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The teacher came up behind the little girl and looked down at the page. “Why did you not do your work?” she asked. “I did do it,” the child replied. “But there are no words written down here,” the teacher insisted. “I know.” A short silence, and then in a voice that was patient and calm, the little one explained: “They all ran off the page and hid under the carpet.”
I was standing in Chapters reading from a book about dyslexia. I had never heard such a perfect description of what letters and words can do when you give them a bit of freedom.
I was born in 1952, but it was not until about 1968 that the word dyslexia came into my life. Before that, many other words were used, none of them very complimentary. Three that stood out were stupid, lazy and defiant.
Most of the teachers I had were determined to drive out these three demons, subjugate my brain and bring on the angels of conformity. At school, I was put in the corner wearing a dunce cap, locked in rooms and ridiculed in front of my peers. At home, I was sent to bed without supper and made to stay up at night.
But there were also memorable teachers whom I loved, because they listened to me and tried to understand. They knew I was not stupid or lazy. They affirmed my inner belief that I was clever and had a future.
I often wondered how I had this confidence. Now, I realize it was firmly grounded in my very early years, thanks to my parents, my grandmother and a Montessori school.
I never had difficulty reading to myself. Before Grade 1, reading was a way to get interesting stuff into my brain. Nouns, or objects, took form before my eyes. Verbs, or actions, activated the nouns into wonderful, swirling, living movies. The little words did not matter: articles, conjunctions and other fillers could be dispensed with. They were there only to ease conversation.
But then came Dick and Jane. Every little word in those books was equal, and nothing ever happened. The world was diminished; it disappeared down a black hole. Letters became meaningless symbols whose order was paramount since they had only one way of functioning. They tyrannized my life for 12 years and inconvenienced me forever.
I am often asked to give an example of how I perceive the written word. It is a bit like asking someone who is colour-blind to describe a colour. But here goes: I can be writing something when I notice that a q or a z has crept into a word.
Someone will say: “Fiona, you know that letter is way out of place. Carpet starts with a c, not a q.”
“Yes,” I’ll agree, “but q really wanted to be there, so I let it.”
Words often speak to me. They can sing or flutter, take on a little life of their own. I can sit and watch them, my mind flying all over the place and making interesting connections.
Here is an example about the words tern and turn. I was writing something that included the phrase “turn of events.” The little word “tern” flew off the page, swirled around, and flew back. I thanked it and knew that, in this instance, I had to spell tern “turn.”
The world is filled with many interesting twists and turns.
I still look in amazement at words that can do many things. Words like “bow” and “bow” give me lovely little images of bows bowing. Then a bow on a cow that sits on a bough and coughs.
I know a minute is minute, but how small is a second? And does it have to always be second? Why not first?
As you can imagine, these were not explanations you could give to a teacher. Most felt that I needed to concentrate, to apply myself, to make an effort.
I would fail most exams, regardless of the subject, for I was told that “we always take off one mark for each incorrect spelling.”
I cannot copy correctly. Words just don’t transpose themselves from one page to another. In trying to concentrate and apply myself to learning meaningless little symbols, I had to reduce my world to a time and place where things could not happen. I would sit in a room alone, my head in my hands, rocking and repeating the letters, driving the words into my brain.
For anyone with a child who is dyslexic, it is important to instill in them a sense of self-worth. The hardest part of their lives will be in school. If they can survive it with a sense of purpose and self-esteem, they will be fine. There are so many examples of great people who are dyslexic and who have thrived.
Technology has made a lot of the rote learning I did unnecessary now. There are talking books, spell-check and electronic media. With them, I can use my wonderfully wired brain to make unique connections, see the big picture, innovate and explore.
I worked for many years as a community developer, running workshops in which I used a flip chart or blackboard. The problem was that my spelling and handwriting are awful. When I had to write, I often provided participants with a red marker and invited them to correct my misspellings.
Teachers seem to find it impossible to sit in front of a badly spelled page. But as the real content of the workshop unfolded, I found that spelling became less important and the irritation of the participants dissipated.
Now, when someone asks me if I long for a cure for my “learning disability,” I say no. I love the way I think. This brain is my gift, for the world needs many different ways of thinking.
Fiona Chin-Yee lives in Dartmouth, N.S.