You Rescued Me


A letter to Miss Marian Metcalfe, a retired primary school principal who, at my parents’ request, gave me three years of remedial teaching because I had serious learning difficulties.

Dear Mettie,

I remember with great admiration and pleasure the three years of remedial teaching you gave me. It was in Australia 70 years ago when I was 10. I arrived at your door virtually illiterate, roundly regarded by teachers and many other adults, but not my parents, as intellectually handicapped at best; at worst I was seen as a disruptive, lazy, stupid no-hoper, with no bright future in prospect.

By then I had fallen two years behind my twin brother. Shamed, denigrated, bullied and victimised at school, I lacked the self-confidence required to learn. You were caring, patient, flexible and warmly encouraging; and you rescued me from a future of living down to the low expectations that most of my teachers had of me.

In addition to building my reading, writing and spelling skills, you bolstered my confidence, showing me that I did have the ability to learn after all. I now know that I had and still have dyslexia. This is due to a difference in brain wiring that makes conventional literacy teaching ineffective in 10-15% of the population. Dyslexia was unknown to you. Today, some teachers are well informed, but many still downplay or deny its existence.

You rescued me from a future of living down to the low expectations that most of my teachers had of me.

Your wonderful help was a turning point, reinforced subsequently by a year of learning-by-doing on an uncle’s farm. This further boosted my confidence and gave me a personal aim – I resolved to work in the agricultural sector. Thereafter, my learning ability gradually improved, especially in sciences that included learning-by-doing practical classes, and in mathematics. This was sufficient for me to enrol at university. I became utterly enthralled by the subjects I studied, and much to my amazement, I excelled. There followed a PhD, which began my 55-year career as a researcher and scholar, initially in a Scottish research institute and later at Massey University in New Zealand.

As the years passed, I have become increasingly aware that I am a visual thinker who delights in drawing together information from widely divergent areas. In this way I have created fresh big picture conceptual frameworks with the aim of redirecting conventional thinking in the areas in which I worked. I’ve made quite a few such contributions over the years, all of them having big picture orientations.

I have come to understand that this is due to the different patterns of the nerve pathways in my brain, patterns which are common among those us with dyslexia. I should make it clear that this orientation is not one I have chosen, not one I have adopted; rather, I find myself inwardly impelled to understand the world in this way.

Mettie, if you were still alive today, I would want to tell you what a phenomenal impact you have had on my life. I would also want to tell you that any success I have had in my personal and professional life has been because of my dyslexia, not despite it, and that you helped me to take my first big step on that life-path.

Ever gratefully yours,

James Garnham is the penname of David Mellor. He is a dyslexic Professor Emeritus aged 80 years, who draws on 55 years of post-PhD scholarly experience and advisory roles as a biomedical scientist, animal welfare scientist, and bioethicist. He has also enjoyed exploring diverse Humanities academic disciplines and seeks to highlight dyslexia’s positive attributes. James has lived in Australia (24 years), Scotland (21 years), and now New Zealand (35 years so far).
Here’s Professor Mellor’s  oral  submission to parliament in support of the petition of Mike Styles calling for a Commission of Inquiry into Dyslexia and Neurodiversity in New Zealand.