I began school aged 5. One of my earliest memories is of being told off for not copying from the board. The teacher couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing it. She thought I must have poor eyesight and sat me closer, but still I produced nothing. She repeatedly asked why I wasn’t doing my work – I just looked blankly, not knowing how to respond. Life at Buckton Vale Primary only got worse. They sat me in a corner, alone and facing the wall. I was still expected to copy, but this time words from a book. For me, it was more like drawing than writing because I couldn’t read the words – I simply drew them. This is how I spent the majority of my time. I didn’t mix with the other kids – I had a friend in the same street as me, but no school friends – Thinking back, I can’t remember a single child’s name, I just remember there were lots of kids. I guess it was difficult for some of the teachers too – There were no teaching assistants in these days and the teacher had about 40 kids to look after and teach. But rather than encourage any strengths I had, they repeatedly shut me down.
I remember sitting in the corner drawing words (as usual) while the rest of the class was listening to a short story, read by the teacher from a story card. The idea was that the teacher then asked questions about the story. She finished the story and began asking the questions. Nobody answered the first or second question. I knew the answers – I remember thinking, ‘how can they not know the answers, they’ve just been told the story’. When nobody put their hand up to answer the 3rd question, I answered it. First, there was a look of surprise – I’m not sure if the surprise was that I was still in the room or that I would know the answer, but the surprise soon turned to anger that I’d interrupted the class and I was told to get out and sit in the hall. Another time I remember painting a blue father Christmas – the teacher screwed it up and put it in the bin. You stupid boy, she said, you have wasted all this paint and paper. Why couldn’t I do what the other kids could do? The original reason is that I was extremely dyslexic (and probably, mildly autistic, although nobody knew much about that in those days). But the secondary reason was that instead of getting help I was subjected to 5 years of being chastised by adults because of their own frustrations.
In 1978 I got a very lucky break. My family moved to Essex, which meant I needed a new school. I was placed in a special educational unit. This is not something I’ve ever told anyone before because it still holds a degree of shame. But this school was to be my saviour. It was my last year of primary education and I only had about 9 months left, but in that 9 months, Linda Lawson (the teacher) taught me how to read, to a reasonable standard. She did more for me in 9 months than Buckton Vale had done in over 5 years. I will be forever grateful to that remarkable woman.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last. My secondary school was Mark Hall Comprehensive. All those who struggled academically were placed in the same form group and had most of their subject lessons together. I say subject lessons but, really, it was just 5 years of being in the classroom. The teachers had given up trying to teach us, we were not seen as worthwhile. To be fair, I was pretty badly behaved by my 3rd year there and any teacher with me in the classroom would not have gone home with a smile on their face. I had given up trying to learn and they had given up trying to teach. I left at the same academic level I’d started at – I had no qualifications, and I still couldn’t write more than a few words. Looking back, they really should have noticed that I had some untapped potential in me. At 13 I joined the school chess club to avoid going outside during lunch break. I couldn’t play chess, but I lied. Within a few months I was top of the chess leaderboard – even the teachers couldn’t beat me. You would expect this to help but it just seemed to convince them further that I was lazy.
In my 20’s I began to self-educate – Luckily for me, adulthood came with the onset of the computer age, which has made self-education increasingly more achievable. At the age of 46, I finally plucked up the courage to have another try at formal education. I managed somehow to blag a place at Bishop Burton University Centre, on a foundation degree looking at the science of canine behaviour. Surprisingly, I did quite well, finishing with a distinction. I continued on to a bachelor’s degree and again did very well, gaining a 1st. And more recently, I’ve completed a master’s degree in animal behaviour and training, with distinction. As a mature student, I’ve done so well that I even have 7 extra awards, for example, best post-grad dissertation and the premier student award, I won’t bore you with all of them. When you are determined and passionate (and maybe more mature) it’s amazing what can be achieved – It’s amazing, given the right space, what we are capable of. In the end, my weakness became my strength. I can’t write an essay in a few days, so I would get started on day one of an assignment and do a little each day. I’ve had a lifetime of developing coping strategies, finding other ways, and thinking differently. I’ve never just been able to accept what somebody says, I need to pull it apart and look inside. And I guess a little bit of me is still that child in the classroom desperately wanting to be good enough.
But I didn’t achieve this by myself – First, there was Linda Lawson, who managed to get me reading, then Caroline Kelly (my wife) who helped me self-educate (especially teaching me maths from scratch), and then there was Marion Justice, my head lecturer throughout university, who just accepted me challenging the status quo without ever making me feel shut down or unwelcome, even though I probably pushed my luck a few times. Marion was very much like Linda Lawson had been 40 years earlier: she just seemed to understand me in a way that most do not. I simply would not have continued to MSc level without her. Where would we be without those very special people who touch our lives?
In the end, I hold no ill feelings towards my school teachers, they were most probably struggling to cope, just as I was. But it’s important that kids don’t give up on themselves. I think we all have a great deal of untapped potential, even if it comes later in life – Learning isn’t over until we give up on ourselves.