The elusive things that as you try and grasp them, slip away, giggling. Vindictive, pesky things.
My whole life I have struggled to find them. I always wondered why my classmates found them so much easier to catch. If my words were the Fairweather fairy’s, buzzing and slippery, then my classmates’ words were sheep – easily herded and docile.
I am 8 years old and I am in class.
We are in a mixed classroom; the younger grades share with the older. My friend, a year younger, sits next to me. She is reading a book, flipping the pages with a whimsy that angers me. I shift, intent on deciphering the swimming letters that float around on the colourful page in my hand. I try to grasp at them, but the words will not come. I settle on flipping the pages each time my friend does, that way, people will not know my secret.
I am 8 years old and I can’t read.
The book I am holding is meant for a reader much younger than I but the letters won’t form themselves into words, the words won’t fit themselves into sentences, and the sentences won’t be squished into paragraphs. All I have to go off are the pictures.
When my mother asks me to read to her, I have started to make up stories based on the pictures. I think that I am getting away with it, my secret. It is only years later that she will tell me what she didn’t have the heart to do then. That I wasn’t fooling anyone.
Desperation settles in my stomach, hard as gravel. I look around, hoping to find a face that looks as confused as mine. There are none. I am a lonely planet with no star system and nothing to orbit. I am achingly, inexorably alone.
The words never came, until they did.
One word, in particular, has started to follow me around like a sickly dog, nipping at my feet, chittering after me wherever I go.
This is one word that I cannot lose. I want to shake it loose and free myself, but the dog has its teeth sunk deep. It is after this word follows me – tittered when I can’t read a sentence out loud in class, whispered in the school playground, and then shouted – that I go to my mother. I am crying, the tears running snottily down my red cheeks.
“Why am I stupid?” I ask. She frowns, and hugs me tight. Clutched against her I hear her whisper, “You’re not stupid, you’re different.’ I don’t understand what that means at that moment, but years later I will come to appreciate her words.
We go to the specialist, and finally, we have an answer. I am dyslexic.
What I think this means is that I will struggle my entire life for things that others will not. What I think this means is that I will always have to chase the words, they will never come to me willingly. What I think this means is that mathematics will always stay a foreign language. What this means is that I am different.
“You’re just wired in a unique way,” my mother says, and I am glad. I am not stupid. I am dyslexic. A word to place to the feeling of intense loneliness that comes when the words will not be found.
It gets better.
We do activities, we train my brain. Each day my mother and father do assigned games to help me understand. I am 10 years old, and
I have read my first book, it was a short one, but it was a victory. From there, I get a taste for it. The words come slowly, and then all at once. I am reading, and not just occasionally, but ravenously. I read the classics, and the contemporaries, and everything in between. It has become my superpower. I still find it hard in class, but the feeling of being a lonely planet has slowly started to dissipate.
I am in high school and I have figured out the secret. If I study, hard, harder than anyone else in the class, I can be the best. The hours are long, and the work gruelling, but after being stupid for so long, I am ready for transcendence, for wings. Each A sends me soaring high, and each C brings me crashing down. When the Cs come, I feel a rage boil inside me.
“You’re better than this,” I whisper furiously into the mirror. ‘I thought we left this behind us.’ I want to hurt myself for my failure. I want to punish myself. The pain feels good.
I grow up.
I am older now and I have found my passion. After finishing with an ATAR score I once would have thought impossible, I find myself at university on a scholarship. The hours and the study have paid off. The ATAR score to me – while it annoys my friends and family that I mention it perhaps once too often – is my certificate of validation. A piece of paper that says I am worthy. That I am enough. That I struggled and fought for the words, and after all that toil, they are mine. I had captured the elusive screeching things, And I wasn’t about to let them go.
I write a book.
During lockdown my sister and I escape into another land through the words. They transport us to another world. We traverse through crumbling underground catacombs lined with the knowing eyes of the dead. We flee, hand in hand through a dark glittering forest. We face off with the monster.
But another monster, one which I thought I had buried, rears its head. Despite all the years of struggle – the deep well of inferiority, the fear of that one word, the one that still occasionally nips at my heels – I am faced with the realisation that the words will come to her like they never have for me.
They slide through her like a stream of water flowing through a mountain. While mine, I still have to find like a rock climber desperately searching for each new perch, praying that this next handhold will bear my weight.
After so many years I thought I had conquered it. The words. I had almost convinced myself that I wasn’t dyslexic anymore. That I had beaten it. That I was normal. It was this very word that would galvanize me against the other one that still knocked on my door in my weaker moments. The dog was keen to get in.
I thought of my ATAR, of all the As I had racked up in my life, of all the books I had read, wasn’t this enough? Hadn’t I proved myself?
Had I left the classroom of the lonely planet? Or had I only blinded myself to the truth? And then it hit me: I don’t need to fight anymore.
I had locked myself away in a room. This room had four walls, a door and a floor. And I couldn’t get out. This was the room of the lonely planet, and there was no escape.
I am 8 years old and I can’t read. The dog is in here with me, and he won’t leave me alone. His sour breath tickles my neck. His teeth are deep in my skin and I can’t breathe. The book I hold in my hand’s swims around in front of my eyes and the words are playing tricks on me, teasing me, laughing at me. I have been here a very long time.
I see the door crack. A woman walks towards me, she is tall, much taller than I. And she has a kind face. She kneels down in front of me and smiles. It is a small one, but it blooms with the empathy of a thousand suns.
“I’ve put you in here for a long time,” she whispers. “I wanted to deny that you were a part of me. I wanted to forget.”
“You did,” I say.
“Not anymore.” The woman takes my hand and stands up. “I think it’s time you saw what was outside of this room.” Together, we walk out and into the sun. The dog trots next to me, but I let him. He was scared too.
I’m sure that if we looked deep within ourselves, we would find that we all have a small child locked away. Somewhere deep, without light. Petrified in a moment of horror. Of loneliness. It is when we extend the hand of empathy to that small child, to ourselves, that we can truly start to heal.
It has been a long journey to self-acceptance, but it is when we deny the parts of ourselves that scare us that we become incomplete. For so long, the memory of the lonely planet made me want to forget, but it was only once I could accept myself, all
of myself – the stupid, the smart, the silly, the forgotten – that I could truly be whole. When we accept that we are different we can start to work to our full potential, because it is our differences that are our strength.
I had always been scared of the words, the fear, I had tried to lock that part of myself away. But now?
Iwalk with them hand in hand.
And we stand tall.
Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!