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How I discovered I was dyslexic, not helpless - Pete Roberts

Tuesday 14 January 2020

As far as I know, becoming helpless is not part of any school curriculum, hidden away amongst the 3 R’s.

Nevertheless, I, like many, fell into this bracket.

How? The answer comes from the fact that there’s a further curriculum, but one that lies hidden. Yet, it still managed to discard many who dared to be different. It also banished countless numbers of those who failed to conform. I know only too well that it was especially damaging to pupils who refrained from teacher-pleasing behaviour!

In the 1970’s, a hidden curriculum was easily cooked up. Take one plump, primary school leaver, preferably underdone having somehow managed to make the grade in a mock eleven plus examination. Then, having made a series of grammatical errors and having alluded to his spider like handwriting, get a secondary school teacher to scream to all and sundry “What’s wrong with him?” Squirming with embarrassment, that young boy would soon reach for the drink-me potion, then disappear down the looking glass.

There you have it, ready-made learned helplessness complete with a side order of victimisation, all rolled into one and whipped up in less than three minutes.

Except, this was far from a flavoursome experience. Deeply wounded, I started exiling my aspirations. After all, if I couldn’t succeed at anything; what was the point in trying?

On the face of it, being plagued with intrusive thoughts of harming my family should have been a far more difficult issue to deal with. But I found a way of combatting my Harm OCD; by running away from home and enlisting in the Royal Air Force. It might only have been a short-term solution, but at least I was able to function like everyone else.

But, I’m not like everyone else, especially in a classroom environment. Even in the military I couldn’t stop myself mimicking a goldfish; therefore, come hell or high water, after a minute or so, my memory would be wiped clean. My ineptness infuriated one instructor in particular. I can still recall the moment he told me, “Son, you can’t polish a turd!”

Thankfully, I was able to blunder on, but my life was to be revolutionised several years later, when - as a Service Instructor - I attended a Dyslexia Awareness Workshop.

The speaker, who hailed from Telford College, was highly engaging and emphasised that dyslexia was her life’s work, consequently and in her own words - she’d become a “dyslexia nut”.

I was captivated! Especially when I examined what is known as a sense of “otherness”, where people feel estranged for being different, as though they don’t belong in society. Many people are aware of notable dyslexics such as Richard Branson, but there are two sides to every coin and in this case it’s because dyslexia is three to four times more common amongst prisoners than the general population.

Because I was mesmerised, I studied hard and it led me to one person in particular: Carl Rogers. His person-centred approach simply made sense. Enabling a person through empathy creates a chain of happiness so to speak; I’d experienced the complete opposite during my schooling. I was rarely met with compassion, just stern challenges; each confirming that I was an incurable fiasco and I felt destined to tread that path forevermore.

I owe so much to that speaker, not only am I now a Further Education lecturer, but she drove me to greater achievements still, such as becoming a Specialist Teacher with the British Dyslexia Association. That process, brought with it, a diagnosis of acquired dyslexia, a result of a devastating fall, aged six.

Unfortunately, learnt helplessness still flourishes, not just because of dyslexia, but through denial campaigns by politicians or journalists, or through teachers who remain hesitant to social justice efforts. Mercifully, there are far more of us these days who fight to be a “significant other”. In other words, instil trust and belief in those that need it most. This is what Carl Rogers meant when he said, “if a person is understood, he or she belongs”.

Pete Roberts is the author of Unknown Forces, a memoir about battling intrusive thoughts and dyslexia. Trigger Publishing £9.99.