My first two years in elementary school were great and I felt smug and intelligent.
I don’t like to brag but at the age of five I was in the Owl Reading Group with the year above (believe me that’s good). I could break the Biff, Chip, and Kipper books and Diary of the Killer Cat shipped effortlessly.
And then I took a pen.
Although I was a great reader (remember I was in the Owl group) as soon as I had to start writing and spelling correctly, I was suddenly stupid. I would misspell the same word in three different ways in a matter of a few sentences.
As I made my way through elementary school, I made very little progress. My mom, proof that a good spelling is not genetic, decided to take me to be tested. After answering questions, holding a pen, trying to spell, and generally feeling like Tim Nice But Dim, I was diagnosed with dyslexia.
It manifested itself in three different ways:
I had terrible balance and coordination. My family has always wondered how I managed to fall down the stairs and hit myself on every protruding piece of furniture.
My spelling was terrible. To this day, I can’t imagine how the words are spelled in my head. If you ask me to spell something, the only chance I have is to write it down. I was completely missing letters, misspelled words that I had typed yesterday, and I had little luck with a word longer than five letters.
My writing. I didn’t hold a pen so much as my fist hit it. The letters were upside down, illegible or smudged because I basically had to lie down on the desk while I wrote to keep my balance.
Fortunately, the solution to the bad balance was quickly resolved. I started doing tae kwon two or three times a week. Something in the regimented movements of formulas has acted like an almost literal crutch for me and balance hasn’t been an issue since I was about 11 years old.
Spelling and writing have become more difficult. My mom and dad tried everything: triangle shaped pens, yellow paper, bifocals, endless repetition, attached writing, extra lessons. Nothing had much of an effect. It became something I was deeply humbled and embarrassed about. For math and science, I was in the top in school. I loved learning and history was my favorite subject. But the second I entered English I felt like an idiot. We were a group to have to attend the extra spelling sessions that the teachers called – I’m not kidding – special spellings.
Despite the hours spent sitting in Special Spellers, what really made the difference was my mom. She helped me develop little rhymes, techniques and jingles for words. I have about 150 different little songs and techniques that I can immediately rely on to tackle difficult words.
They range from the classic “big elephants can always understand little elephants” for the word “because” to the change of the classic Patsy Gallant song to “From New York to LE” to remember the last two letters “agile”.
At the age of 16 and in GCSE, handwriting also began to develop. I basically stopped changing my grip on the pen. I still hold it ridiculously – much like you’d imagine a crab would write.
But the fact that I was holding it the same instead of changing every five minutes meant that I was starting to go faster. It helped me so much in GCSE and A-level that I was able for the first time to write down everything I wanted to say on an exam or test.
Around this time, my mom gave me a magazine that listed all of the successful dyslexic people. She pointed out that Richard Branson was dyslexic and seemed to have done quite well.
So I had reached a stage where I was able to function. By the time I went to college I was allowed to type everything and then became a sports trainer, which means I never had to write or spell.
However, when I was 26, I was so fed up with coaching that I wanted to change careers. A big. Like all pretentious and involved young people in their twenties, I had (and still have) a blog and really enjoyed it. I had been in politics in college and decided I wanted to be a journalist.
So I applied and took the Postgraduate Course in Press Journalism at Cardiff University. Here, you basically learn what you need to be an intern in a newsroom. You learn shorthand, how to write fast, find stories and be a reporter.
I liked everything: talking to people, being curious (curious) and the pressure of deadlines. But it suddenly brought to light all of those insecurities and weaknesses that I had pretty much managed to leave behind.
Suddenly I was back feeling like I was 11 again.
It was first a shortcut. To earn your NCTJ qualifications (the industry standard for most jobs), you need to be able to write at 100 wpm in this skinny, scribbled sub-language.
Much to my disappointment, my crabbing grip that had served me so well was not suited to the way shorthand is written. But after a lot of blood, sweat and a grip adjustment I managed to pass the tests and got a job at Media Wales writing for WalesOnline, the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo.
So how did I function on a daily basis in a world of written words? Well, first of all, there’s the computer and this wonderful wavy red line that appears under every misspell I make. People say Facebook changed the world – to me it was a spell checker.
The main problem first came when someone was watching me type. If an editor would sit next to me and ask me to change a sentence, I would pray that all the words were easy. They must have thought I was so weird hearing myself rapping the song I wrote to spell “traffic accident” in my beard.
After six months of work, I decided to write an article on dyslexia and the challenges that come with it. It was the first time that one of my colleagues discovered that I had this disease. I hadn’t wanted to tell anyone for quite some time after I started as an intern because I wanted to prove to myself as much as to anyone that I could do the job without special treatment.
Writing this article has been surprisingly difficult, but my colleagues have been wonderful and the people in the office have always been very supportive.
As I progressed, I’ve done some really cool things in my career so far. I spoke at the Downing Street press conference, wrote a book and won a few awards. But there are still times when I struggle. I recently ran a trainee training course and was typing on a shared document and just couldn’t remember how to spell ‘reliable’. After three tries and an instant sweat, I just wrote “reliable” instead because I had a rhyme for it (don’t even get me started spelling Welsh place names).
Despite my techniques, I always dread that moment when I make a spelling mistake and a reader spots an error and comes out: “You don’t know how to spell? Do you call reporter?
Hard, yes. But completely fair. If you read something with misspellings, the reader’s first thought is to opt out. Part of my job now is to present clean, well-written words. Being dyslexic is no excuse. A firefighter couldn’t put out all the fire because he had asthma.
One thing I have to say is that I in no way speak or represent all people with dyslexia. Everyone who has it has their own problems and challenges. Mine is nowhere near as bad as some and I am incredibly lucky to come from a relatively affluent background with supportive parents.
Every time I walk in to work, a part of me feels like I’m going to get caught. I am not allowed to write for a living. I am a special spelling.
But I wouldn’t give up my learning difficulties if I had the chance. It has shaped me and in many ways makes me better at my job in aspects that (I hope) make up for my poor spelling.
It makes me think outside the box and solve problems in a different way. It allows me to adapt. I am hyper-aware of my own limitations and it makes me focus on my strengths.
Honestly, I’m never ashamed of struggling with spelling again. I am not an idiot. I’m just someone with an Android operating system in a world built by Apple.
People will always tell you as a dyslexic that you can’t spell, write, or read. And frankly speaking, they’re probably right. But your self-esteem should be derived from your reaction to these adversities and not from the limitations themselves.
Having said that, I am still the only person I know to have received a passport application because I misspelled my middle name.