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Simon Davey – a confusing start in life

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Last week was ‘Dyslexia week’

This got both of us thinking about how things were for a young Simon in his early life, struggling with a problem that had so far had little if any recognition and wasn’t to be named until twenty years later. We decided that it might be useful for him to share his story and how he coped. There is a different way that dyslexic minds work and one aspect is a brilliance at pattern matching that makes it very helpful in identifying the natural world. It is of little surprise that he chose to be an ecologist by profession.

Simon Davey – a confusing start in life
Simon and his sisters growing upDyslexia is a condition that I have only been aware that I have since I was a mature adult, as prior to that it had yet to be described by medical science. As a youngster I was simply thought of as being rather unintelligent and treated as such. At the age of eight, I was awarded a choristership at Ely Cathedral. This made me really happy in prospect, but when I went off to the King’s School Ely, I was at first confused, and then utterly miserable. I cried a lot. This did not help me in any way to become accepted by either the teachers or my fellow pupils. In lessons, I was made to sit at the back of the class where I simply made an awful mess on paper with a dip pen and a supply of ink. The teacher took very little, if any notice of me. I was treated as the lowest of the low, and halfway through the first term, I was sent to see a psychiatrist to see if I was mentally ill and unstable. I even spent one night in the town with total strangers - I had run away as life had become quite intolerable. I did have rather a good voice, but I was told that there were occasions when I totally wrecked evensong by sobbing.

Then, at the age of ten, I went up a form, and in this class we started to learn Latin. Latin seemed very simple. All we had to do was to learn the declensions and conjugations of nouns and verbs. Amo amas amat etc.! To the total astonishment of my teachers, I did not make any mistakes in Latin. As a result, I was top of the class, although still well bottom in all other subjects. My reading ability was not good, but I found that I could make a very neat job of Latin work. Everyone was astonished, and I was sent to show my work to the headmaster who I think was equally astonished.

At the age of thirteen, two more new subjects were added. These were chemistry and French. My French was adequate, but in chemistry which I adored, I made virtually no mistakes and was top of the class. This was in spite of the fact that in my first term I had spent a considerable amount of time in the school sanatorium, and this was in a building in which the chemistry master had a flat. He had no respect for me even this much later, and I think he found it difficult to accept the fact that my chemistry was very promising. Because I was now rather outstanding in two subjects, adequate in one other and bottom in the rest, my end of term reports said that I was ‘idle and lazy’.

As a dyslexic lad of thirteen my range of interests and hobbies was very broad. Already, I was fascinated by natural history and made a collection of pressed plants. I was also fascinated by geology. We lived in Leicester and a few miles north there is Charnwood Forest with its ancient igneous rocks. I used to cycle to Charnwood during the school holidays and made a collection of the different kinds of rock. One of the most exciting days of my youth was when I took a train from Leicester up to Matlock in Derbyshire. Here there was a lead mine and at its entrance there was a spoil heap which contained many beautiful crystals and minerals. Shiny metallic lead ore was especially abundant and I was relieved to hear that it was not poisonous; I picked up many pieces for my collection. I was also interested in walking up hills and kept a tally of altitudes. In Matlock, I was able to increase my highest altitude to considerably over 1000 feet.

I was also fascinated by many kinds of music and by railway steam engines. Like many others, I collected train numbers, and would go off to Grantham to see the expresses on their way to Edinburgh. These are just a few of my hobbies which fascinated me. Aircraft also fascinated me, and a friend of mine and I used go to Waterbeach Airfield, which catered for jet fighters. We stood by the road to Cambridge which passes close to the end of the runway. It was thrilling. None of my interests took precedence over the others. All were equally fascinating and time absorbing.

To my astonishment at the age of fourteen I was put in the class which would take the GCE ordinary level exams in the summer. My reports had continued grim, and I was astonished, and not a little worried about what this would mean. I achieved six passes which included a grade 1 in art and, much to the surprise of the teacher, involved a grade 1 in history. “Most undeserved grade 1 in all my years as a teacher,” he moaned. It was a tradition at Ely that if we achieved a grade one in a GCE examination, we would be taken out for an expensive lunch at a local hotel. He made sure I was not the only boy that he would have to have a special lunch with.

Unfortunately I failed maths. I very much wanted to study biology and chemistry to advanced level, but my chemistry master refused to have me in his science sixth without maths. Everyone wanted me to do advanced level art. Failing that, French and German were preferred. My father threatened me with disinheritance if I decided to make art my career. It was decided that I should spend a further year studying for GCE ordinary level. This time I achieved a reasonable pass in maths as well as in chemistry. I was still only fifteen, and to prevent me from studying science subject at advanced level had made little sense. I was now studying Physics, Chemistry and Zoology in the science sixth form.

In one of my reports, the chemistry master, who was now in charge of my studies said in my end of term report “If he continues in science, it can only lead to disillusionment and ultimate failure”. At the end of two years, I achieved a good pass at chemistry advanced level, but less good passes in physics, zoology and art, which I also studied. I now had twelve ordinary level GCE passes, with another four at advanced level. This was the little boy who at the age of eight was considered so lacking in intelligence as to be unteachable.

Having taken my advanced level GCE exams, I now rose to the upper science sixth where we prepared to gain entrance to universities. Our science teacher came from Devon and used to refer to people as “Me dear.” He even called me “Me dear.” At one point, he went around the class asking which universities we were going to try for. “Well Davey Me dear,” he asked, “and where do you want to go to university?”

“Cambridge Sir,” I replied.

“Cambridge!” he spluttered, “Never ever get to Cambridge Me dear, not even in a million years. I should try for a technical college or something then you might stand a chance.”

“I was going to try for a choral scholarship.” I added.

“Well I suppose in that case” he replied grudgingly, “You might stand some sort of a chance.”

In the event, I tried for choral scholarships at Selwyn and St Catherine’s Colleges. The voice trials were very different. At Selwyn, coffee was served in the middle of my prepared solo. While at St Catherine’s things went along these lines:

“Come!” I went into the room where the auditions were being held. “Sing middle C.” I was asked.

“I’m afraid I don’t have perfect pitch,” I replied.

“Here, sight read this,” I was handed a scrappy piece of paper on which in faded blue was a manuscript piece of music in which the words were in Latin. I fumbled my way through it pretty unsuccessfully. “That’s all!” he said.

“Don’t you want me to sing my prepared piece?”

“You may be able to sing like Caruso,” he replied. “But we are looking for musicians. That is something that clearly you are not. Goodbye.” There were also formal scientific interviews which were just as hostile.

“Have you been to see them at Selwyn?” I was asked at the porter’s lodge as I was leaving.

“No” I replied.

“Well, they want to see you.”

Having left St Catherine’s College, I went to a pub and had a gin and orange. I thought to myself, this place is quite crazy, I never want to have anything else to do with this place Cambridge for the rest of my life.

After lunch, I went round to Selwyn and announced myself at the porter’s lodge.

“Dr Durrant wants to see you,” the porter told me. “I’ll give him a call and see when that can be.” After about five minutes he announced, “Dr Durrant will see you now.” I wondered what I had done that was so wrong. Dr Durrant was the senior tutor. I had run off with a towel which I had wrapped up, and I gave it in at the porter’s lodge as I waited. It seemed a strong reaction to the towel to be summonsed.

The session with Dr Durrant was actually very friendly, and he asked me what subjects I wanted to study if I came to Cambridge. This was the last straw. It was like putting salt on a wound. Feeling depressed, very tired and confused I returned by train to school. To my utter astonishment, I received a letter the next morning from St Catherine’s saying that they couldn’t offer me a choral scholarship, but they would offer me a place. In view of my interview with Dr Durrant, and the fact that I found Selwyn a much more friendly place, I wrote to Selwyn saying I had been offered a place at St Catherine’s, but that I would prefer Selwyn. I received a letter shortly afterwards offering me a place at Selwyn. I had achieved two places at Cambridge without the need to achieve a choral scholarship.

One of the reasons for writing the above is to share my experiences of being dyslexic. As a youngster, I found reading and writing very difficult, and was pretty well written off as very below average intelligence. I believe that dyslexia is actually a considerable gift but early development is slow and full of difficulties. This should be recognised. Evidently some of the greatest brains of all time turn out to have been dyslexic.

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