I started school at age 4 and a half, which was too early, but I was born in July and that is what you did in those days. My dyslexia began to impact me right from the beginning of school. It was the early 60’s and school was very regimented.
My earliest memories of school was learning how to write on slate. In year one I was always getting whacked in the back of the head because I couldn’t write neatly, I couldn’t keep my writing on the line and I would switch letters around or back to front. For example the letter ‘r’ was something I always wrote backwards.
It didn’t take me long to begin to run into problems with the teachers. I am not a reserved person, I have a strong character and I have never been backwards in coming forwards. If I felt like I was being wronged I would stand up to the teachers. I got caned immeasurable times for taking teachers on, right from the start of school, and often it was my curiosity that drove me to ask them questions that they were not prepared to answer.
I have my own way of working out mathematics, I don’t use traditional methods because it does not work in my head. I pair numbers off and then work those numbers and then come back and work other numbers. I come out with the right answers, but I was always wrong in the eyes of my teachers because I couldn’t show my working out in the way they wanted. I would show them how I had come to the answer and they would say that I was wrong. I would then get frustrated and annoyed and question them until they would send me to the head teacher’s office where I would get caned. This happened so much that being caned just no longer meant anything to me.
I even got cheeky to the extent where I would just go and stand at the head teacher’s office because I knew that is where they would soon be sending me anyway. He would say “why are you here Gray?” and I would say “I thought I might as well save my teacher the trouble of sending me here”. And the head-teacher would say “Oh you are a smart arse Gray get in here” and he would give me the cane.
I would get flogged at school for my spelling too, or when I would put my hand up to answer a question the teacher would say things like ‘we won’t ask you Gray you’re an idiot’. And then he would ask someone else. It was very belittling, but I was determined to never let that hurt me, and I decided to look at it a different way and it made me very determined to prove them wrong. I have never been one to fall in a heap, in fact I go the opposite way and I come out fighting. And I think that is why I overcome it, because I am like a dog with a bone and I will wear it down until I get what I want.
In year 4 the school sent me home with a letter. The head teacher said that he wanted me out of the school and placed into a special school, a school for kids with low intelligence and other disabilities.
My Mum reacted by taking me for testing and it was discovered that I had a very high IQ – almost into Mensa. She then went back to the school and in her logical and quietly spoken way let the head teacher know he was wrong. But they persisted and wanted me to leave and attend this other school, saying that mainstream school was not going to work for me. Mum argued that I was more than capable and that these tests had shown that the answer was not about me going somewhere else but about the school stepping up and doing their job to teach me.
The school continued to say that I was too disruptive and that I couldn’t sit still in class. This was in the early 60’s and shortly after that some further testing diagnosed what they called ‘minimal brain dysfunction’ (what is now known as ADHD). They put me on some medication which turned me into a quiet zombie. I don’t remember the name of the medication, but the teachers loved it because I just sat in the classroom like a blob.
It was also around that time that my diagnosis of dyslexia came about, and Mum found SPELD in QLD. Mum became very involved with SPELD and was the Secretary in QLD for a while. We still have some of the original booklets from SPELD from that time.
With the knowledge and methods from SPELD Mum set about teaching me how to read. She would teach me after school. She was very persistent. It didn’t matter how many temper tantrums I threw, or books I tore up she would remain calm. Up until that point you may as well have given me Japanese and tell me to read it, it made as much sense as that. But Mum had to go right back to the very beginning of teaching me the letters and sounds, and the simple words like cat and dog, but she persisted and persisted and persisted and one day about 18 months after we started I was at the end of year 5 and it finally clicked. I haven’t stopped reading since. I’ve got three books that I am currently reading sitting here on the table now as we speak.
Once Mum had worked with me and got me reading I very quickly passed all the other kids and soon I was reading at a year 7 level. Once it clicked you couldn’t stop me and then Mum decided that we needed to start on Maths.
To give you an idea of the type of mum I had she decided that for her to be able to help me with maths she needed to get an understanding of ‘modern maths’ and so she enrolled into Uni part time and got a bachelor in accounting and ended up topping the state.
To me maths is very logical, and I am a logical person. So the only time I struggled with maths is when it got into algebra as it just didn’t make sense and I was shocking at learning my times tables.
Once I developed my own way of working maths out I could do it faster in my head than people using a calculator. I would do this often later in life when working at Deakin University, where I often needed to work out the mass of metals and the percentages that had to be added and I would do it all in my head while the others were working it out on their calculators. Often I would say to them that they needed to check their calculations because they were wrong and they would look at me and ask me how I know and I would say ‘because I have just worked it out in my head’.
I have one brother who was an ‘A’ grade student. According to everyone he was the golden haired boy and I was seen as the idiot. But the thing was that it was too easy for him and he never had to struggle and therefore he never really challenged himself to achieve. Whereas I was the opposite and I had nothing to lose. When you have been on the bottom and called an idiot then what have you got to lose, you can’t go any lower. So I wasn’t afraid to have a go. But the beauty was that I had the determination and I can say that during my life I have achieved everything I have set out to achieve.
I never believed that I could not achieve. My mother was fiercely determined to make sure that I knew I could achieve anything that I set out to do.
During high school I spent a lot of time not attending. I was labelled as being difficult and I often felt like there was no point in me even being there. At the end of year 10 I had done some of the final exams but not all of them because I felt there was no real reason to bother sitting them. When one day there was this one teacher that I got along well with and we were having a bit of laugh and he made a rude hand gesture at me as a joke and so I did it back to him. Someone must have reported it and before I knew it the deputy principal came charging at me and grabbed me by my long hair, I lashed out and dropped him on his arse. He told me not to bother coming back to school.
So I didn’t return. That was two weeks before the end of year 10. Mum insisted that I needed a reference from the high school. I didn’t agree that I needed it but for mum’s sake I went along to collect it from the Principal. I remember it to this day it said ‘David could work at the most menial task if kept under close and constant supervision’. I showed mum then I tore it up.
Leaving school was an unbelievable change for me. It was like ‘Yippee’! I think the education system is for people who learn by rote, and if you don’t learn by rote then you won’t fit in.
I believe that the most important thing for anyone with dyslexia is to focus on self esteem. It’s a lynch pin. I learnt far more outside of school than I ever learnt in school and the only magic bullet that I know is persistence and luckily for me my Mum’s persistence is what got me through.
Our family focussed on things that challenged me outside of school and they found things that I was very good at and this helped to keep my self esteem up. For example I was always an excellent swimmer and this helped me while at school as I would smash all the swimming records. I could also speak about the marine conservation work that I was doing outside of school. It is so important to find something that gives that sense of achievement, because everyone is good at something you just need to find it.
I think enabling curiosity is so important. When my family moved to Australian from England we had 30 pounds and one of the first things my parents did was buy encyclopaedias to help encourage curiosity. I found though that schools didn’t like my curious mind, they didn’t like my questions.
Within 2 days of being kicked out of school I had been offered two jobs. An apprenticeship with a carpenter and the other was a cadetship ‘cutter and designer of women’s fashion’ which I did for 3 months before deciding that wasn’t for me.
I ended up becoming a foundryman (working with metal). And I took on a technical course which went 3 years, 2 nights a week 3 hours a night and we got into high end physics, atomic structures and fluid dynamics. I came out with honours and distinctions. And out of a class of about 30 I was beaten by one guy in the end by 0.5%. He was a metallurgist and an arrogant twat. The teacher said I needed to go to Uni and get a metallurgy degree but at the time I had a young family and it was just too much.
Some years later I ended up working for the metal research Institute at Deakin Uni and by the time I left they were calling me the ‘Honorary Doctor David Grey of Metallurgical Sciences’ because my knowledge base was what built the metallurgical side of the institute. A number of the guys who did their PHD’s came up to me at the end and thanked me for doing the PHD with them, but I never actually did it myself. But I worked with mass spectrometers and electron scanning microscopes. My mum would laugh when I first started working at the Uni and she always wanted to show those from my school days where I ended up, but I have never felt that I have to prove anything to any of them.
To me it seems that one thing dyslexics have in spades is the ability to think outside the box. We seem to have very lateral thought patterns. I do strongly believe that that is one of the strengths of dyslexia. If you can overcome the reading and writing side of dyslexia it can be a benefit and I am glad that I have dyslexia because it gives me the ability to problem solve. When I worked at the Uni they would put me into groups and committees because they needed my problem solving skills. I ask questions that others would never think of because that is how my brain works. I believe that many people with dyslexia are highly intelligent and before education systems were developed the dyslexics were the movers and shakers. History tells us that a lot of great people in history show dyslexic tendencies.
The modern world wants everyone to fit into the bell curve. A high academic achiever that fits into that bell curve is exactly what they want, and I would say that they don’t know how to deal with you if you don’t fit into that bell curve. It is not that they don’t know how to deal with it because they do, but it’s a desire to deal with it that they don’t have. I cant believe that the same things I experienced 50 years ago are still happening.
I find that I always need a challenge and if I don’t have one I get bored very quickly. Hence why I took on building this house, without a building background. I think when I eventually finish building this house I might go and do a degree, just to keep the brain turning. I am considering law. I don’t know how this will help someone aged 63 but I want to do it for myself.
I do have one regret. That the education system did prevent me from reaching my potential. If I had reached my potential then I believe I would have become a scientist.
I am happy to be dyslexic though, I would not want to have the brain that fits inside the bell curve.