EducationOur editor, Lionel Hughes, shared his challenges of not fitting into the nine-dot thinking in school and what that meant to him. Prairies North reader David Routledge knows that from personal experience and shared his story with us.
Your article Confessions of a Slow Learner by Lionel Hughes in your Summer issue impacted me a great deal. I grew up in and attended school in Unity Saskatchewan during the 50’s and 60’s. This was in the time that there were three levels of high school—A for academics heading to university, B for college bound kids and G for General—the rest who were not academically gifted.
I struggled with school all through my public and high school – who flunks Grade 1? Me!
I especially had a difficult time with mathematics, geometry, calculus, chemistry etc. I would think that I would understand the concept, but when I got the exams back I failed. I finally gave up trying and flunked Grade 10 by hanging around with the equivalent of Unity’s Fonzie (of Happy Days). I repeated Grade 12 to give me the marks to go on to post-secondary. Like the writer I also attended university—but I flunked out—TWICE.
The difference between me and my two younger brothers was significant. Both were academically gifted, and I clearly was not. It was so profound that my parents told each other that marks would never be discussed at the dinner table. This was done so as not to humiliate me.
After flunking out of the University of Alberta the second time I moved from job to job, finally winding up in Toronto and working with people who were developmentally handicapped. I remember thinking that I was not much smarter than the people that I was working with. My boss at the time told me that I had to go back to school to get further education if I wanted to advance. Academics again! I applied to Ryerson (then college, now university) knowing that in the admission process they would figure out that I really was stupid and would not allow me in. They accepted me. I was so angry thinking that if a college would accept someone like me I did not want to go to a a rinky deenk (my word) college with such low standards.
I began going part time. My first professor was Janet Mays. I had a connection with her as she was doing her doctoral thesis on the Wheat Pool in Saskatchewan. She inspired me and challenged me as she was so passionate about social work. My first paper came back and had more red marks on it than what I had written. Because I wanted to please her I worked like mad on that course, learning study habits that I had never learned before. I got a B+ on that course, and I was amazed. That was my lowest mark. That started a 14 year journey of working full time, part time and going to school. I graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Social Work—with honors in 1996. My parents were at the graduation ceremony, coming all the way from Unity to Toronto. I looked across the audience as I was lining up to get my diploma. I sent a silent message to my parents: “This is for you Mom and Dad—to make up for the shame you must have felt all those years.” When they announced that I had graduated with Honors my dad started to quietly cry.
I went on to apply for and got accepted at the University of Toronto for a Masters in Social Work. I graduated in 1998 at the age of 50. I also received a scholarship called the Ontario Graduate Scholarship which is for the top academics in Ontario. I now work as a Social Worker at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
I also have a private practice in psychotherapy. So what happened from failing out of school to being a top academic?
When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s there was no such thing as a learning disability. You were either dumb or stupid. As an adult I found out that I am dyslexic with numbers—I reverse numbers. You tell me to write 1920 and I will write 1902. I found this out quite by accident as I noticed I kept getting wrong numbers when I was phoning. No wonder I could not pass anything having to do with mathematics. I also found out that I have Attention Deficit Disorder—self diagnosed.
Had I known then what I know now my story would have been quite different. Had I gotten the supports I needed in public and high school I would not have viewed myself as being “less than” all of my life. But when I was going to school there was no support for me. People did not know about learning disabilities. I wonder now how many people in the G class had a learning disability. How many “slow learners” actually had an undiagnosed learning disability? Like the four youth in the picture in Confessions of a Slow Learning I also wonder how many of those “behavioral kids” actually were youth with attention deficit disorder. I was one of the lucky ones, I found out the hard way what the issues were for me. Many have not – even as adults.
I am so grateful to my parents for supporting me all the way through public and high school. They never made me feel “less than”. My Dad died just after I graduated from the University of Toronto. I am so grateful that they lived to see me graduate with both degrees.
David Routledge lives and practices in Toronto, ON.
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