Friday 7 February 2014

Dyslexia Blog - The moment you know that things will be alright

For those of you who have read my dyslexia blogs before, you may wish to skip this paragraph as it is just the background. If you 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.

I sometimes read these dyslexia blogs and think that people who have never met me must think I am a quivering wreck, who has had a terrible life. In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It has mostly been a scream. Throughout all of the difficulties, I have always been able to retreat into a fantasy world and pretend things were better. I've always had a great set of friends, who have been around when things have been difficult. I doubt any of them have ever even realised it, but they have kept me going. At primary school, when I was subject to all manner of daily trials and humiliations, there was always the promise of playtime, or the bell at the end of day. I was educated at St Vincents Primary School on the Ridgeway. I used to walk home past a little shop, by the Angel pond, called Lambs. It was run by a little old lady and they used to sell such delicacies as sugar mice and lucky bags. No matter how bad things were, I could always look forward to diving into Lambs to buy a treat with my friends as we walked home. In those days, we were given bus fare, but used to walk and spend this on sweets. Lambs was a tiny shop with a very old fashioned range. Some of my friends used to complain about the lack of choice and one or two were occasionally cheeky to the old dear who ran it. She would simply ban anyone who upset her, until such time as they issues a grovelling apology. I learned young that you never upset such people. I've always treated everyone who had control of my next meal with utmost respect. 

As we made our way home, all memories of the days schooling and humiliations were erased. Being the youngest of six children, there was never any pressure to do any schoolwork and no expectation of academic achievement. Over the last few years, since I've thought more deeply about the subject, I have wondered what it would have been like if I'd been the only child of aspirational parents who expected me to become a genius. What must it be like to have pressure of expectations? I can imagine that would be really hellish. For me, each poor school report was met with a shrug from my parents. My father would become frustrated because he thought I didn't listen to anyone. In truth, I tried, but often found I'd instantly forget information. Even worse was peoples names. Once I know someone, I am fine, but if I am introduced to a group of people, I've forgotten the first ones name by the time I've been introduced to the second one (Oddly the only time this doesn't seem to apply with attractive women, never quite figured out why). 

I was asked recently when I realised that "things were OK". The answer for me was quite a specific one. When I was 20, I had reached a bit of an impass in my life. I was completely skint and I had met a girl who I wanted to have a serious relationship with. She had a job and was quite happy to subsidise a poor musician like me, but that wasn't really where I wanted to be, meeting in the pub and drinking her wages. Fate intervened. I was in the habit of getting temporary work from the Golders Green Job Centre. One day, I realised that there was a very attractive girl working on the training desk. Despite my relationship status, I suddenly found I had become very interested in what training was on offer. To my eternal shame, I was in the habit of asking about training and then suggesting that we carried on the discussion in the pub after work. The young lady in question always informed me that she only went out with blokes who had a proper job and that she had expensive tastes. This didn't deter me, it became a challenge. In the end, she had enough and said "Right, I'm booking you in for an interview for an IT course". She then said "Come back when you are earning lots of money". So I ended up at Compucentres in Euston to be interviewed for a 1 year course in Computer programming. It was a three part test. A maths test. Easy peasy. A science test. Easy peasy. Then a logic test. I'd never seen one of these before and it completely threw me. A down side of dyslexia is that words I don't recognise are completely meaningless, so I had no idea at all what it was on about. Whilst I achieved 100% on the numeracy test and 90% on the science test, I got a big fat zero on the logic test. We had to come back a week later for an interview. For the test, I'd turned up in a suit. Everyone else in the room was uber casual. I felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb.

I turned up for the interview in rather more casual attire. The interviewer pulled me up on this "You wore a suit for the test, why are you not dressed smartly?" I replied that no one else had worn a suit, so I assumed the college was casual. He sniffily asked whether I always followed the crowd. He then gave me my marks. The bad news was that I'd got zero on the logic test, The worst score ever (jointly no doubt). I wasn't cut out to be a computer programmer. I was gutted. What a waste of time. I'd come all the way into town, to be told that. Then he said "We can however offer you a place on the Computer Operators TOPS course". TOPS was Margaret Thatchers answer to the IT skills crisis. You got £40 a week and work related training. Rather embarrassingly, I didn't know the difference between a computer programmer and an operator. So I asked the only question which I could think of "Who earns more, operators or programmers?" the answer temporarily stumped the interviewer. "Well, erm they both earn about the same, but programming is more interesting". I then asked "How long is the operators course? "It's 8 weeks". So iI then said "So I can spend a year studying programming, or a two months studying operating to earn the same amount of cash?". The interviewer replied "Yes". So I said "Sign me up for the Operators course". 

Three weeks later, I started. I worked as hard as I could and got decent marks, despite the fact that the subject was about as interesting as watching paint dry. The course covered punched cards, punched tape, barrel printers and all manner of other long forgotten aspects of computing. Most of it was out of date then.  After six weeks, we were told that the college would try and find us work assignments. By this time I was dreading it. I had twigged that although being a computer operator was well paid, it was generally shift work and very boring. As I was in a band, I was starting to dread this. Much pressure was put on us to take any job we were offered. This was how the college received its funding, so they simply wanted to get us a job and take the cash. As ever with dyslexia, all manner of problems with the work manifested themselves, but the course was relatively easy and I got good grades. Sadly for me, there were a couple of guys who did far better. They were guys who were, for want of a better word, nerdy. They loved the idea of working changing boxes of paper on printers and putting tapes on tapedrives. I was panicking, knowing that things like selecting a tape with a meaningless number from a large stock, would be a minefield for me.

We got sent to the first interview. This was as a trainee operator at a large insurance company. A Miss Marple type showed me around. When she asked if I had any questions, I asked what the wages were. She replied disdainfully "We don't discuss such things. It is a chance to work for a well respected company". I asked again. The answer shocked me. It would be less than I'd been earning as a jobbing painter and decorator. This would be reviewed after 2 years. I was horrified. Miss Marple was pretty horrified at me. She complained to the college that all I'd asked about was money. The second job was with a large oil company. This dripped money. I thought that this could be quite good, but the man who interviewed me was one of the most obnoxious people I'd ever met. Much as I'd have liked the bucks, he took an instant dislike to me and it was clear after 2 minutes that he was simply going through the motions. When I returned, I was informed that I'd not impressed him. It turned out his name was Jeff, but I'd kept calling him Dave. I was informed that if I had another bad interview, they'd give up on me.Oddly, despite the college making their money finding people jobs, they didn't actually tell you how to conduct an interview. 

A couple of days later, the third job came up. I was told that this was a "bit of a strange job". It was with a big software house. I was told that it wasn't a proper computer operators job and that the prospects may not be as good as with an oil company or am insurance company. I asked what a software house did. I was told that they wrote programs for big companies. I asked what the job was. They said it was unclear. They sent me along with the two nerds. I went last. I met one nerd walking back from the interview. I asked "How did it go?" He was really excited "I told them all about how I had written a program for my Sinclair Spectrum". I was worried. Then as I was ushered up, I saw nerd number 2. He was grinning from ear to ear. Here I was, never looked at a computer, going for a job with a company that writes software with two nerds who had been locked in their bedrooms for the last ten years with their Sinclair Spectrums. I'd given up before I entered the door. The person who interviewed me was called "Peter". He was rather posh. He reminded me of Prince Michael of Kent. Aristocratic demeanour, very well spoken.

Realising I couldn't out nerd the nerds, I decided to be honest. Peter asked why I wanted to work with the company. I replied that I wanted a job that was interesting and well paid. He laughed. He asked why I'd decided to do the Operations course, rather than the Programming course. I said that the programming course was a year long. I thought that as the operators course was only eight weeks, I would find out much more quickly whether the industry was for me. Peter then asked the question I'd been dreading. "So do you find computer operations interesting?" He fixed me with his steely blue eyes. I realised that he was a wily old fox and bullshitting was out of the question. "No, not in the least bit. I just thought it would be a way into the industry". He roared up laughing. He then said "What would be your perfect job?" I replied "Teaching guitar to Aboriginals in the outback of Australia". Again he roared up laughing. Realising Peter thought I was an idiot, I added "I don't suppose too many people who work here say that at their interviews". Peter replied "You may be surprised". I realised that he was a decent sort of chap and he was doing his best to be friendly, knowing he was interviewing someone totally unfit for the job. We ended up chatting for half an hour. He told me he'd been working for the company in Nigeria at a Shell Oil site before taking his current job. I mentioned that I'd been living in Stockholm and I loved travel. He said "That's interesting, Svenska Handlesbanken our one of our biggest customers" I said "I've got an account with them, I think it has three Krona's in". We shook hands and off I went on my way. I realised that in the whole 30 mins, we hadn't spoken about the job once. He hadn't even bothered to explain what it was. I was profoundly depressed.

One aspect of my dyslexia was that I was used to people in authority treating me like an idiot. I sometimes wondered how people could tell just how stupid I was? About ten minutes after I arived back at the college, there was a "bing bong Roger Tichborne to the careers office" on the college PA. Off I went. I expected to be turfed out. I was sat down and told "They liked you and want you to start on Friday week". I was amazed. I could harldly conceal my disbelief. Then I twigged "On a Friday, why on a Friday?". They replied "We don't know, people usually start on a Monday".

So on the Friday I turned up. I was met by "Neil" who was leaving the company and who's job I was taking. Neil was in the TA and was very keen on telling me about how he could survive on Dartmoor with only his bare hands to feed him. I thought "Oh Dear". At about 11.45 Neil disappeared. Larry came over. Larry introduced himself as the manager of "the team". He invited me to come with the team for a curry. That sounded like a good idea. After the curry, the team went to the pub and got bladdered. I joined them. I arrived back at the office to find Neil looking at me like a piece of dirt "Where have you been?" I informed him that Larry had invited me to "the pub with the team". Neil informed me that I didn't work for Larry and that Peter would be disgusted. I felt ashamed. One day in and I'd disgraced myself. I'd got lucky and got a good job for a good firm and could manage a day without being a disgrace! Neil stormed off home in disgust. I sat staring at the wall forlornly for an hour. Then Larry came up again. "A few of the team are going to the pub, for a beer, do you fancy coming?". What was there to lose? As I chatted to Larry, I found out he was a jazz Drummer. I ended up getting completely hammered. How I arrived home, I don't know. On Saturday, in the cold light of day, I realised what an idiot I had been. I fully expected to get the sack on Monday morning. I almost considered not turning up.

On Monday, Peter, who had been off on Friday came down to see me. There was a touch of frostyness between Peter and Neil. Peter asked Neil what he'd shown me on Friday. He replied that I'd spent the day in the pub with Larry. Peter asked "Why didn't you take him? what were you doing". Neil replied that he'd had to sort out some TA business. Peter said "Well make sure you show him today". Sadly Neil wasn't particularly interested. After a couple of days, I had a word with Larry and asked what I should be doing. Larry got one of the other guys to explain. At the end of the week, Neil departed. I was on my own. The firm had a maintenance man called Ted, who had a small office (more like a broom cupboard) at the bottom of the building. We'd have a lengthy tea break every day. I was told I had to do Teds job when he wasn't around. My other job was to "keep Larrys team happy". Larry was very laid back, the team went for a curry every Friday and beers 2-3 nights a week. I soon got the hang of the jobs Larrys team needed. After about six months, Peter called me up to his office and offered me a beer. "How are you settling in". I said "It's really nice here". Peter said "Everyone is really pleased with how you are doing, use the time wisely to learn as much as you can about Software and the business". I got sent on courses and got to know my way around the systems the company sold. A while after, I was having a beer with Peter when I asked a question that had been bothering me since day 1. I said "Why on earth did you offer me the job, when the other 2 guys knew so much more about computers?" Peter replied that the company were not interested what you did in your bedroom. They wanted people who were intelligent and could work as a team. I then asked about what he thought of me getting bladdered with Larry on the first day. He replied that Larrys team was one of the best and that Larry had wanted to make sure I fitted in with everyone. He said I'd passed with flying colours He explained that Larrys team often had to deliver projects in difficult conditions under pressure. He had built a team where people supported each other and got the work done.

Up until that conversation, I'd not really understood anything about how the world really worked or how important being part of a team was. I realised that in Larrys team, everyone looked forward to going to work and even team meetings were fun. Everyone pulled in the same direction and people worked extremely hard and played hard. All they expected me to do was to do my job as well as I possibly could and help everyone else do their job. We all got on with it and got on with each other. Much to my amazement, I found that I had a position of responsibilty in a great firm. I was getting great money and they were flexible about my taking days off with the band. If I had gigs on Friday and Saturday, I'd just go in on Sunday and catch up. at the time I didn't know I was dyslexic. What I did know was that for the first time in my life, I was being judged on what I was capable of doing, not what I was incapable of doing. Can you imagine how it felt? Through my association with the company, I worked on some really high profile projects. I was even invited to a party to celebrate the opening of the Thames Barrier. Much to my parents amazement, within a couple of years, I'd gone from being a deadbeat layabout to someone who they were proud of.

Shortly before my Father had a heart attack and died in January1987, we went for a beer and a game of snooker at Mill Hill Services club. It was the last time we ever met. We had a great evening. At the end of it, we came home and had a few Scotches. He told me that he'd been scared to death that I'd never get a job, never settle down and never do anything with my life. He said that I used to wind up him up so much with my attitude and behaviour that he found it hard to even speak to me. He said he couldn't figure out how I could have changed so much in such a short time. I confessed that I really didn't know the answer, but that it was probably something to do with not worrying about what people thought of me so much.

I guess that was the first time I really believed that things would work out Ok for me.

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