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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Once upon a time there was an unhappy student...

Let me tell you how Trow and I came to play a set of retro Hopper songs at a charity fund-raiser in a church hall in Newcastle last Saturday week.

In 1974 I was an undiagnosed dyslexic student studying for a degree in teaching at St Mary's College of the Sacred Heart in Fenham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (NE4 9YH, as I still, oddly, recall). Education had always been grinding and unrewarding for me, but I pursued it on the grounds that everyone else seemed to think it was good for me and because I had no idea what else I would do.

My conviction that formal learning would never yield a positive outcome for me was once more confirmed when I failed my end-of-first-year exams. This was a double-whammy because, as I belatedly discovered, there was no re-sit procedure and I would have to leave the college if I wanted to obtain a degree. I was really down. I'd made friends there and had settled in (the prospect of leaving home in the first place had been daunting for a shy, young-for-his-age, 19 year-old) and the thought of having to move on caused me dismay.

However, my phonetics tutor, a pretty, young, flute-playing Malaysian who we knew as Dr. Killingly, saw me moping along the corridor and took me to her tutorial room to ask what was causing me to look so miserable. I explained, she offered me consolation, told me stories of her own difficulties as a student to help put mine in perspective and promised to see what she could do to help.

You'd have to know how unhappy I was at that time to appreciate how much of a friend in need she was. And she was the only friend I had in that respect just then. No one else was batting for me and I was very grateful that she went well beyond her remit in order to support me in my time of need. Someone had faith in me and that mattered to me then.

A couple of days later she told me that she'd looked into things, that there was a new course starting the following year that might suit me and that, if I wanted to, she had cleared it with the authorities for me to re-start on this course. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

I went on to graduate, meeting my wife-to-be and mother of my three offspring on the way. The small favour done to me by Siew-Yue Killingly was profoundly significant to the trajectory of my life.

A year or so ago I found a letter she had written to my dad at the time, telling him of what had happened and reassuring him all would be OK. Those were different times. Curiosity piqued, I searched her name to find, sadly, that she had died not so long ago, but that a charity had been set up in her name with the objective, fittingly, of helping students.

I had to make contact. I found myself corresponding with Dermot Killingly, Siew-Yue's widower, and offered my services (gratis, of course) to play a fund-raising concert. And last Saturday, Leigh and I went up there to play for them.

It was a long way to go, but the event was lovely. We celebrated Siew-Yue's life, her kindness to her students and we celebrated community and we celebrated music and song. Leigh and I chose a set of the material we first began to play together 10 or so years ago when we first became a duo and loved every minute of it.

So, thanks to Dermot and the charity committee, thanks to the very sympathetic audience and thanks, of course, to Siew-Yue Killingly, for her kindness to a sad student all those years ago.

(As a post-script, I think Dr Killingly, as I still feel I should refer to her, would approve of the fact that my day-job is now as a dyslexia support tutor working with dyslexic under and post-graduates on their study skills. My experiences as a student inform my approach to the job.)