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My name is Zishan Zaffar. I'm a 33-year-old filmmaker from Mumbai, India.
I remember in 2nd grade, my teachers and fellow 8-year-olds were surprised to learn that I knew the meaning of the word "volcano." I vaguely recall picking it up from an episode of 'The Centurions". The sound triggered a vivid visual of a 2D volcano eruption in my mind. I've always thought in visuals; I just wasn't aware I was doing it. In 2007, the film "Taare Zameen Par" [Stars on Earth] was released in Indian theatres (the story of a dyslexic boy shipped away to a boarding school). Not only was this film a scene-by-scene breakdown of my life up to that point, but it also helped me let go of the self-blame I had been carrying. In 2022, as I watched the director's cut of my own directed web series, I found myself overcome with uncontrollable tears. My mind was finally freed from all its insecurities and doubts, paving the way for more curiosity and questions - That I was finally good enough.
Living with dyslexia has never been easy, and it's only now, in my 30s, that I have started to come to terms with it. I write this article to hopefully create awareness among both institutions and parents, so they are better prepared to offer the right kind of help to the kids and adults in need. As mental health gains more traction in the mainstream media, it is our responsibility to spread the net as wide as possible and to touch as many lives as possible because each one of us deserves to lead a life without shame or embarrassment.
I was never great in school. I was told that in the Indian education system, schools weren't allowed to fail or detain kids in the same class until 5th grade. So, the first time I failed and had to repeat the year was in grade 5. At that moment, nothing felt much out of the ordinary other than the embarrassment of watching my friends move forward and grow older without me. In grade six, I scraped by, to the surprise of most of my teachers. It was always perplexing to them that my spoken English was far superior to my ability to write the language. Then grade 7 came along, and I remember very clearly for my year-end results, my father had decided to come, a position generally filled by my more lenient mother. We reached my classroom, and I got handed the result; it was overflowing with red ink. I had been detained back in grade 7.
It was always perplexing to my teachers that my spoken English was far superior to my ability to write the language.
My life was already in quite a whirlwind before this penultimate day of the year. I was being bullied in school by senior students. Apart from the mostly verbal and sometimes physical abuse, I was also made to smoke my first cigarette at the age of 11, looking for the approval of the older boys and believing I was too dumb to do anything about it.
So, back to my result day, we left the classroom with yet another report card that essentially said I wasn't good enough. We walked through the corridors towards the parking lot. I remember feeling weak and lightheaded, too scared to say anything. The only words that have stayed with me from that day were of my teacher telling my father that I needed to be admitted to a special school. To this day, I don't know what she meant or how my parents took it. I have asked multiple times but never got a straight answer. Maybe they were just trying to protect me.
The only words that have stayed with me from that day were of my teacher telling my father that I needed to be admitted to a special school.
We reached the parking lot. I got on the back of my dad's bike and started to make our way back home. Filled with embarrassment, my head felt even lighter before I passed out on the back seat and fell off the moving two-wheeler. I woke up in the middle of the road with a car bumper next to my face. Home was awfully quiet that day and for a few days after. The bullying still continued as I continued to lie to a few friends I did have about preparing for the coming school year.
I wanted to run away and hide, and so I did. I requested my father to enrol me in a boarding school, mostly because I didn't want to live in shame anymore. I thank my mother and father for their strength at that moment. I wouldn't have trusted myself if I were them, but they did. They put me in a boarding school of my choice, and my mother, although completely heartbroken, did not shed a tear in my presence in a show of strength. It was only later, through my younger sister, that I found out, she wept in the car on the journey back home.
My initial sentence of imprisoning myself in a boarding school turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was in a place for the misfits. I found a place where I was valued beyond my reading and writing abilities. The 8 years I spent there helped me gain the confidence I needed to hold my own as an adult. The teachers there, although stricter in many ways, were also kind. If you are reading this, thank you, teaching and non-teaching staff at Barnes School, Nashik, Devlali, India. You changed my life and the lives of many others.
I was in a place for the misfits. I found a place where I was valued beyond my reading and writing abilities.
Barnes School not only educated me but also protected me up until about grade 12, after which I went to the town of Pune (near Mumbai, India) for my undergraduate education in Bachelor of Business Administration and Information Technology. Who knew coding and dyslexia were not a great combination? Certainly not me! Because, surprise, surprise, I was detained in my final year for another year. It took me about 4.5 years to complete a 3-year course.
By the time I came out of college, I had started to piece the puzzle together that there were people whose minds worked like mine; I had access to information that finally gave me some clarity on what was possibly happening. The movie Taare Zameen Par really did help.
I was en route for an MBA, but of course, I didn't test well. My father once again came to my rescue. A 20-minute sit down with him changed the trajectory of my career, and I somehow landed in filmmaking. A craft that didn't necessarily rely on me spelling things correctly to excel. My first job was at a company called Pocket Aces, which ran a popular YouTube channel called FilterCopy. I started work as a writer and director.
By the time I came out of college, I had started to piece the puzzle together that there were people whose minds worked like mine.
It was either fear or embarrassment that made me hide my learning disabilities, so what started as a dream into my professional career quickly took a turn for the worse. My assumption was when it came to writing stories and scripts, my ideas and thoughts took precedence over my grammatical prose. Soon enough, I started to get singled out for my typos. My writing head would regularly call me lazy or stupid in professional settings, to the point where I started having anxiety attacks every time I had to proofread something. My first job did teach me a lot, but I could have done without the constant fear, embarrassment, and added anxiety to the list.
After a few more years of work, Grammarly was introduced to my life, and not soon after, AI changed all our lives. This brings us to now:
I'm 33 years old and finally accepting my differences and open about needing help. I proudly speak about my experiences in the hopes of helping those who are brave enough to accept them. And I'm extremely grateful to Dystinct for allowing me to tell my story, but more importantly, for being the words and voice for change.