How Harendra de Silva overcame Dyslexia
My early traumatic memories
Two of my earliest memories were of being frightened by a mouse jumping on to me from a toy cupboard and of a friend jumping on to me from a cupboard to surprise me while playing hide and seek in school. This second experience was really frightening and made me cry more than the first and left lasting memories in me. Instead of consoling me my teacher smacked me hard on the bottom. The pain and the humiliation of this experience left me with indelible memories. When I was in the lower kindergarten, I played the role of a flowering tree in ‘Mal Kumari’ our class play. When this was staged at the Independence Square in the presence of dignitaries, I was so fascinated by the surroundings and completely forgot to ‘sleep’ by lying down! Then, I was obsessed by ‘torch’ bulbs especially the blinking type, batteries and electric motors. I had a contraption of wires fixed to a series of bulbs and batteries that lit up. I got caught to the teacher who called me ‘Light Baas’ thereafter. I kept mostly to myself and my imagination run riot, building castles in the air. I used to day-dream often talking to myself or just walking aimlessly. I wanted to be a great scientist, inventing things. Once when I wanted a science lab, my father cleared a room, and put a table and chair, a rack for chemicals, test-tubes, and a spirit lamp.
I didn't make friends easily. Looking back I may have had autistic spectrum disorder (Asperger’s)??!! I My eye to eye contact was poor and I still prefer this. I also used to watch the flywheel of my mother’s sewing machine for hours. Another feature!! I used to run and scream a lot and once I was smacked by my uncle Ben (Lal Jayaratne’s father). I also had food sensitivities and fancied certain tastes and textures – more features of the autistic spectrum. My mother’s asparagus sandwiches often with cheese, and tinned corned beef were favourites. As were seer fish and white sauce. I just rejected some foods as ‘poison’. My tastes were very sensitive, and I detected “taboo” items in her foods even in minute amounts. She used to say that I should be a tea taster by profession.
My battle with Dyslexia (an association with autism)
I loved “logical” subjects, like arithmetic/Math or science. I hated learning ‘by-heart’. I also had issues with reading and writing Sinhala. I have read only one Sinhala storybook “Amba Yaluwo”, with the greatest difficulty. “Madol duwa” was another textbook but I never completed it. I still cannot read a long text in Sinhalese. Buddhist gathas (stanzas) were another chore. We had to recite Dhammapada every week. I stood in the 3rd row. When lines of the stanzas were recited by each student in turn beginning from the first row, I remembered one bit from each student, and when it came to my turn, I knew the whole stanza perfectly. My teacher called me ‘Golaya’ and always gave me high marks, undeserved.
I understood words when combined with pictures like in Comics, World war II and Tin-Tin books, and without counselling I conquered dyslexia single handedly, but only in English. I graduated to Enid Blyton’s and when much older to James Hadley Chase. Beyond that my reading was terrible. I remember in my 9th standard, I just could not read and understand Sinhala Literature, and ended getting between 0-4% in the three terms. The teacher used to humiliate me and ridiculed me in front of the class by saying “I will inscribe on stone that you will never pass the Ordinary level exam”. I hated the subject, hated the teacher and dropped out in favour of applied mathematics. Unfortunately, teachers didn’t understand ‘dyslexia’ and learning disorders at the time, nor emotional abuse which could have really destroyed me. I believe it was my mother’s attitude and my resilient personality that prevented it! When this teacher brought his child to me as Consultant in Galle, I treated him extremely respectfully, and invited him home to show his child’s reports. While waiting for me he told my wife and my mother that “I was so brilliant in school and that he realised that I would end up in a good post’.
I was placed 32nd- 36th in what was called the ‘best’ class because I got below 20% for subjects that needed memorising - civics, history, Sinhala. I did better in Geography since I got full marks for map marking with my pictorial memory and my Stanley Gibbons stamp album which had a world map (I still have the album!). Science and experimentation were my favourite subjects with all the other Maths subjects. I managed to keep my average in the ‘best’ class because of marks over 80% in these subjects. I loved only logical subjects, where there were graphics and I enjoyed working on my Meccano set making all sorts of models of cars and cranes (I still have some of the Meccano parts saved for generations to come!!). I used to go on for hours without eating.
I used to heat sulphur with iron filings and vinegar giving off H2S fumes smelling of rotten eggs or sewer gas and then put it under chairs and embarrassing people!! What an awful guy I was!!! When ’Shramadana’ programs were held in school, I collected earthworms and put them into the shirts of others, to their horror and giggles for me.
I also sold stephanotis plants from seeds from a vine in our garden for 10 cents each to my Mable Aunty, and also with money collected from “Ganu Denu” during Sinhala new year, I used to give loans to older cousins who were working and broke towards the end of the month. My interest was exorbitant; 10% per month! (120% per year).
When I was a senior prefect, I prided myself in keeping discipline. One day a teacher’s son jumped the milk booth queue and I made him go back to the line. I was called by the teacher and blasted. I immediately complained to the principal and resigned as a Prefect and handed the badge to him. He asked me why and I refused to give the reason. He then said, “If you don’t give me a reason, I have to assume that you have done something wrong, and then have to punish you”. I reluctantly gave the reason; he then pinned the badge back. I was then called back by the teacher, who was crying now and a male teacher who was beside her insisted that I apologise to her. When I refused I was threatened by the master! I then said “I have not done anything wrong, but if you imagine that I have done something wrong, and insist on an apology, “I am sorry” although I still maintain that I did not do anything wrong!! Even then I was stubborn and arrogant.
My Mother was the centre of stability in the family. She was firm, often unemotional and the main income earner as a teacher. She never pushed me to study at any stage. She was a BA (Lond), a Maths teacher and tried to teach me Algebra, Geometry and Arithmetic without much success and she gave up. Her motto was: try to do your best, I will accept what you achieve. For example, when I was doing my ALs, I wanted to skip one year. She said, “You just sit and try, if you fail you have 2 more attempts!”. I took her advice and I actually passed to everyone’s disbelief the first time. My mother was not surprised! She wanted to go with me to Katharagama for a vow! I refused and argued: “the credit of passing the AL’s will go to God Katharagama and not me”! She accepted my opinion.
Harendra de Silva