by M. Davies (College Porter)
Sadly, it was never dyslexics who wrote the rules in education, but thankfully it is for Porters to interpret and enforce them in Oxford’s colleges.
My school’s ‘Career Aptitude Test’ sticks out in my memory (information gathered on a complex form type questionnaire). The top three recommended professions that came back as a result of my test were: ‘Reporter or Writer, Housing Officer, or Teacher’, followed by a short personal recommendation which stated: ‘Mark would do well in a role of being of service to people.’ This was the 1970’s, and this test did not account for, or distinguish, dyslexics or job ability requirements. Nevertheless, it was a sophisticated test for its time that had to be sent away to be properly analysed, and it took weeks for them to come back with the results. If I recall correctly, they even gave a list of further jobs that the youngster could begin considering. For the non-dyslexic children, many found it a useful thought provoker, suggesting areas that may not have occurred to them. This probably sounds like cave-dwelling days compared to the number of tests now available in our algorithmic and instant online world. Then, as now with many educational establishments, what pupils went on to do was seen as an indicator of the apparent success of their institution. This was particularly important in my case, as we had a ‘Special English’ department and possibly as much of a third of the institution were full-time, boarding, test-certified ‘Dyslexics’. Most teachers naturally thought such tests for dyslexics were a waste of time and money, inevitably giving people false expectations beyond our abilities.
My Careers Master laughed, ‘ha, a dyslexic reporter or writer!’ This to him was proof that such tests could only succeed in producing results that were comically wrong. He then looked up the necessary ability requirements for being a ‘housing officer’. What surprised me on this topic was that there were pages of it, and I don’t think I had ever heard of it before. He didn’t have far to go before he could pick out obvious problems, ‘writing letters, producing reports, producing public notices, note taking of meetings.’ This suggestion too was quickly rejected.
‘So, teacher? Well maybe, so long as it’s not an English teacher of course.’
The meeting went on for some time and moved far beyond the test results, and finally, his strong recommendation concluded that I may be interested in considering ‘Army school.’ At twelve years old, I ‘could get experience in the cadets before applying and it would be full time from sixteen.’ I would be driving trucks ‘off-road’ easily before the time I was seventeen, and then I would be able to go for a full road driving license. Provided, of course, that I ‘showed suitable attention.’ In so doing, I ‘would be building a proper and realistic career’ for myself.
Purely by accident, I found that by the time I was thirty, I had at some point in my life already earned my living by each of those dismissed suggestions – though admittedly as a ‘reporter’ it was only very briefly after successfully getting occasional articles into print. Ultimately, I failed to get the job I was seeking and even spelt ‘journalist’ wrong on a press pass application! What I am trying to say is that dyslexics often find a way, but be prepared for embarrassing mistakes; the difficulty was just how often that happened in that pre ‘spell check’ era. As an ‘English teacher’ I was genuinely good at it so long as I avoided using the blackboard. On one of the few occasions when I did, I wrote ‘elefant’ instead of ‘elephant’ and there have been many times in my life when my credibility has been badly damaged, which still hurt when I remember them (I taught Spanish speakers abroad to speak English after some romantic notions of originally intending to teach ‘Vietnamese boat people’). But the real irony is that I have spent most of my life’s work primarily in ‘Housing’.
Eventually, the Master looked me up and down. He wasn’t impressed by my lack of enthusiasm to embrace his concluding suggestion.
‘Well boy, no pipe dreams now. So, what do you realistically want to do?’ The question was asked in all sincerity and probably with some desperation (I was not yet eleven years old) so I could start getting focused on ‘a real-world career.’
His logic had been ruthlessly reasonable, and by the time he had reached his conclusions, he had eliminated doing very much anything that seemed to me worth doing career-wise. Also bear in mind I had just had what amounted to a long lecture on being realistic in my expectations, so I needed to become less ‘astronaut’ and more ‘grave digger.’ Instinctively, I thought it usually safer to ask a question rather than risk getting criticised for cautiously giving an opinion.
‘Well, couldn’t I work in an ice cream van if it was at an interesting place?’
He answered shouting about me taking his time up and how I should think about my future and that the test had cost good money, now all wasted. I was now in trouble and he would be speaking to my House Master. Perhaps a few strokes of the cane would straighten me out. The aptitude test entered my careers file never to be seen again and the meeting ended with ‘just how dare you not take my careers meetings seriously!’
In the lodge, I now wear a different uniform to the Army Cadets, which I did join when my age permitted. Upon it is the crest of a crown with three feathers in it. It is linked to the motto ‘Ich Dien’ and means ‘I serve’. But I always had difficulty in acting servile; maybe that was my problem in my school life as much as the dyslexia. But then life does have a habit of toughening up dyslexics fairly early, and I maintain a healthy mistrust of authority, especially within academia. Ultimately, although you are busy people, you appear to be intent on finishing this article having read this far. Probably your interest is because you know me from College. If so, it is for you (rather than me) to judge, was my Aptitude test’s personal recommendation correct in my case? If that one is too difficult (remember I am the dyslexic and you are the academically educated), try a simple: should or could ‘College Porter’ have appeared in the further jobs for me to be considered?