My early schooling was spoilt by the fact that I found it almost impossible to learn to read. My friends were running through the programme as if it was a ride in the park. They were fast readers, accomplished learners who never had to endure the torture of actually learning something from scratch. Me? I was just a dumbo whose brain had not evolved to the level required to decode the books that were placed before me.
These two little ‘lovely’ children made my life hell, on a daily basis.
It was common practice to let children read aloud. It was a way of getting everyone to participate in the story. It ought to have been good, but I found it excruciating.
I grew to hate these two.
I also grew to dread that long path that led towards my desk and the moment when one of the easy reading community passed on the bemusing baton for me to latch on to. I would stumble over the easiest of words, struggle with compounds and blends, and collapse over consonants and vowels. I absolutely hated reading aloud.
READING SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED!
Apart from my dad, nobody else took much notice of my lack of literacy. It was funny for many of my pals when I stumble and fell off each and every sentence that was placed before me. I discovered that the laughter was a screen that I could hide behind. I had a talent that could make my life a little easier. My talent was not reading, but it was the ability to prompt amused responses from those around me. I couldn’t read so I decided to try to make people laugh instead.
I have come across this in students that I have taught throughout the twenty-five years I have had in teaching. The class-clowns, often razor sharp, frustratingly ahead of the game (if the game is to avoid learning), practiced in numerous techniques and strategies to avoid going anywhere near their Achilles Heels in the course of any given school day. They have mastered diversionary tactics that mask their deeply-rooted anxiety about the one thing that trips them up. They build around the problem, develop new skills, nurture talents that may not have been cultivated if it hadn’t been for their issue. Often, they succeed in avoiding the literacy thing all together; that is until it comes back to bite them when they cannot hide any longer. I had the chance to become one of these kids, but something stopped me. I loved learning. Even the class-clown that I was, loved learning.
My literacy problems did not go away overnight. I still have them. When I first became a teacher, I would fret about my poor spelling. I would fret about writing on the boards. Back then, it was the old blackboards that took some rubbing clean. Any mistakes that I made would stubbornly remain, ghostlike behind my intention. Smart kids would offer up alerting hands to point out words that I had incorrectly placed before them. I would joke and point out that that was why I kept a dictionary close at hand, so that I could check before I wrote. Even now, many years an English teacher and practiced writer, I still check my words. I have mild dyslexia. A gift from God.
It was Shakespeare who first helped me.
I loved Shakespeare because the language seemed as impenetrable as the ordinary stuff that was served up at school. Everybody struggled with Old Bill and that made me happy. All those self-satisfied smug looks fell away in one reading. All at once it was me who was finding the going amusing. I took a copy of Romeo and Juliet home and set about reading it aloud. Nobody at home worried about this because it was me doing it and I did funny things anyway. And you know what? When I read Shakespeare, I read it in role. I became a Shakespearean character reading Shakespearean English. I was not myself. I was not the lad who could not read. I could read and I was brilliant at reading Shakespeare! It wasn’t until later that I found that I had to become someone else in order to overcome the many challenges that were to stand in my way.
Sally Gardner From The Guardian newspaper November 2014.
(No! That’s not me dressing up. This lovely person is a writer who’s embraced her dyslexic gift.)
When I was at school nobody really knew what dyslexia was. They called it word blind. I always think not being able to spell is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a bit like seeing the iceberg and saying there is dyslexia – but it’s what’s underneath it that interests me a lot more than the boringness of spelling and reading and writing. Because before the first dictionary was written by Mr Samuel Johnson, we spelt rather imaginatively. Nobody was dyslexic, there wasn’t such a word. Some really famous writers from the past such as Chauncer and Shakespeare would have been in a special reading scheme as they hardly spelt the same word the same twice. A lot of Shakespeare’s work was written down for him.
I was sent to a school for maladjusted (which means behaviour problems) children which I eventually left. Then I was 14 went to a posh girls school, but the girls were absolutely horrid to me. I eventually learnt to read at 14 and my mother told me if I got five O levels (old fashioned version of GCSEs), I could go to art school. I just memorised everything. And did manage to get the five, even English literature. When I took that particular exam my English teacher told me write very quietly and not make any noise. She told me: “There are children here going to university and you’re not. So don’t disturbe them please.” So you can see she wasn’t a very supportive teacher.
It has taken me my life to come to terms with the pain of not ever having been a natural reader. I think that I have passed my gift on to my daughters. And the good thing with that is that they are thriving because of it.