School was torture for the girl tagged as “stupid”, but she found new hope and the strength to overcome her dyslexia
I am 30 years old and a very different person to the one I used to be. Not long ago, I was a single mother living in poverty with my oldest daughter, unable to give her the life she deserved. I hated my life and didn’t think that I had what it takes to be successful. My education can only be described as wasted, as I threw away the opportunity at school to make something of myself. Following a spell in care, I was rebellious and determined to make things difficult for myself. I thought that I was stupid. Much of my time in school was spent in the isolation room with my teacher’s harsh words echoing through my mind: “You will never amount to anything”. I was really interested in the subjects but I opted to act like the class clown in order to hide the embarrassment of what recently turned out to be dyslexia.
I had really low self-esteem and any confidence that I had developed was well and truly knocked out of me in primary school, where my bully of a headteacher would make me stand and recite my times-tables daily with tears rolling down my cheeks. I tried and tried and they just would not go in. School, to me, was nothing less than torture. Thinking of a fresh start and making some friends, I began secondary school. My dreams were short-lived and after the first few lessons the feelings of frustration returned. I remember feeling angry with myself as I felt that I was intelligent in my thoughts but in reality I just didn’t get it. I was always in trouble, always getting into fights and being banished to stand alone in the corridor whilst my classmates were learning inside. They would often point and laugh at me through the glass panes of the doors. This really upset me and I would run away.
By Year 10, I had been kicked out of history. “She’s useless and never tries hard enough”, I once heard my teacher say to the Headmaster as I sat quietly awaiting my fate. I had lost my temper in class after being ridiculed for not remembering what we had been asked to learn for the lesson. He refused to believe that I had, in fact, stayed up reading it over and over again, until late into the night. I really liked history but I was removed from the class.
Hitting rock bottom
When I was thrown out of French, I hit an all-time low. I loved learning about other countries but just could not remember the language and I would become upset and hit out when confronted, especially when trying to learn in a noisy classroom. I often used to run away from school and hide until the day was up, sometimes shivering at the bus stop or alone in the park. I was always in detention, always suspended and more often than not skiving.
I was really good at sports and broke national records for throwing events in athletics (much of that I put down to the built up anger I had festering within me), but again my memory let me down and I failed to engage with the theory side of the course. My home life was unsettled and I felt like I had nowhere to turn. I had no real friends as I had alienated them through my bad behaviour.
I would also go through most days without eating, as part of my punishment was to sit facing the school cafeteria whilst I ate on the stage – something I flatly refused to do. I was not allowed a morning or afternoon break or to visit the school tuck shop, and I only got a fifteen minute supervised lunch break. I was removed from all lessons and forced to sit alone in a small room in the library working from a textbook. By the end of Year 11, two months before my GCSEs, I was excluded. I had been in a fight which, on this occasion, was not my fault, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. I was not to enter school grounds unless to sit an exam and immediately after I had to leave. I wish things had been different. I was very aggressive and deeply unhappy and, needless to say, I left school with no useful qualifications. I sat in my final exams watching everyone scribbling eagerly as I sobbed with my head in my hands. School broke me.
Turning it around
My local adult learning centre – The Core Centre in Calverton, Nottingham – was the catalyst for major changes in my life. Since leaving school, I had spent my time travelling around the world. I was about to embark on yet another journey when I found out about my pregnancy. I didn’t have any friends where I was staying at the time and the thought of sitting inside alone all summer filled with me with dread. I often walked past the Centre but, on this occasion, I walked in to enquire about completing an IT course to give me something to do with my time. Just a few minutes later, I had signing up to work as a full-time admin volunteer. I helped with the enrolment process, learnt how to create and maintain databases, deal with customer queries, send and receive faxes and make photocopies. I thrived in the busy environment and I felt like a different person. I took pride in my appearance and really enjoyed helping others.
I completed several interesting courses and also received training in sexual health and substance misuse, health and safety, risk assessment and equal opportunities. Through the Coalfields Regeneration Trust I also completed an NVQ level 2 qualification in Managing Voluntary and Community Organisations. I learnt how to use software to design leaflets, deal with banking and accounts, how to successfully secure bids and apply for funding. I also learnt how to deal with legal issues and create impressive business plans. The support and assistance I received at the Centre was amazing.
A love for learning
The confidence I had gained inspired me to take my personal learning to the next level and I applied to college for an Access to HE: Teaching Diploma. The course was tough and its standards were high, but I did it and I was truly proud of myself. Balancing a full-time course with the demands of parenting a young child was not easy, but it was rewarding. To complete the Access course and secure my place at university I had to complete GCSE equivalent courses, which included modules in maths, English, chemistry, physics and biology. Let’s just say that I was far more successful the second time around as a mature student. I scrimped and saved to raise £30 a week from my benefit to pay for extra private tuition to get me to the required level to pass the maths course. My grades were excellent and I had distinctions for most of my assignments.
During my year at college, I also completed two half-days a week at a primary school as both a literacy volunteer and classroom assistant. I loved it; the children were amazing and I learnt so much. As well as receiving excellent references from teachers at the school, the children made me an enormous thank you card at the end of the year which left me glowing. This experience confirmed my desire to pursue a professional career in education and I set about writing my application for university. It was an anxious wait but when the decision came, I felt elated. I was accepted on a degree course studying Education with Special Educational Needs and Disability.
I was also very proud to win the Adult Learners Week award for the whole of the East Midlands for what I have achieved in education. What’s more, I met the most amazing man during my access course at college; Chris has done nothing but encourage me to keep on going. We were married in July 2012 and our son was born in May the following year.
Making a difference
University has been extremely challenging and I am still fighting hard to get to where I want to be. I have worked relentlessly and have been rewarded with high firsts for all of my modules. I also completed a paediatric first aid course this year, became the student representative for my program (SEND Pathway) and started work for a prestigious supply agency alongside my degree. This enabled me to work in a range of different educational settings across the county, in both mainstream and independent schools, providing additional support to learners with various educational needs. However, my true personal and professional interest lies with dyslexia and the consequent issues and barriers that surround it for many individuals in society. Recently, I completed a placement at Maple Hayes, an inspirational independent specialist dyslexia school, where I experienced first-hand how the lives of people with dyslexia can be turned around with the right kind of support.
I have also managed to secure some solid work experience for the remainder of my time at university. After ambitiously contacting The Dyslexia Association in Nottingham and meeting with its Chief Executive Dee Caunt, I am also now working with them as a Volunteer Event Coordinator. I have been tasked with organising events and open days, maintaining the social media for the organisation and fundraising, which will involve bringing case studies to life to finance new projects. I will also be learning about management, business development and marketing by shadowing and working alongside Dee. I have big plans for various schemes which I hope to develop over the summer to help young people with dyslexia to gain confidence and appreciate how special they are to have such an amazing gift.
I know that I have a lot to offer employers and I cannot wait to get started. I have completed several courses recently to boost my employability, such as the Futures Award which was set up to allow students to manage their own projects, gain experience, develop important management and leadership skills and improve their employment prospects. Through this opportunity, and my new found love of formal learning, I hope to develop the skills needed to make a real and lasting contribution to improving the lives of people with dyslexia.
I am also lucky to have been offered a place on the Frontrunners course, an amazing leadership and management opportunity designed to allow higher education students to learn from senior leaders at the top of their professions about how to be a great leader. Finally, I have completed courses in Maintaining Social Media for your Organisation, project management and bid writing.
Once I finish my degree, later this year, I hope to complete a Master’s degree in Education Management. After that, I will see about doing my doctorate.
Although my dyslexia can be challenging, it will never stop me from achieving my goals and I believe there really is hope for us all. I now feel an overwhelming sense of achievement. I feel alive and capable of doing anything that I set my mind to. I walk around with my head held high, proud of what I have achieved. Thirteen years after leaving school, I feel like I have been given another chance in life and it feels good. I only hope that I can inspire others to give education another chance and allow it to turn their lives around for the better, like it did mine.
Education is a wonderful thing when you are ready for it, or should I say, when education is ready for you.
Sarah Chapman is currently studying for a BA Honours Degree in Education with Special Educational Needs and Disability at the University of Derby:
You can follow The Dyslexia Association’s national dyslexia awareness campaign at: youngdyslexics.co.uk