May 6, 2021

My first sermon was a disaster. I worked on the text all week and printed it out, in large print, double-spaced. But when I got up into the pulpit I just couldn’t see the words in the order that I had written them. In order to focus on the words, I had to point at each one as I read it out, staccato. Even then I missed some lines. I sounded like a stumbling fool.

You know the joke about the dyslexic priest who had a crisis of faith? He lay up all night wondering if there was a dog… Well that’s me. Sort of.

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Dyslexia takes various forms — and reading out loud can be as much of a problem as spelling. My spelling is a nightmare too. Just ask my editors. However, we do make better spies. This week I learned on GCHQ’s, top secret espionage training scheme are four times as likely to have dyslexia as those on other training schemes. We see the world differently. And those distinctive ways in which dyslexics process information enables us to see things that others often miss.

After that torturously embarrassing sermon, the priest who was training me had an idea. Throw away the script, he said. Get up in that pulpit and tell me a story. So I did. It worked. And I’ve never looked back — or used notes again.

I do prepare though. I think about the matter in hand abstractly — I have always been more comfortable in the abstract than the concrete. And theology, of course, encourages this. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud came up with the controversial idea that because of their suspicion of idolatry — of turning God into something concrete, like a Golden Calf — Moses invented abstract thought. “The prohibition against making an image of God — the compulsion to worship a God one cannot see” became a defining feature of the Jewish imagination, thus “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea — a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality”.

My ideas find their place and are given some sort of order. Then what begins as a kind of philosophy is translated into story form, with a beginning, middle and end. When I preach, I tell a story like others would tell a joke. With this process — abstract first, then conversion into narrative form — my preaching was transformed. I was no longer the stumbling fool. I had found my voice — thanks to my dyslexia.

There are 10 things dyslexics are often good at, according to Jillian Petrova: the first is a “Strong memory for stories. the seventh is “Abstract thinkers”.  We dyslexics apparently “understand things that are not tangible, many of which are innate human qualities like bravery, love and deception”. Which may well be why, by working out a different way of doing things, my ‘disability’ did become a kind of superpower. I wonder if the same was true of Moses. The Bible says he had a stammer, and Jewish tradition has him as left handed – both, perhaps, signs that he was not, as it were, neurotypical.

There is a cost. Tasks that are simple for others, are fiendishly complicated for me. Basic organisation is always a problem. I can be absurdly literal when asked a question and rude (or what i would consider clear) in replying. Often, I do not understand even the simplest of tasks if not fully specified. I can’t drive. I still have to say to myself “write with the right” and then wiggle my writing hand to work out which way is right.

If asked a question, I often imagine the line of questioning going forward and answer the third one along. And if I feel I have been asked to do contradictory things, I just seize up, emotionally paralysed. I also have an astonishingly high fidget factor — not good for that calm, prayerful, beatific look priests are supposed to adopt during services.

But there are up-sides. Dyslexics are often good at pattern recognition. I was reasonably good at chess from quite a young age. I could see the whole board in one, rather than as a collection of individual potential moves. And, for those of us who are religious, pattern recognition may be a rather important feature of our faith. Like that great patron saint of all neurodivergent mystics, I totally get it when William Blake talks about seeing the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower. I open the curtains to the garden and I see God.

When I was a school, I was at the bottom of the bottom set. We were the dunces, the no-hopers. Sitting a few desks along from me was fellow dyslexic Charlie Dunstone. Like me, he had a reputation for being trouble. His nickname was “stubber” because he was often to be found smoking roll-ups behind the fives court rather than swatting away in the library. “They said I didn’t work hard and I was lazy because I was bored in classes” remembers Dunstone. He left school to go and set up something called The Carphone Warehouse. “It would be a mistake to make dyslexia a problem. We should celebrate it. … In later life [dyslexia] can be great for imaginative, productive people because they come up with loads of ideas and are creative.”

In other words, what counts as an ability or a disability are highly context dependent. Yet our educational system still seems set up to turn us dyslexics into fools. I scraped into University, god knows how. By luck I chose to read philosophy. And almost immediately, I found something I was able to do. I had never got A’s before. Within months, my reputation for being thick had gone. It felt like the difference between a penguin waddling along on land and a penguin swimming in water, free and graceful.

There has been a lot of blah in the press recently about Hull University deciding not to count bad spelling against its students. Admittedly, the issue was slightly different, with much talk of the need to decolonise the curriculum. But I was more sympathetic. Educational environments exist to enable students to find what they are good at. More enlightened educationalists often talk of dyslexics needing “support”. But I want more than support to, as it were, walk on land. I suppose help is useful, but people like me won’t ever be much good at that. I want them to show me the water.

Yet according to a 2019 report, schools are failing to diagnose at least 80% of children with dyslexia. We wait for them to fail and only then intervene says Helen Boden, Chief Executive of the British Dyslexia Association. By which time, they are behind their peers and the curriculum and we are losing them.

I don’t know the science. I don’t really understand what makes dyslexics different. But I do know that what counts as neurotypical or neurodivergent is as much to do with the way society has set itself up — what it decides to count as normative — as much as it has to do with the workings of my brain.

If educational establishments are to get the best out of us, they need to be more aware that certain tasks suit some people more than others. Why, when they’re designing a curriculum aren’t they considering what type of people will do well and who will not. Whose strengths are their curriculums playing to? What the GCHQ experience suggests is that we need people who think differently. We should be able to assess them too. Because often, we see things you don’t.

Yes, I was trouble at school. Frustrated and angry. Academically, a lost cause. Yet within a decade of leaving, I had my PhD and was teaching philosophy at Oxford. If I could go back to school again, this I what I would want to tell them: dyslexia is your problem not mine.