "I don't know sir". He then said "I hope you don't think we're going to let you come back for the sixth form". I replied "Sir, I don't want to come back here." He replied "Well you won't get a job anywhere". I replied "why is that sir". He replied "because any employer will write to me for a reference and I'll make sure you don't get one". I replied "Well sir, it's just as well that I'm going to work for my Dad, who runs a garage, isn't it". At that he exploded "I've had enough of you, get out of here and don't come back". With that, I was expelled from FCHS.

I headed home in a state of trepidation. I knew the headmaster had called my parents and I fully expected a full on beating. I decided to go off and chillout. Stayed on the 251 bus and went to Burnt Oak. There I had a look around the record shop and then a cup of tea at the Betta Cafe, opposite the station. I then headed down to Stephen Sigers record shop in Edgware. I bought a copy of "The Boys". At about 2.30pm, I headed home. My parents used to come home for lunch every day, I knew they'd have returned to work by this time. I put on the album and sat crying on my own. I had no intention of working for my father, he was a lovely guy, but my brother had recently taken over running the business and had made it clear that he didn't want me there. I wanted to do A Levels and go to University. I realised that my big mouth had scuppered these plans and I had a vindictive headmaster who had committed himself to ruining my life. At about 5pm, I decided to go for a walk. I went up to the top of my road and stood on the footbridge over the M1. I was in turmoil. I really couldn't face what was coming. At that moment, a girl who I was friendly with who attended Moat Mount school walked past. She enquired if I was OK. I said "not really, I've just been expelled, my Dad will kill me when I get home". She invited me back to her house for a cup of tea. We sat on the couch and her mum came in. Her mum realised everything was not alright, made me a cup of tea and some egg and chips. She said "don't worry, loads of people have been expelled and gone on to great things, Winston Churchill was expelled from lots of schools". We then went up to my friends bedroom. All of a sudden, I started crying uncontrollably. I don't know if it went on for five minutes or two hours. She just hugged me and said "It's alright". After a time, I calmed down and got my head together. I apologised for being in such a state. She told me that it was alright and she always cried when things upset her. She said that it was OK to cry and she didn't think less of me for it. I'd been brought up to be very macho and show no weakness, I just felt like a failure. We then listened to the Clash and I felt better. I cannot listen to "Garageland" by the Clash, without being transported back to that room.

At about 7.30pm, I had got myself together and decided to go home. In 1978 we didn't have mobile phones. My friend asked if I wanted her to come with me. She said "If I come with you, your Dad might not go so mad". I said no. I realised I had to face this alone. She walked with me to my house. As I walked in, I was braced for what was to come. I walked in and my parents were frantic. They had been called at 10.15 am and hadn't seen me since. They had returned from work and seen I'd been and gone again. They were distraught with fear that I'd done something stupid. My Dad sat me down and asked what had happened. I explained. He then said "I was expecting this". He explained that one of my teachers (who I got on really well with) had written to him and explained that the Headmaster had it in for me and that I would be expelled if he got the opportunity. He suggested that my Dad should not be too angry as he felt I was being victimised. My Dad then turned to the practicalities of the situation. I was supposed to start my O levels in four weeks. If I didn't do these it would have a major effect on my life. He said he would go up to the school and sort things out. He said "You should learn to keep your mouth shut, I hope you learn something". I was amazed. No beating, no slanging match.

My father made an appointment to see the head. That was a week later. He came back and he was furious. He had expected to go up and make a big donation to the school in return for me going back. He felt that it was a storm in a teacup and I'd learned my lesson. The headmaster spoke to him as if he was an idiot. He told him that he couldn't stand me and that the school was better off without me. My father then asked about how he could justify denying me the opportunity to sit my O levels. The head responded that he couldn't care less. My father was a big guy, ex RAF officer and not used to being talked down to. As FCHS was a Catholic school, he decided to play hardball. He informed the Headmaster that he knew the Cardinal and that he would make a complaint to him if I was not allowed to do my O Levels. He pointed out that forgiveness was the central plank of Christianity. The Head relented. I would be allowed to sit my O Levels. I could enter the school for the exams, but was not allowed to speak to anyone on the premises. I could not attend any lessons and I could not speak to any of my teachers. In actual fact this had little effect, as the O level year were on study leave. I passed four O levels at FCHS. I passed another five the following year at Orange Hill Senior High School and two years later, I passed three A levels. My father never spoke of it again and suggested that I should not tell anyone.

You may wonder what all this has to do with Dyslexia? Well I believe that all of my problems at FCHS had their roots in my dyslexia. I wasn't prepared to be bullied or intimidated. I am not unintelligent, so I should not have been treated like a moron. No one should. All of the answering back was merely my way of dealing with an unpleasant situation. I did learn two big lessons that day. They may not be the ones which are obvious. I learned how important friendship is and how we can "get by with a little help from our friends". My friend and her mum made a massive difference. I really shudder to think what may have happened had I not bumped into her. The second lesson I learned was that if we see something bad going on, we should do something about it. The teacher who wrote to my parents did. For this, again I am eternally grateful. It made a difference. It also, much to my surprise, showed me that some teachers do care.

If you are the parent of a dyslexic child and they are not doing well at school, please consider that if they are disruptive, it may be a defence mechanism. If they are cheeky, it may be born of frustration at working harder, being brighter and yet getting worse grades than their peers. It may be that their teachers just don't have the human compassion necessary to do the job they are paid for. When I changed schools, my life changed. I was no longer in an oppressive atmosphere, where any sign of spirit was crushed. At Orange Hill, if I was cheeky, the teachers would treat it as a bit of cheek, rather than a nuclear disaster. Usually any riposts were met with "look, just get on with your work" or "if you want to tell jokes, become a comedian, if you want to pass physics A level, do your work". Some of the teachers enjoyed the banter and it was never a problem.

When I read about teenagers who self harm and commit suicide, I have a degree of understanding. I think that was probably the closest I've ever come to that mindset. My friends mother said to me "in a few years, you'll look back on today and laugh about it". She was wrong. I am still angry about it. There had been a long series of run ins between myself and the Headmaster over a period of three years. He had made up his mind about me and never made any effort at all to try and understand why I may be disruptive or difficult. A couple of the teachers did bother and did make the effort and I got on fine with them. For a long time I felt that I was the problem and that I had a screw loose. I now realise that I was just reacting to a difficult situation as best I could. Should I have just taken the put downs and the humiliations? Should I have taken the bullying and shut up? I don't think so.

So if Jeni Barnett or any other people who think Dyslexia is still a gift and a marvellous thing are reading this, I hope you consider what you are saying. It isn't great.

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