“In retrospect these years form not only the least agreeable, but the only barren and unhappy period of my life. I was happy as a child with my toys in my nursery. I have been happier every year since I became a man. But this interlude of school makes a sombre grey patch upon the chart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, of toil uncheered by fruitation; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony… This train of thought must not lead me to exaggerate the character of my school days… Harrow was a very good school… .Most of the boys were very happy… I can only record the fact that, no doubt through my own shortcomings, I was an exception… I was on the whole considerably discouraged… .All my contemporaries and even younger boys seemed in every way better adapted to the conditions of our little world. They were far better both at the games and at the lessons. It is not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the very beginning of the race.” (Winston Churchill, My Early Life, 1930.)
I had written In the Mind’s Eye partly as a way of dealing with questions and puzzles that had long bothered me and my family. I did not want to go another generation without trying to understand the pattern of mixed talents that was such a powerful force in our lives. But I also suspected that there were two sides— as well as the obvious disadvantages, there were advantages which were rarely the center of interest.
When asked to do a brief “First Person” account of my own early dyslexia and learning difficulties for LD Online, I thought first of Churchill. On re-reading his beautifully-written account, I was struck—once again—by how much his description of his school days seemed to correspond to my own. As with Churchill, for me school did make for a “sombre grey patch.”
The chief reason for this, as I look back, is that effectively I could not learn to read at all until about the fourth year of primary school. This main problem was joined by a number of other academic difficulties—writing, rote memory, calculation—which have continued to this day, although much practice has yielded modest improvements.
Consequently, long ago, I too felt myself “left behind at the very beginning of the race.” And, no matter how much success one may have in later life, it is something you never forget.
I always wanted to catch up with the others. This feeling of being constantly behind persisted for most of my education— that is, until the last year or two of high school, when, for the first time in my life, I felt that I understood things and could do things better than most of my classmates. In college, I felt I was, finally, in my element— although it was difficult to handle the reading load in the areas where my talents seemed best suited— strangely, literature and philosophy. But I found that I was good at understanding new concepts. And I found that I could write, albeit slowly.
This personal life experience, of course, provided the basis for my observation in In the Mind’s Eye that for some people the “easy” things in primary school are quite hard—whereas many of the “hard” things in college, graduate school and life can be strikingly easy.
It is hard to remember any details of my earliest years— except a pervasive sense of confusion and personal failure. My artist parents were supportive, but had no idea what to do. I suspect that my father had many of the same problems when he was quite young, but he did not speak of it.
Although I was in a rural school, with a broad range of students, I seemed to be at the bottom of the class or near the bottom of the class in nearly everything. In reading, writing and arithmetic I seemed to have no ability at all. I could not spell, write clearly or remember my multiplication tables.
Early testing had led teachers to believe (as I afterwards learned) that I was one of the two smartest students in my class. But the teachers were only more confused as there seemed no evidence of such capabilities. In these early days, I loved working with my chemistry set, wood carvings and rock collection— constantly making things on my bedroom work bench. But I had no idea of how to do school work in any sort of organized fashion.
I can recall tumultuous battles with Miss Tucker, my third grade teacher, who must have thought my problems were mainly from opposition and laziness. But there were no dramatic changes, no special methods— not even a proper identification of the problem. As I recall, it was just a kindly teacher in fourth grade, Miss Rittenhouse, who seemed to be able to build on slowly emerging capabilities and her own good sense to find a way to bring me gradually into the world of real reading— although never subsequently really fast or fluent.
As with Churchill, my mix of abilities was remarkably uneven— the source of extreme puzzlement to my parents, my teachers and myself. It is, however, some small comfort to see similar puzzles in Churchill’s life: “My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form.”
If I was poor at the studies, I was even worse at sports— especially anything to do with balls or teams. My high school coach declared in amazement that I was the most uncoordinated student he had ever worked with.
It was not until much later that I came to realize that I did have noticeable ability in some sports— sports that seemed to involve regular rhythm and power and were linked somehow to nature or natural forces— sports such as skiing, kayaking, wind surfing and rowing.
It was later still, in middle age, that I have become aware of the apparent reversal of a high degree of clumsiness. Until recently, if I dropped something in the kitchen or bathroom, the first thing I was aware of was that the object had smashed on the floor. Now, the first thing I am aware of is that the dropped object is in my hand. I am shocked at having caught it.
Perhaps some of the rewiring in the brain never stops.
At home in the woods
The one area that I did love in those early days— and it must have saved what little was left of my self respect— was the wild section near a stream at the end of our dead- end street— at one edge of our small town of 2000 people.
This was the place where my friends and I played endless fantasy games with the many other children from our street. In the era before television, we would act out the stories we had read in comic books or the adventures we had seen in the Saturday matinee movies and short serials at the local theater.
It was here that I felt instinctively at home. As I recall it, here I was mostly a leader. I named many of the parts of the woods. I was active in planning the fantasy games. I designed and made all kinds of tools and weapons. I devised a bow with 15 or 20 kinds of arrows— all with some special purpose— a removable barb, an exploding cap, a trailing cord, a bouncing rubber ball. I learned to sew to make quivers and holsters for our cap guns and ray guns.
I realized that the large trees were so thickly covered with vines that it was safe to climb to the tops and cross from tree to tree walking on their matted crowns. In certain places, I found that we could even jump into the vines between the high tree tops and let the slowly-breaking vines lower us down, inch by inch.
We also learned to climb to the tops of small saplings with great care— as in Robert Frost’s poem “A Swinger of Birches”— and then swing our legs out so the tree would bend over and gently set us down.
No one taught us our games. There were no instructors or instructions. There was no writing. And there were no rules. There were no parents. And— as there seemed to be plenty of kids the right age— there were rarely even older brothers or sisters.
Later, these interests extended into Boy Scouts— and then running a craft hall as a camp counselor— and much later still, working at many different jobs at a hotel in the mountains.
Nature, imagination, group fantasy play, being “good with my hands”— these provided the only islands of success and enthusiasm in what seemed otherwise an unbroken chain, in both studies and sports, of “worries that did not then seem petty” and of “toil uncheered by fruitation.”
Churchill, Winston S., 1930. A Roving Commission; My Early Life. New York, NY: Scribner’s.
West, Thomas G., 1997. “Profiles, Part 3: Churchill, Patton and Yeats,” In the Mind’s Eye, pp. 149-166. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
About the author
Thomas G. West is the author of In the Mind’s Eye. Originally published in 1991, an updated edition was released in the fall of 1997. A Japanese language edition, with the alternative title Geniuses Who Hated School, was published in 1994 by Kodansha Scientific, Tokyo. The book deals with visual thinkers and computer data visualization, neurological research and gifted persons with learning difficulties—examining the role of visual-spatial strengths and verbal weaknesses in the lives of ten historical persons, including Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Sir Winston Churchill, Gen. George Patton and William Butler Yeats. West learned of his own dyslexia at the age of 41. From a family of artists and engineers, he has long been interested in the connections between mixed abilities, technological innovation and visual thinking in various occupational and cultural settings. He is a member of the International Dyslexia Association and is affiliated with the National Dyslexia Research Foundation.