A life backwards
What do the following successful individuals have in common? Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Guy Ritchie, Whoopi Goldberg, Walt Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, Agatha Christie and, in my opinion, the one most worth mentioning, Philip Schultz. The answer; they are all dyslexic, many of them diagnosed late in life. I myself cannot claim to have won a Pulitzer Prize, to be a great inventor or entrepreneur nor am I a movie star – at least not yet! I am dyslexic though and fortunate to have been diagnosed at a fairly young age.
When I was ten years old I couldn’t read or write a sentence properly, I was frustrated at school and my behaviour reflected this. It was clear that state school was failing me. I don’t have any misgivings towards state schools that I wish to bandy around here; my older brother (also dyslexic) remained in state school and he is the one with the PhD. However, if there is one thing that I am constantly grateful for in my everyday life, it is my education. Private school, home tutoring in English and Maths, support from the Dyslexia Institute and a level of understanding from those trying to help me, meant an ultimate level of achievement that I don’t think anyone initially thought possible.
Philip Schultz became an award-winning writer, laying claim to the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, despite not being able to read aged 11. It wasn’t until his son was diagnosed years later that he understood fully how his brain worked. So many people are in awe of his achievement, not least because of his dyslexia. I believe there is an inherent misconception about the encompassing term of dyslexia existing among many people. As a dyslexic who loves to read, writes poetry, enjoys a good crossword and took English GCSE a year early, I am often amazed at the blanket perceptions of dyslexia.
So, if I can read and write now, what was the problem? I share some similar experiences to the aforementioned great poet. When you grow up feeling like you come from Mars and no one understands you, it helps to indulge in such commonalities! Anxiety – I used to think I was anxious, now I know that a large part of my ‘nervousness’ was about trying to compensate for my dyslexic brain. Nothing made sense, instructions, reading a clock, maps, left and right, the way people talked, the alphabet. The latter only really making sense to me when I learnt sign language – far easier to remember in a physical form than a sound. I’ve played hockey now for 18 years – I still struggle with which side of the pitch is left and right – I go by what other people who know are doing and favour central positions of the game!
I had extra time in my exams from GCSE right the way through to university – what I think that extra time allowed me to do, was drift off and start day-dreaming a million times before being able to bring my attention back to what I was doing and carry on with it. It allowed me to have a panic when looking up the German word for sister in my dictionary, when the letter S had completely dropped off my radar. It also allowed me to uncover every single word of an exam question one by one with my thumb. I did many exams on my own – mainly because finding my desk in the exam hall was my worst nightmare – alphabetical order and some snake-like pattern of desks that made no sense at all, cue panic (which, by the way, I spelt que first time round). I also struggled with general knowledge and hated history. If something wasn’t what I considered ‘real’ to me, I had little comprehension of it. I still remember agonising over the questions in my evaluations at the Dyslexia Institute – I never knew who the Prime Minister was, couldn’t be certain who was on the throne and when confronted with drawing the shape of the UK, I would go blank. I also reached quite a late age (I won’t confess how old!) before I stopped asking whether the poor unfortunate victims really died in the Ruth Rendell murder mysteries on TV.
I wrote my first poem when I was 12 years old and I still remember it now, ‘I’m playing music in my mind, first a very happy kind. Very calm and very sedate, living life without knowing the time or the date.’ I remember it all and for someone that doesn’t really ‘do’ remembering stuff I think that says something. If you asked me to write a poem about autumn, I couldn’t do it. I would stare blankly and melt under your expectations. Poetry for me, spills out of my mind, so much so that I often feel like I need paper and pen hanging round my neck – so that I might mop it up, absorb it, before it’s forgotten. Thoughts and ideas, they can be fleeting enigmas. I entered a national poetry competition run by the Dyslexia Institute, ‘As I See It’ and won with a poem called My ABC. I still enjoy the irony of my exploitation of the alphabet archetype!
I am aware that this brief foray into the specific learning difficulties, known as dyslexia, is quite self-indulgent and I question what all of this says and where it’s going, but then, for me that’s always the point! I suppose my aim was to explain a few things about what it means to be dyslexic other than the obvious English language difficulties. I’m just glad that I didn’t reach 58 before learning how I learn and that despite feeling a bit backwards I have many tools that have helped me make the most of the opportunity to learn. It’s amazing how a yellow translucent piece of plastic can make the words on a page stop dancing, or how feeling wooden shapes of letters, can help commit them to your brain. Then there’s some stuff that you learn to accept – I will never remember which gears on my bike go up or down or what the difference between desert and dessert is, but once I become a household name as a distinguished poet, I doubt any of those things will really matter.
DYSLEXIA – what a ridiculous mele of the alphabet bestowed upon those who might struggle with it most!!