Reading, writing remove shackles

Michael Clegg has begun writing his first book after attending classes at Literacy Aotearoa...
Michael Clegg has begun writing his first book after attending classes at Literacy Aotearoa Dunedin. Photo by Jane Dawber.
"One good thing about my past - it's given me a lot of material for my writing."

Until recently, writing a book had been nothing but a dream for Michael Clegg.

But after attending men's literacy classes at Literacy Aotearoa Dunedin, a new world has opened up for the 43-year-old.

Mr Clegg said completing simple every-day tasks such as filling out bank slips, IRD forms or job applications was humiliating, and often he would ask others to fill them out for him.

"I could read reasonably well - I could read the cooking instructions on a can of baked beans - but I couldn't write a sentence to save myself.

"Doing the written part of the driver's licence test was terrifying, because I couldn't spell and my writing looked like a 5-year-old's.

"I had trouble writing my own name. When they brought in those scratchy tests, it was the best thing they ever did."

Mr Clegg said his childhood was difficult, which was a distraction from his education.

His parents split when he was 2 and his mother was left to raise six children.

"Poverty was something we knew well."

By age 14, he had developed what he calls "a split personality".

One was an obedient son who went to Boys Brigade and faithfully mowed his grandmother's lawns each week.

The other was "bunking" school and committing burglaries to pay for his growing drug and alcohol addiction.

"A bizarre twist to all of this is that I had part-time work picking spuds after school and on Saturdays. The money earned from the job, I would give to my mother to help with the groceries."

Mr Clegg said he left school at 16 with school certificate maths, but his reading and writing difficulties "limited" him to a long line of basic labouring jobs in farming and forestry.

The low wages which came with the jobs "forced" him further into a life of crime and, soon after leaving school, he received the first of many cannabis convictions.

"With a conviction and barely being able to read and write, I embarked on a turbulent roller coaster ride of a life. When I was up, I was up, but when I was down I knew debilitating depression."

More recently, Mr Clegg discovered he had bipolar disorder.

Medication had helped him to turn his life around.

Inspiration to improve his reading and writing skills came from many friends who told him he could "tell a good yarn" and that he should write a book about his experiences.

He signed up for men's literacy classes at Literacy Aotearoa Dunedin and was so impressed with progress in his first year, he decided to continue for another.

"I'm writing short stories, poems and haikus. I dream of being able to make a living from my writing one day. Learning to write has given me huge amounts of confidence and now I could do jobs in more of a supervisory role. Being able to write has opened up a whole new world."

Mr Clegg was one of about 50 Dunedin adult learners whose achievements were recognised in an International Literacy Day ceremony in the Dunedin Public Library last night to launch Adult Learners Week.


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