LIVING ISSUES
Volume 16 Number 4
Word-Blind
01 August 2003

Einar Engebretsen drove his teachers to despair. 30 years later he discovered why.

The teacher leant over her desk and pointed a white, quivering forefinger at the boy in the third row. In a falsetto voice she declared: ‘You, Einar, are stupid!’

This educational stimulus came early in my academic career and I responded to it wholeheartedly. I was then in the third grade at ‘Bolla’ in Oslo—or Bolteløkken Primary School as it was called on solemn occasions.

Among these solemn occasions were the many times when one or other of my teachers took me to the headmaster’s office to describe my unorthodox lifestyle in colourful detail.

‘Bad behaviour’ as it was unimaginatively described in my reports.
My class teacher was basically kind. But, in the heat of the battle to raise 28 young souls up from the darkness of ignorance, the base rarely reached the surface.

Had she been Japanese, she would have regarded me as a gift from the gods, sent to test her patience and strengthen her character. However she was from Lillestrøm, where they don’t think along those lines.



In Norwegian, the words for ‘model’ (mønster) and ‘monster’ (monster) are almost identical. My class teacher could see no teaching model that would convert her monster pupil into a model—other than taking me to the headmaster at regular intervals.

Not that I was entirely without principles. On the contrary, at an early stage I made a decision, which I kept to unyieldingly: I never did any homework. It is incredible how much education you can avoid if you work at it wholeheartedly.
This showed very clearly in my school reports: a depressing monthly event for my parents. The darkest of Finnish TV dramas brought forth joy and mirth compared to the dismal depression that descended on readers of my report book.

One day, I came up with a plan to shield my parents from the recurrent trauma of reading and signing my report book. I signed the book myself, with my father’s name.

Not many days later, my father asked about my marks. I replied that we had started a new system. That ‘new system’ worked for half a year—then it collapsed.

But that’s another story.

Finally, after seven years at primary school, I found myself squinting towards the future. I felt the past scratching the back of my neck. The Norwegian classes scratched the most.

From the very beginning I had trouble keeping letters in order. For my fellow students words paraded like elite Prussian soldiers. For me they flapped around like chickens scared by a fox.

Thirty years later, completely by chance, I found the reason why. Dyslexia—which in Norwegian we call ordblindhet (word-blindness). During a visit to England, I met an expert on dyslexia. She explained that my word-mixing had its root in a ‘technical’ defect in my brain, beyond my control.

I had just been telling her the story of how, when travelling in the United States, I once wrote to a kind hostess in Hollywood thanking her for her ‘warm hostility’. The difference in letters between ‘hostility’ and ‘hospitality’ is small—the consequence of getting it wrong is big.

During a debate in Richmond, Virginia, I referred to ‘the Minister of Inferior Affairs’. And when I talked about ‘20 cents foxery’, it was only my wife who realized that I was attempting to pronounce the name of the renowned film company ‘20th Century Fox’.

Quite without meaning to, I shorten words, for example ‘physiopist’ instead of ‘physiotherapist’.

When it comes to a word like artikkel (Norwegian for ‘article’), I simply cannot get into my head whether it is spelt with one or two ‘k’s. I have to ask my wife, a proficient speller, every time—or look it up in the dictionary.
In spite of my dyslexia I love reading and writing. In the 1960s Norway’s largest paper, Aftenposten, ran a writing competition, judged by an impressive group of intellectuals. My contribution resulted in a generous cheque in the mail, and the article was printed in a prominent place in the paper.

A year later Aftenposten held another competition. I tried again—with the same happy result. Since then I have been writing for some ten newspapers and periodicals.

King Olav V of Norway (1903-91) was dyslexic; a popular Norwegian author, Vera Henriksen, is dyslexic. It is said that Winston Churchill had a touch of dyslexia. The English actress Susan Hampshire is dyslexic. But you don’t have to be dyslexic to be gifted—there are cases of normal academic pupils who have succeeded.

But the dyslexic person has certain advantages. He or she is often forced into mobilizing brain resources which ordinary people easily leave untouched.
Intelligence tests in the Western world are based on a French model, which sought to promote the supremely clever pupil and created the IQ test. This primarily tests the left side of your brain, which is analytical, rational and logical. The right side of the brain, which takes care of the visual, intuitive and creative aspects, is often neglected. This side is also the best for the overall picture.

Many experts today reckon that if we are to handle the problems of the future we will need to make much more use of these right-brain qualities and characteristics. In other words, there is a possibility that the clever ones could be less intelligent than the not-so-clever.

That is my consolation.

I must add one more thing. The false signature in my report book was not to protect my father from unnecessary worry, but to protect my own skin. A dialogue with the Lord—who broached this sensitive subject—convinced me. I recognized my sin and made it up with my father.

There is never an excuse for dishonesty.

I remember my teacher with sadness and sympathy. She had an impossible task—or, rather, an impossible pupil. And though I am trying to prove the opposite, I have no guarantee that she was unjustified in claiming:

‘You, Einar, are stupid!’

This article is taken from Einar Engebretsen’s booklet, Ordblind (Agave Forlag 1997)

Fact file:

Up to 20 per cent of Norwegians suffer from some degree of dyslexia.

One child in every British classroom is likely to be severely dyslexic.

Only five per cent of the US’s 25 million dyslexics are recognized as such and receive assistance.

80 per cent of people with learning difficulties in the US are dyslexic.

40–60 per cent of prisoners in the USA suffer from dyslexia or problems with reading or writing.

Sources: Norsk Dysleksiforbund; British Dyslexia Association; Dyslexia Research Institute; US Department of Justice



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