Sunday, 13 January 2013

Dyslexia Blog - You are not alone, you just think you are !

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.

Ok, preamble over. What I am focussing on today is the sense of isolation felt by many dyslexics. When I was a kid, I felt lonely much of the time. No matter how intelligent you are, no matter how brilliant a mind you have, dyslexia WILL make your grades artificially lower. This is now recognised, and dyslexic are allowed extra time. Although I would guess myself and my wife have similar IQ's, I can only read at 2/3rds the speed she can. Think what this means in terms of exams, where you work to a tight time limit? Exams are meant to assess how intelligent you are, not how quickly you can read. That is why it is fair that dyslexics get extra time. I actually have a bit of a problem with the concept of a "time limited exam" full stop. If I want a nuclear physicist to design my nuclear power station safety system, I want the bloke who will spend his time and get it 100% right, not the bloke who can get it 80% right in an hour and a half. A glib comment in some ways, but one with perhaps more truth than you may initally think. I know many dyslexics who work in the creative industries. To succeed at school, dyslexics have to develop a coping mechanism. This means you have to rigorously check work. I reread every sentence I write three times. I still get things wrong, but it filters much of the effects out. This means that whilst there are grammatic errors & spelling issues, the logic works. Many people do not realise Albert Einstein was dyslexic. At school he was an average pupil. Like me (although I am no Albert Einstein), he did not talk until he was six. His first words were at the dinner table. He said "I don't like peas". His family were gobsmacked. His mother said "You can talk ! why didn't you talk before?". He replied "everything was alright before". In my case, my first words were also at the dinner table. I said "I wanna piece of cake". The family were all stunned.

I can't remember why I didn't speak. I've read articles on the syndrome. It's called elective mutism. Maybe like Albert Einstein, I just had nothing much to say before. I can remember going to the doctor aged 4 for a hearing test. There was a clinic in Hartley Avenue, Mill Hill that used to do them. They told me that the machine had a special device that could tell if I was lying. As I have always been pretty honest, this struck me as nothing more than a highly interesting gadget, which intrigued me. It was only years later that I realised the doctor was the one who was lying. That is perhaps the first encounter I had with authority, where I found at that they didn't always tell the truth. Strangely I have many very strong memories of my early years. Is it just me, or is it a common dyslexic trait. In 1977, I went to Manchester City for the first time to watch City play Spurs. On arrival at Piccadilly Station, I looked up and remembered the architecture of the station roof. On returning, I asked my mum if she'd ever taken me to Manchester as a child, she'd said that she had, but I couldn't possibly have remembered it because I was only 18 months old. There are many other memories.

Until I went to school, I was very happy. As soon as I went to school, all that changed. I had entered a world where every day was a challenge. Every day was like undertaking a secret mission as a spy. My mission? To fool everyone into thinking I didn't actually exist. I found that hiding was the best strategy for avoiding ridicule. In a recent documentary, fellow dyslexic Shane Lynch explained how he would hide in lessons. He would always pick a desk at the side, half way up. This was exactly the same spot I would always choose throughout my schooling. I would never put my hand up, even if I was sure I was right. Too much scope for things to go wrong. At St Vincents School, in the infants we used to have a weekly spelling test. If you got all of the answers right, you would get a star next to your name. If you got none right, you'd get a black mark. My parents went along to a parents evening and were shocked to see that every other child (apart from one) had at least half a dozen stars. Near the bottom (alphabetically) was poor old me, with four black marks. My Dad went mad. He sat down with me for two hours, getting increasingly frustrated as his efforts to get me to spell the allocation of 20 words to learn went on and on. In the end, after much shouting he gave up. At the end of the term, I still had no stars and even more black marks. At the age of seven, it was off for remedial reading classes. Here we were given Jack and Jill books (that reception were reading). It was humiliating. The issue wasn't that I couldn't read simple words like "Car" or "apple". The issue is that with long sentences, the brain jumbles all the words up, the reassembles them.  Let me give you an example. Take a newspaper. Open it at the features page. Look at the headline on the main story for 1/2 a second then look away. Make a note of what you think it said. Then look at it again more carefully. I just did this on Page 39 of the Daily Express. There is a feature on Daniel Day Lewis and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. When I looked at it for 1/2 a second I noted the headline as "Actor who lives the Literary role". When I looked at it again and reread it, the headline says "Actor who literally lives the role". I have taught myself to reread every sentence. When I was at primary school, I didn't realise I was not reading the sentence correctly. As for spelling. Blogger puts a red line under words I misspell when I write the blog. It makes it easy to get things right. At school there were no computers and no red lines.

Then we came to the syntax, grammar and rules of english. My dyslexic brain only processes words it can understand. When we come to how the language is made up, we hear of vowel, nouns, verbs, adverbs, past tense, adjectives. All of these words have no meaning to me. I learned english in the way a performing monkey learns to play the organ. I can do it, I can make everyone think I'm very clever, I can write long blogs and chuck in the odd impressive word. But I am a fraud. It isn't well written or well constructed. It isn't gramatically correct. It is only correctly spelt because of the red lines that appear when I get things wrong.

Now as well as being dyslexic, I had another battle to fight, especially at infants and primary school. I was born in late August. Not only this but I was born six weeks premature, I should have been born in early October. When I started school, some of my classmates born in September were biologically over a year older than me. So I was small as well as dyslexic. I had no prowess for any form of sport. I had no intellectual aptitude. I had the attention span of a gnat. Had my mother hung on anther ten days or so, I would probably have been one of the bigger members of the class and at least been able to hold my own physically, but nope. The cards had been dealt and I'd been given a crap hand.

So the safest strategy is to hide, live on the fringes. Not draw attention to yourself. Pull in on yourself and find hobbies which don't involve other people. I used to love building airfix models. The one saving grace in the early years was my home life. My next door neighbours had two boys. One was my age, six days older than me. He was even smaller than me and not an acedemic superstar, although a really great bloke. His step brother was two years younger and incredibly intelligent, but like me a bit of a loner at school (he wasn't keen on football etc). Whilst school was hell, holidays were heaven. We'd run wild. My parents had a large garden for Mill Hill. We backed onto the motorway and railway, so we could hop over the fence and go on "missions" up the motorway embankment. In hindsight, this little bit of nirvana was the saving grace in my life. In hindsight I lived in a total fantasy world. The thing was that this world was far better than the real one I was faced with. If my parents had lived in a tower block with no garden and no friends next door, I shudder to think how bad it could have been.

There was one other rather odd circumstance in the mix. I also had a modelling career between the ages of four and nine. My eldest sister had secured a role in a Tizer commercial in 1966 and the rest of the family had been roped in as well as they wanted a family. I ended up on the books of Norrie Carr agency. This was something I excelled at. I spent my life acting at school, so this was easy. I quickly learned that all you had to do was work out what the director wanted and deliver exactly that. Other kids, often with pushy parents, didn't get it. The highlight of my career was a Heinz Baked beans advert in 1967. It was the first in the series with the song "A million housewives every day pick up a tin of beans and say..". I can remember going for the screen test. We were in a shabby office. About  a dozen kids were in the queue before me. I could hear the squeals and arguments as the director and the parents tried to get the kids to eat a spoonful of cold beans. When my turn came, I smiled and shovelled down a few spoonfuls. The director was happily surprised. He said "Do you like cold baked beans". I said "No, I'm acting". Job Done. The commercial won an award at Cannes. I had to appear with two holdalls full of beans and say "we can't go on holiday without the beans mum". I loved doing commercials. I was in a glamorous adult world, and it meant days out of school. I was good at it. It ended abruptly in in 1971 as my mum had cancer. I had done adverts for most of the major brands, Cadburys, Galaxy, Tizer, Lucozade, stacks of photoshoots and a few foreign TV commercials. My mum put the money in the bank for me, after taking her cut.

The experience gave me a degree of confidence. Perhaps this is a big difference between myself and many other dyslexics of the same era. Of course everyone can't have a modelling career, but for me that and my friends at home made a huge difference. As I grew, I caught up physically with my peers. I learned to cope with my dyslexia. I was never a straight A student, but I could manage "c" grades at O Level, getting nine. Much to my amazement, one of these was English Language. I didn't know I was dyslexic then, but I put the work in. I found that work could bring me up to a level. I changed schools, I was expelled. I took my A Levels at Orange Hill. By this time, I had a band and a studio to play in (which earned me a bit of pocket money). The big change in my life, came when I saw the Ramones at the Roundhouse in 1977. I discovered Punk rock music and the feelings of alienation and loneliness abated. The music was about alienation. I immediately associated with it. People were writing songs which summed up my inner turmoil.

The biggest release was finding that I wasn't alone in feeling like an outsider. As I've written the dyslexia blog and talked to more and more people about the subject, I've realised that perhaps the first thing a parent needs to do if they find that dylsexia is affecting a child is to find other people locally and realise you are not alone. Just about every dyslexia blog I've written, I get either a comment or an email from someone saying "Thats sounds exactly like what happened to me". We all thought we were alone. When I read other peoples blogs or articles or watch documentaries such as Shane Lynch, I see recollections of behaviour I adopted.

In an odd sort of way, I'm happy I went through the experiences I had. It was truly awful at the time, but it has given me an insight into a side of life that my five brothers and sisters who are all very intelligent have never had. It has made me very adaptable and I hope given me a little bit more compassion than I would have had otherwise. What I find odd is that despite all of my successes, artistic, personal and business, I still deep down feel like a fraud. I still feel like that secret spy on a mission to get through the day. Is this a bad thing? I really don't know. What I do know is that I've been extremely lucky. If your child has the same sort of issues I had, you can do one of two things. You can pray that they are blessed with my luck in life. The other thing you can do is take positive action to help them.  This involves learning about the condition, making use of the help and tools available and most important of all, making sure that they realise they are not alone. If you are dyslexic and you are reading this, the first thing to realise is that you are not alone. Whatever bad things have happened, there are loads of us in a similar situation. There is no magic wand that takes the troubles away, but there are things that can make life better. I have found that by the simple action of writing this blog, I've chased off a few demons and understand myself far better. What I hadn't realised before I started the blog is that you can't chase any demons away until you've identified them. That really is the first step of the journey.


baarnett said...

You weren't one of these little bra...young people, were you Roger?

Heinz 100th anniversary medley

baarnett said...

Or, does any of this ring a bell?

Heinz Baked Beans (1)

"I’m always seeing adverts where boys just talk in rhyme,
And say how much they like Heinz beans and eat them all the time.
Well that’s not very clever, I’m not all that impressed
’Cos everybody likes Heinz beans, ’cos Heinz Beans are the best.
They could use that as a slogan!"

Heinz Baked Beans (2): 1967

"A million housewives every day
pick up a tin of beans and say,
'Beanz meanz Heinz!'"

Heinz Baked Beans (3)

A series with two 6-year-old boys, John and his brother:

"I sometimes think my Mum prefers my Dad as much as me,
You ought to see the pile of beans she gives my Dad for tea,
I need Heinz beans as much as him — in fact I need them more
’Cause my Dad’s very very old — and me I’m only four.
(I’m six really, but it didn’t fit.)"

"We like Heinz Beans a lot, my brother John and me,
We eat them all the time because … … … …,
We haven’t had our beans today,
“There’s something wrong” we said,
Until we found the reason was
We’d just got out of bed!
(We knew because we still had our pyjamas on!)"

"You can’t have stew for breakfast
You can’t have porridge for tea
But we have Heinz beans at any time
My brother John and me."

Music! "Don’t be mean with the beans, Mum,
Beanz meanz Heinz!"

Heinz Baked Beans (4): 1967

Mum: "Sure you’ll be all right?"

Daughter: "Yes mum — I can do it" (opens a can of Heinz beans)

Music! "A million housewives every day
pick up a can of beans and say
'Beans means Heinz!'"

Mum: "Rosemary’s quite a cook — she did the beans."

Son: "Well if she’s a cook, I’m a magician."

Mum: "Oh?"

Son: "Yes, just watch these beans disappear."

Music! "A million housewives every day
pick up a can of beans and say
'Beans means Heinz!'"


(What do you think of it so far?)

Rog T said...

Nope, my line was "We can't go on holiday without the beans mum". It was shown in a TV documentary about attitudes to foreign travel. It was b/w and had me carrying two holdalls of beans.

My Missus tried to get hold of a copy for my 40th birthday but failed. If anyone has any idea where you could, let me know. If nothing else it would give the kids a laugh.