I'm not clear why my mother kept all of my school reports for nearly 50 years. It certainly wasn't because they were memorable, at least not any kind of positive way. When she gave them to me last year they conjured up all the old daemons. These school days, far from being the best days of my life, were the worst and most miserable period in my life which has otherwise has been successful, entertaining and the very best of fun.

The early secondary school reports had comments such as “this subject is completely beyond him” and “has shown little ability and few signs of trying to overcome difficulties”. Sadly these degenerated through a litany of “could work much harder”s to “he deserves no success because he contributes nothing and has a non-cooperative attitude” by the time my parents were asked to “take me away”.

Curiously in subsequent years I have made great progress with many of the subjects that were incomprehensible to me at school. I didn't know it at the time but I was (and still am) dyslexic. Clearly this would have been a surprise to my teachers (and parents) who by and large simply thought I was either stupid, lazy or a troublemaker or probably all three.

It turns out that there are other pupils who did not relish their school-days. Winston Churchill used these words which will resonate for many who suffered similarly.

“in retrospect these [school] years form not only the least agreeable , but the only barren and unhappy period of my life. I was happy as a child with my toys in the nursery. I have been happier every year since I became a man. But this interlude of school marks a sombre and grey patch upon the chart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that did not seem petty, of toil uncheered by fruitation; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony.”

Perhaps the words of Albert Einstein might be familiar too:

“I myself, to be sure, wanted to leave school and follow my parents to Italy. But the main reason for me was the dull mechanised method of teaching. Because of my poor memory for words, this presented me with great difficulties that it seemed senseless for me to overcome. I preferred therefore, to endure all sorts of punishments rather than learn to gabble by rote.”

Intelligent and articulate children, faced with incomprehensible subjects and teaching methods, fail to learn and are dismissed by their teachers as lazy or stupid. So begins a spiral of unhappiness and alienation.

Now I had certainly hoped, if I thought about it at all, that since the mid 1960's that things would have improved. Sadly I found that, when my youngest daughter had a similar impediment, that little has changed. The system at most schools still persists with the lazy or troublesome diagnosis unless parents are willing and able to push the child's case.

Finally there is a book that should be required reading for parents and teachers. Thomas G. West has written 'In the Mind's Eye' (Prometheus Books), an insightful and well annotated book on Dyslexia and related learning difficulties.

Identifying the problem is a big help and I found the list of “hard signs” of dyslexia or learning disabilities in Thomas West's book something of an eye opener. He quotes these signs:

  • Great difficulty in reading orally
  • Persistent difficulties in learning and applying conventions of punctuation and capitalisation
  • Unusual difficulties with handwriting
  • Disorganisation and unusual messiness
  • Poor sense of time, scheduling and time management
  • Poor arithmetic skills, especially persistent poor retention of multiplication tables and other “math fact”
  • Excessive daydreaming or especially active imagination
  • Left/right confusion or confusion in spatial orientation
  • Difficulty carrying out complex oral instructions
  • Late maturation in behaviour or appearance
  • Unusual difficulty in learning or speaking foreign languages
  • Unusual difficulty with rote memorisation tasks

Most of these traits are easily identified in the basic activities that dominate school years. What is less easy to identify, and is often not looked for, are the skills that often tend to be associated with these 'negative' traits above. Here Mr West lists:

  • High talents in spatial, mechanical and related right-hemisphere skills, with early development of sophistication of these skills
  • Love of construction toys, models and craft work
  • Love of and great skill at drawing (although the same person may have poor handwriting
  • An especially good musical 'ear'
  • An especially good ability to visualise and manipulate images in the mind

Sadly this book is not an easy read, clearly dyslexics were not Mr West's target audience, but even so it is well worth the effort.

Part 1 of a 3 part series

Ⓒ Robert Gray 2006