Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Rog T's Dyslexia Blog - Who says that your school years are the best years of your life - part 2

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.

 So in Part One of this series I talked about my experiences at Primary School in the late 1960's and early 1970s as a dyslexic. In part 2, I am discussing the period aged 10 to 14, where I applied for and attended Finchley Catholic High School and before I discovered Punk Rock music. This was in many ways the most miserable time of my life. It all started so well. My elder brother Frank had attended Finchley Grammar School, which had morphed into Finchley Catholic High School four years before I started. My parents were always fairly relaxed about my education. Strangely the teachers had advised them that I'd be far better applying for St James Catholic school as I was too thick for Finchley. Despite now being open to all as a comprehensive (my brother had to sit an exam to get in), it still had a good reputation. The boys who were doing O levels at the time were still the Grammar intake. FCHS was an amalgamation of Finchley Grammar School and Challoner School. Challoner was a private school for well off Catholics who failed the Eleven Plus. More about that later.

Anyway, unlike my elder brother, no exam for me. I just had an interview with the headmaster "Pop" Groves. Now for me this was a big deal. I assumed that if I said the wrong thing, that would be me done for. Anyway, off I went for the interview. Pop Groves was a kindly old Priest, who had dedicated his life to education. He seemed like a friendly chap. He remembered my brother, who had been a bit of a star, gone to University and obtained a degree. He asked me to spell Arctic, which miraculously I managed. He complimented me saying "many boys spell it ARTIC". I said "Do you mean like an articulated lorry?".  He was even more impressed. The odd thing about my form of dyslexia is that there are certain words I have never had any trouble with. My brain clearly felt the need to distinguish between the North Pole and juggernauts. With that the interview ended, doubtless with Pop Groves thinking that he'd found another budding rocket scientist (my brother designed bits for Space shuttles for a while). Now as I said, my parents were relaxed as to where I would go. We had a whole load of glossy brochures from local schools. I liked the one for Finchley. The reason was quite simple, they said they did Drum lessons and I fancied being a drummer.

Anyway, on the 4th September 1973, I turned up for my first day. I'd earlier mentioned Challoner School. When the two schools amalgamated, Pop Groves, the kindly head of FCHS had been appointed headmaster. Unfortunately, there was another headmaster to accomodate. The former head of Challoner was Mr Daniel Coughlan (AKA Danny).  Now he was most certainly not kindly. He was a complete nutcase. He was what one might refer to as Old School. For him, running a school was about maintaining discipline in a climate of fear. Stories abounded about the beatings he'd dished out to various pupils old and new. He used to address all new parents en mass and talk to them like idiots. My father was not well disposed towards Danny Coughlin. He had a ritual when he caned boys. H'ed put his mortarboard and cape on. Then he'd call in his sidekick, Mr Keough, the deputy head to witness the beating. 

He was also the RE teacher. He would simply dictate what he wanted us to write and test us on it the following week. Our form teacher for our form - 1B was Mr O'Connell, a slightly deranged geography teacher, who  couldn't deal with our class. He quickly acquired the name "Gimpy". Class 1B soon got the reputation as being full of troublemakers. We were not bullies, we were just a class that had no respect for authority and used every opportunity to try and put one over on the system. Wheras other classes had 3-4 troublemakers, we had 3-4 diligent pupils. For some bizarre reason, for our year and our year alone, FCHS decided to allocate the classes alphabetically. Being predominantly Irish Catholic, this resulted in rather a lot of Mick Walsh's and John Ryans in our class, to our endless amusement and the teachers complete consternation.

The first disappointment on joining was to find out that the drum lessons, the only reason I'd chosen the school were a figment of the brochure writers imagination. There was no such thing. When I drew attention to the fact that this was why I'd chosen the school, the Music teacher sarcastically laughed and said "well thats a bit of a shame, isn't it". I've hated him ever since.

None of the teachers in year 1 seemed the least bit interested in teaching us. Mr O'Donovan, the French teacher, spent the lessons telling tall stories about his wartime exploits in France. As we had no interest in French, we'd encourage him, with the end result that at the end of the year, none of us had learned a single word. Our form teacher, Mr O'Connell hated us and as our geography teacher did everything he could to avoid us. We simply used to bang our desk lids when he came in, in the hope that he'd lose the plot and go out again. One day he really lost the plot and punched Nick Walsh, who was sitting in the front row and not banging his desk, in the face. That was the last we saw of Mr O'Connell, although he taught other classes. We saw it as a victory, although Nick Walsh and his parents probably took a different view.

Then there was Mr Linane. He was the history teacher. Like many of the teachers, he took a great delight in humiliating eleven year old boys. In our first lesson, he read the register and made every boy, in turn, reveal what their middle initial was. Mine was "M" for Martin. Not too bad really. It came to one poor unfortunate, who had "R" as his middle name. Mr Linane asked what it was. "R" replied that he'd rather not say. A wicked glint entered Mr Linane's eye. "Is it Richard?" he asked. No Sir, R Replied. "Is it Roger?", he asked. R replied "No Sir". This continued for a couple of minutes, to no avail. In the end, Mr Linane said "What's the matter with you boy, just tell us, or we'll be here all night". At this, R broke down into tears and blubbed "Sir it's Rupert". At this the rest of us collapsed in laughter. Mr Linane wasn't going to let it rest. He asked "Rupert, are you a poof, why are you crying?" and spent the next five minutes taunting the poor chap. Now, those were different times and in FCHS at the time, there was a very homophobic atmosphere. Despite the fact that R was a nice bloke, this episode tarred him with a reputation that doubtless made his schooling awful. Our class used to mercilessly taunt various members. In R's case, he had his own rather derogatory, homophobic song, which got sung every time he entered the classroom, for the next few years.

What didn't help with the air of antagonism and homophobia, were a few decidedly dodgy teachers. One games teacher, who's name escapes me, used to insist on underpants inspections before we did PE. He informed us that wearing underpants under shorts, whilst doing PE was unhealthy. He'd make us all line up and pull our shorts down, to ensure no underpants were being worn. It didn't take us long to clock on to the fact that this wasn't healthy behaviour. 

By the end of year 2, several of the class had left for pastures new (although R stuck it out till the bitter end). They'd just had enough of it, although at the time we all were bemused. Our view was that everyone got stick, so they should just get on with it. We hated the teachers and they hated us. At the start of year 2B, we had a new form teacher. Mr Sweeney was a fearsome character. He'd announce his arrival by throwing his brief case through the door, onto the desk. He let it be known that he wasn't going to take any nonsense. He used to throw blackboard rubbers at us and threaten to punch our lights out. In a fair fight, one on one, he'd always win. However there were 38 boys in class 2b, all of whom were dead set on making his life miserable. We assumed that he was made of sterner stuff, but by the end of the year, he'd had enough and asked for another class. This was becoming a pattern. In year 1, our English Teacher was Miss Walsh, a humourless ex nun. She was replaced in year 2 by Mr Katz. Mr was an American hippy. He believed kids should express themselves and tried to be nice to us. He'd say things like "Hey man, what's with all the negativity". We just ran riot. Sadly, in our class, Mr Katz was not a success. Most of the other classes loved him and realised that if they went along with him, the lessons would be fun and they'd learn. For us, we just wanted to get rid of him. When you are educationally challenged with dyslexia, this doesn't make for a good education.

In class 3b, we yet again had a new form teacher. I have no idea why they inflicted us on the lovely Alison MacFarlane, a pretty redhead of Scottish extraction, who seemed far too nice for us lot. We'd moved to the "Middle School" when she took us on. She was a biology teacher and unlike the previous two, she recognised that there was a bit more to form 3b than troublemaking. The sad thing was that whatever she did to try and bring out the best in us, we'd always let her down. She was never flustered. By this time, I was probably in a state of mild depression. I'd disappear from lessons and go and hide in the bushes. She'd come and seek me out and persuade me to go back to lessons. I guess she'd twigged I was unhappy. I am sure most of the class were in some way.

I just found the stress of continually being ridiculed by teachers to be rather tiresome. There was no real happy medium. They were either sadistic bastards who didn't teach you anything or they were too nice so we ran them ragged. By the end of the third year, the whole class was underperforming. Luckily for us, a degree of redemption was on its way. We made our O level and CSE choices and so for all lessons, apart from RE, PE and Games, we were split up as a group.  For most of us, this probably saved our education. I chose science subjects, mainly because I liked the science teachers. I also chose building studies, as it meant a day a week out of school, at an external centre, where you didn't have to wear uniform. Miss MacFarlane taught biology and her eventual husband, Mr Shuttler, who was probably the best teacher I ever had, taught me physics. I didn't realise it at the time, but I am sure she put in a good word for me with him.

By the end of the 4th year, my grades had improved, to the point where O level passes seemed a reality. This was the summer of 1977. Little did I know it, but soon my life was to change. As we broke up for the summer of 1977, I was feeling very lonely and isolated. I had mates at school, but few were really close friends. We were like passengers on a trip, stuck together making the best of it.  The only thing I really enjoyed was playing and watching football. I wasn't a good player. I've subsequently learned that dyslexics generally have bad co-ordination. Things such as ball skills and dancing are generally very poor. As I was starting to grow, I did however find that size and weight could to some degree compensate, so I decided I was going to concentrate my efforts on being a defender of the hack em down school of thought. My dad had an old set of dumbells, so I also decided to get fit and strong.

Throughout all of this, no one had noticed how bad my use of English was. No one had picked up on the classic dyslexic traits. I now realise that the troublemaking was a classic defence mechanism. I was so alienated to the school establishment that I wanted to fail, just to escape their clutches. What changed me, was the fact that the few good teachers at FCHS, such as Mr Shuttler, would take time and explain things in a manner that was interesting. All of a sudden, I had a degree of clarity. I can remember him talking to me about English. He asked me why I wasn't interested. I said "Because I find it boring". He replied that surely I enjoyed watching films and listening to rock music. I said "Yeah, but whats that got to do with English". He replied that good songs have good lyrics and good films have good stories. He then said that if I wanted to do well at physics, I'd need to get an English O Level. He asked me if I thought I was too thick to get one. I replied that I thought I could if I tried. He then asked me why I wouldn't want to try? I couldn't answer that question. He asked me if I liked my English teacher. I said "No, actually I can't stand her".  He laughed and said "She can't stand you either. Who has won if you fail your English O Level?" From that moment, I had no doubt in my mind I'd pass it, no matter what it took (dyslexic or not). When it came down to it, I realised English language was just about trying to learn the rules.

What was interesting was the fact that I realised he'd not lied about my English teacher hating me. As my grades improved, she became more obnoxious. I guess this was what I needed. I probably worked harder for English than any other subject. I even started reading the books we were set. I'd force myself to read them, and studied hard. I soon found that I could analyse them and answer the questions. Lessons became like a battlefield, but I also found that if you do your homework, you will win. A valuable lesson for blogging. The trouble with being dyslexic in the 1970's was that there was never enough time in exams. I'd always run out. The clock would just tick faster for me than everyone else. I've since found that I read at 2/3rds the speed of someone with a normal brain.I could never figure out how all my class mates would finish and I'd still have 2 questions left, regardless of how well I knew the subject. I've heard people saying that it is unfair on "normal" pupils that dyslexics get extra time. To me exams are testing intelligence, not timekeeping. Did it matter how long it took Alan Turing to break Enigma codes? Of course not.

So as we broke up for that heady summer I was in a strange place. I felt cautiously optimisitic about school. Mr Shuttler had convinced me that I could do OK On a personal level I felt a bit cut adrift. I hadn't got into music. I was always the last pick at football. I hadn't discovered girls properly, but I had deep longings, mostly for mate sisters. Sadly I had zero confidence to do anything about it. At that point the school had done a pretty good job of convincing me I was useless. Why would any girl, let alone a pretty one be that interested. As FCHS was a boys school, the opportunities for girls was not exactly great to start with. Despite the efforts of Mr Wynne, the biology teacher to give us some sensible sex education, I think that we were completely clueless compared to todays 14 year olds. Being a Catholic school, even bringing in a Condom was an act of extreme terrorism. I can remember when there was a spate of people bringing in condoms and blowing them up. Mr Coughlan, head of the lower school, informed us it was a mortal sin to possess one. I was a bit naive and so hadn't got a clue what he was on about. I thought the idea of putting a balloon on your willy to catch sperms was absurd and couldn't imagine anyone doing such a thing. That was the great thing about FCHS. They were telling us all these things and none of us had a clue what they were on about half of the time. By drawing attention to it, they simply made us interested and we found the "real story" from boys with older brothers, who were a bit more worldly wise.

As he sometimes did, my Dad gave me some sensible advice. Over a bacon sandwich, one morning when my Mum and sisters were away, he gave me told me. "If you want to get a girlfriend, get a job. Girls are far more interested if you've got a few quid". So I got a job. In fact I got three. I got a paper round, I got a Saturday job at the butchers and I started washing cars for my Dad at his business. As I didn't really have any hobbies at that time, I opened up a post office account and watched the cash build up. So I was in a bit of a strange place. Improving grades, spare cash and at a loose end. and completely miserable. It could only really spell one thing. Trouble.  To Be Continued........


Mrs Angry said...

Oh dear. How did we survive the Catholic education system? Perhaps we didn't. Mr Shutler was a good man though: taught my son too.

Rog T said...

A friend of mine has the theory that pre 1980's Catholic education was all about preparing us for persecution a la Henry VIII & Liz I times. Break us or make us indestructable. Not sure he's wrong. Not sure which of the two categories I fit in to either

Olivia said...

The tension is great. I want to get a group of disengaged kids at the college where I work to read this... Although them also having dyslexic tendencies I might be reading a lot of it. When is the conclusion?

Rog T said...


Sometime over the next few weeks. I find it emotionally draining to write about it. Need to step away for a couple of weeks. The next bit will be a very difficult section.