Sunday, 13 January 2013

Dyslexia Blog - Nothing beats a bit of equal opportunities mistreatment of children

For those of you who haven't read my dyslexia blogs before, here is a little preamble and introduction, so you know who I am and what I do and why I write this stuff. For those of you who know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph for todays installment. Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 16 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, a friend suggested I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion. In 2013, I have set one of my objectives to use this blog to let dyslexics know they are not alone, to suggest that people who think they may be dyslexic to get an assessment and toget people who have dyslexic children or siblings to understand the issues that they face.

This second installment of the dyslexia blog today, highlights one of the few upsides of dyslexia in my formative years at school. Hopefully all will become clear near the end of it, if you can stay with it that long. 

How weird is this. There are a group of five bloggers in Barnet who have achieved a degree of national fame for our tireless work exposing wrongdoing in Barnet Council. I am one of these five (for those who have only found the blog though the dyslexia links etc). Another one of the bloggers is Theresa Musgrove AKA Mrs Angry. Rather oddly (or perhaps not) we both attended the same school, although she was four years above me. Strangely  we both, wrote blogs earlier today which mentioned our experiences at school. My blog, briefly described the experience in relation to my dyslexia. Mrs Angry went into much more detail about one teacher in particular, Miss O'Donovan in her blog - - Mrs Angry feels deeply damaged by the experience. Having read the blog and the details of her treatment, I can confirm that this is a pretty accurate account of the way things were in Miss O'Donovans class.

What is interesting though, is the fact I have very different memories of the school. I am the youngest of six. All of my brothers and sisters also went through Miss O'Donovans class. They all talked of her in hushed tones, fear in their voice. Like Mrs Angry, they were all on the top table. My eldest twin brothers were caned by Miss O'Donovan withing half an hour of arriving in the reception class. When I was at the school, Miss O'Donovan taught the "infant 2" class. What is now called reception was called the baby class. The teacher of this year was Sister Rosalie. She was nice. We made crocodiles out of cotton reels and didn't do any work. I enjoyed the baby class. I was only there for one term having joined the school in the April. As I wasn't talking when I was four, my mum was worried about sending me, so held me back.

The next class was Mrs Munich. I felt she was aptly named. It was a trial for me. All of the ex St Vincents friends I know have fond memories of Mrs Munich. I don't. Mrs Angry talks about the baby table/lazy table. That was me. The one memory I had of Mrs Munich was being asked to spell TRAIN. I said T - R - I - A - N. She called me to the front of the class and said "No it is spelt T - R- A- I - N" and as she read each letter, she wrote it on the blackboard. I wrote T - R- I -A - N under it. All of the class laughed. She called me an idiot and hit be across the palm of the hand with a ruler. I cried and everyone laughed. She made me write out 10 times. "I am an idiot". She gave me a verbal instruction. I wrote out ten times "I am an idoit". For that I had to write out twenty times "I am a an idiot and I can spell idiot". For people who say corporal punishment doesn't work, I would say "I've always spelt train and idiot" correctly since that day. Mrs Munichs class for me was horrible. My sisters teased me that things would be so much worse in Miss O'Donovans class.

For the first two weeks if Miss O'Donovans class, I managed to keep a low profile. I didn't have a bad time, although she systematically started to destroy the self esteem of all and sundry. I noticed that the Top Table got special treatment in the first two weeks. I think this was deliberate. Mrs Munich had been nice to them. They needed a good kicking and Miss O'Dononvan was more than happy. She new that our lot would present many natural opportunities, the top table, she had to set traps for. I noticed that they were given seemingly impossible tasks. The prettiest girls were usually the ones she targetted for "special treatment". Then we had a lucky break. Miss O'Donovan got ill. She was off school until Christmas and had to have an operation. We hoped she wouldn't come back. That was an early christmas present. I hadn't been on the receiving end of anything. Just before Christmas, Sister Gabriel (Gabsy), the headmistress arrived to give us some good news. Miss O'Donovan was getting better and would be back in January. She informed us with a straight face (did she ever have anything else), that our prayers had been answered. So far I hadn't really minded Miss O'Donovan. She'd dished it out to lots of people who had up until then got off lightly. I thought this was more than fair.

Just before I was due to return to school in January, I noticed I had a nasty rash. I had Chicken Pox. I was overjoyed. This meant a few weeks off school. Back in the 1960's when you got chicken pox, all of your family who hadn't had it were brought around to see you. The idea was that they too would get it and be done with it. One of them gave me whooping cough. All in all I managed five weeks off school. It was great. I got to watch the telly. Sadly as this was the 1960's this meant Play School at 11am and a few trade test transmissions (remember them). It was great.

So I went back in February. I had managed to avoid Miss O'Donovan for nearly half of the term. I came back in and what I hadn't counted on was that the Lazy Table had come in for the treatment. I had been back in class 30 minutes when Miss O'Donovan announced a desk inspection. In her class if you broke a ruler or pencil or compass, you got a whack on the knuckles with a ruler. These were found by random desk inspections. I got asked to open my desk up. It had six broken rulers and five broken pencils in. The other kids had dumped their broken bits and pieces in my desk and got their folks to buy them new ones. Miss O'Donovan snarled "Roger Tichborne are you collecting broken rulers and pencils" Totally taken aback by this development I meekly said "No Miss O'Donovan". I got eleven whacks with a ruler on the knuckles. It hurt. Strangely though, I wasn't angry at Miss O'Donovan. I was angry at the toads who'd set me up. Over the next few months, I along with the rest of the class endured the Miss O'Donovan treatment. It wasn't pleasant, but we all got a bit of it. For that I quite liked Miss O'Donovan. Mrs Angry recollects her saying "empty vessels make the most noise". I was intrigued by this saying. I always thought "If something is empty, there is nothing in it to make any noise". I never sought clarification.

I think the reason Mrs Angry and my siblings had such a reaction to Mrs O'Donovan was because they felt her terrors were unjustified and unreasonable. As a member of the lazy table, I was used to it. I had it bashed into me that all punishments were justified and reasonable. I was dyslexic, I couldn't do simple things which everyone else could. Often I was told that this was because the devil was in me. I took reassurance from this. If the devil was making me spell words wrong and read badly, then I'm not really to blame. I thought maybe when I made my first holy communion, the devil would go and I'd be OK. This didn't work. In the final year of St Vincents, we received the sacrament of confirmation. We were told how this meant the Holy Spirit would come down on us. We were told how the apostles could talk in foreign languages after they recieved the Holy Spirit. I genuinely felt that this would be a massive turning point for me. I would see the back of the devil and be OK. Bishop Mahon came to the Sacred Heart church and confirmed me. I felt nothing (apart from cheated). It was a massive disappointment.

After that, I realised I'd just have to get used to the idea I was a bit thick. I didn't know I was dyslexic until I was in my 30's. By the time I left St Vincents, I'd become immune to the barbs from the teachers. I'd become immune to the corporal punishment. I realised that however hard they hit you, it was only transient pain. My view of teachers was that they were people who existed solely to be horrible to children. The only children who escaped were the teachers pets. I viewed these as collaborators (although I didn't know the word), beneath contempt. In Junior 3 we had a nice teacher. Her name was Miss MacDonald. She was young and pretty, she didn't hit us.  She would read us books she thought may interest us. I probably had a massive crush on her. The sad thing was, I didn't consider her to be a proper teacher because she was nice.

During her lessons, I used to continually act up. She would send me out of the class, which I considered a result. I used to keep a couple of crusts in my pocket and feed sparrows as I stood outside the classroom. Miss MacDonald saw this one day. At playtime she kept me back and sat me down. She said "what were you doing to the sparrows. I saw you throwing things at them?" I replied "I had a couple of crusts of bread in my pocket, I was feeding them". She said "Oh" sent me on my way. The next day, I was sent out again. I did the same thing. Again she called me in "I saw you feeding the sparrows again" I replied "yes, I had a few crusts again". She then said "do you bring crusts in every day". I  replied "yes". She then said "Do you get send out to feed the sparrows the crusts?". One of my failings is I hate lying "Yes Miss". She then said "What about the lessons, you are at the bottom of the class?" I said "I don't think lessons are doing much good, I prefer feeding sparrows". She said "Why don't you like lessons?" I said "I am no good at them". She said "well you never will be unless you try". She asked me what books I'd read. I replied "none Miss". She then asked if I read anything at all. I said "I like Comics". After that she sent me out to break. I didn't get sent out again. After the parents evening, my mum said "Miss MacDonald says we should buy you as many comics as we can, to help you with your reading". In hindsight that was a blessing. Until then, my parents had discouraged me from reading comics, as they weren't proper books. I think for many dyslexics, comics are a blessing as the pictures help make sense of the words.

Consider this fact. Upwards of 40% of the prison population are dyslexic, many are completely illiterate. Many have a feeling of burning injustice about the system. It is easy enough to identify a dyslexic at six years old. It is easy enough to follow the best practice so the disadvantages of the condition are mitigated. All it needs is for the educational establishment to admit that it has been failing us since its inception. Mrs Angry writes about Miss O'Donovan in eloquent tones, but to be quite honest, for me she was just one of a whole bunch who let me down. In some ways she was better for me personally because she was an equal opportunities mistreater. We all got it, not just the lazy/thick idoits like me who can't spell trian! Why should it only ever be the thickies who are clobbered, it's not as if beating anyone makes them any more intelligent. I didn't ever feel singled out by her. She was one of the few I can say that of. For us dyslexic children of the 1960's that was actually a little bit of a result.


hellibird said...

Interesting! I am not dyslexic. (FWIW I was at Orange Hill and was a classmate of your sister Caroline in the Sixth Form). My mother has taught kids with special needs over the years and this has given me some insight and sympathy. I reckon I'm dyslexic when it comes to reading music but not with anything else. Mum is dyslexic when reading Hebrew (we're Jewish) and just *can't* see words within groups of letters in Hebrew but is fine in English/Danish/German. Dyslexia can be really patchy! One of my former classmates was dyslexic and has a dyslexic son. I think it's a massive shame dyslexia is detected so late when kids could benefit enormously from early detection and remedial work. Keep up the blogging!

Mrs Angry said...

I can hardly bear to read this, just when I thought I had exorcised my own Miss O'Donovan memories, but you are right: she had a genius for bullying, and had a different strategy for different victims.

On the plus side: yes, a good beating is a brilliant way of raising standards of spelling & numeracy. Until recently my spelling was impeccable, and my grasp of times tables the only mathematical knowledge I could retain. I imagine Michael Gove will want to consider bringing back the cane, and the wooden ruler, sooner or later ...

Sharada said...

My 7 year old son is very dyslexic and one of the main reasons I have fought to stay in this crappy and tiresome Borough is because of the school my son goes to. He gets individual sessions in literacy & maths, assistance of a TA during classes, individual touch typing tuition once a week after school as well as once a week after school dyslexia support, with other dyslexic children participating from other schools, where the children are engaged in memory games, meditation techniques (it can be very frustrating being dyslexic!) and taught other skills like 'rainbow' writing and mind mapping. Most importantly, he is valued and treated like the bright and wonderful child he is. When he does feel like he is failing and not keeping up with his classmates, the school arrange a confidence building activity for him. This type of support is unheard of at other schools - which is very sad indeed.