By Lara Pickford-Gordon
“He couldn’t write properly and he had a heavy tongue which made it difficult to understand him at times. He would ask questions after every lesson… and would ALWAYS come up to my desk to clarify some point or to check to see if he was doing the work correctly. Often, he was not…I would have to show him again. But that didn’t deter from coming again and again. And eventually he began to make fewer mistakes. I appreciated the effort he made though.”
This is Lucia Reyes’ recollection of Akini Gill. Reyes, principal at St Francis Boys’ College, was one of his teachers when he entered Form Two at St Francis (then known as Belmont Boys’ Secondary) at 14 years.
She said she saw a “steel determination” in the boy which she had not seen in one so young or seen since.
Gill’s story received media attention when he launched his book From Behind the Bridge to the Impossible Dream this July.
The Catholic News spoke to Gill earlier this month on his life.
He was born to 19-year-old Ann St Clair and grew up on Laventille Road, East Dry River. She worked two jobs to support Akini and his brother, with some assistance from their father. As a child he was “clumsy” and had “tie tongue”—language development delay.
“I had a brother born two years after me and he did all the basic things before me, creep, walk and talk and when I entered into my first pre-school the teacher complained bitterly I was not learning and she refused to teach me because I was not learning as a typically developed three or four year old,” Gill said.
His mother enrolled him in another pre-school where they were “more compassionate” but he did not improve.
Gill went to the Escallier Anglican Primary, Gonzales, then Western Boys RC (now Sacred Heart Boys’ RC), Richmond Street. His mother changed schools at the end of Standard Three because she hoped to see a positive result in his academic performance but this did not happen. Gill said it was a “struggle” to learn at Western Boys’ because there was no support.
One day his mother saw Paula Lucie-Smith of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) doing an interview on television and she called the telephone number given on air.
“ALTA was where my mom learned to read at the age of 25. When my mom had me at 19, she could not read so you had a situation where you had a non-reading parent who could not help a non-reading child.”
Diagnosed with Dyslexia and Dyspraxia
Through Lucie-Smith, St Clair was referred to Catherine Kelshall, chair of the Dyslexic Association. Gill was diagnosed by psychologist Allyson Hamel-Smith with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability and dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder affecting physical motor coordination.
He began working with speech therapist Wendy Gomez at 11 years. She recommended a psychological evaluation by the clinical services department, Mt Hope.
The report to his mother stated he had significant difficulties with learning and his language was in the “retarded range”; it was strongly recommended that he not sit the Common Entrance exam.
A few teachers had told St Clair that Gill would never be able to learn. He still sat the exam and was placed in a post-primary centre.
Kelshall worked with Gill and he went to Eshe’s Learning Centre for children with learning disabilities for two years. He sat an exam and was accepted into Belmont Boys’ Secondary to begin studies in Form Two.
Gill called those school years a “hell yard in the context of challenges”. He struggled with understanding basic concepts, and the teachers not understanding his handwriting and speech.
“I had a lot of difficulties throughout my life with practical skills, poor coordination, poor handwriting, handwriting above the line, below the line, not on the line. [I] could not hold the compass properly, for technical drawing I could not draw straight borders… some teachers refuse to correct my work.”
Then there were peers. “Boys can be brutal,” he said matter-of-factly. They mocked and made fun of him.
In Form Three, he placed first in test and some classmates openly said the teachers cheated for him, that there was “no way” he could come first. Many days he left school without completing notes because he was very slow at writing.
For CXC Ordinary Levels, he was allowed assistance of two writers for English and Geography because a psychologist’s report put his writing speed at below two per cent. He also sat examinations in Music, Mathematics and Principles of Accounts and Principles of Business. He got three passes: Music, PoA, and PoB.
It was in Music that Gill saw hope. It was the only subject he passed consistently at school, so he decided to pursue it as a career.
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