I TEACH OLD MEN HOW TO READ AND WRITE. I do it one day a week. It is a sort of personal penitence for a lifetime of enjoying reading and writing. Most of the men are younger than me but they are old men nevertheless.
One of them, Toby, had a bad accident as a child. He fell off his bike and his hand went under the spinning blades of a rotary mower that his father had left idling on the lawn while he nipped inside for a cool drink.
Toby has now got a strange left hand with a little finger where his thumb used to be and other fingers sticking out at unnatural angles. He lost a lot of blood during the mad ride to the hospital and it left him unable to walk or talk for a couple of years. When he was in hospital he caught pneumonia and then had a stroke.
After that he was shunted around a variety of Special Schools, always languishing at the back out of the teacher’s reach. At his last school, in a supreme act of irony, he was given the job of mowing the school lawns in lieu of school work.
Irony or not it was good training and he spent his working life as a handyman around Housing Commission estates and high rises, usually in a low-paid and shonky arrangement with the official maintenance contractors.
He’s currently taken time off from class to battle cancer. He developed a strange lump in his throat that had to be cut out and now he’s on a course of chemotherapy. Hopefully he’ll be back to put the finishing touches to the book that we’ve written together about his life.
Another one is Merve. I do the teaching through a not-for-profit charity and he was sent along by the government as part of a job search program. He’s a few years shy of retirement and doesn’t have much choice in the matter if he wants to receive unemployment benefits. He’s worked hard all his life but age and his poor literacy have caught up with him and his chances of getting a job so close to retirement are pretty much zero.
Nevertheless, he’s making the best of it and his professed ambition is to read a book before he dies. He’s a Volkswagen buff and we’re looking for a novel that has a 1974 Kombi-camper as the hero.
His learning problem dates back to when he was a baby. Apparently he cried a lot and one night his frustrated father punched him in the head. That seemed to work so when poor little Merve kept crying his father kept punching him.
Some of the other old blokes tell similar stories of childhood trauma. Most of them are smart people but something happened to that part of their brain that now makes it very difficult for them to get the hang of reading and writing. Most of them have mild dyslexia too.
When I listen to their stories about how they navigated life without those skills I’m amazed at their ingenuity. Merve had several small businesses during his working life and he used to get the local barmaids to write out his quotes for him. The devious way that he got his driver’s licence is classic.
These blokes lack of literacy had other, less sanguine effects however. Without exception they are all loners. The few that married, like Merve, have spouses with similar problems. Beyond their immediate family their social contacts are limited. Very few of them ever look me in the eye. Gaining their confidence is sometimes difficult and it is hard work trying not to sound patronising.
Like Toby, most of them went through “Special Schools”, which is a convenient educational catch-all for “hopeless” students. They sat at the back of the class and the teachers, after a few half-hearted efforts, would ignore them. After a while they’d get sent off doing stuff like emptying rubbish bins or sweeping the playground.
Working in the classroom with people like Toby and Merve is a sobering experience. It effectively brings home the truth that, while we may all be created intellectually equal circumstances conspire to ensure that doesn’t remain the case for very long.
Toby and Merve are extreme examples but for most people life wreaks subtle changes so that two people born at the same time may begin as equals in mental capacity but by the time they reach puberty and then adulthood that equity has largely dissipated.
That same deck of intellectual cards they were dealt now looks entirely different. This is despite the fact that the physical hardware and accompanying software of their being was originally very similar. As malleable creatures life has remoulded them into all sorts of different shapes.
There are elements of both nature and nurture in these outcomes. Nurture is very selective about the form of nature it teams up with. For nurture some nature traits are highly desirable but others are effectively irrelevant.
The way a person progresses and succeeds in life is largely dependent upon context, such as the material circumstances of their family and the composition of the bundle of nature that they inherit from their parents and bring into the world with them.
However, even two individuals created in equal circumstances at birth do not necessarily equate to two individuals equal in later life. In short, everyone ultimately ends up different.
For Toby and Merve circumstances contrived to eventually make them very different to what is generally accepted as the norm.
And yet they were still expected to cope in the world of what was for them an alien norm. And, of course, they couldn’t. They couldn’t cope with the standardised school experience and the expectations that it engendered. Nor could they cope with life’s other expectations.
This doesn’t mean that they are stupid or dumb. Everyone develops differently. They just developed in a way that is not accepted as normal. They are not dumb, they are different.
As such, they shouldn’t be treated as “normal”. They should be treated as people who are different. They should also be treated with just as much respect as anyone else.
People are different; it is just that some people are more different than others.
What works for some people doesn’t work for others. It is something that the “mind managers” of this increasingly globalised and homogenised world will ignore at their peril. People out there are, to one degree or another, different and they have to be treated as such.