My name is Sarah Chapman. I am a neurodivergent 36 year old mother of four, Founder & CEO of Operation Diversity (my 5th baby!) and a very different person to who I used to be. Eleven years ago, I was living in poverty with petrified of being a failure for my unborn baby. I was written off by the education system and my parents, I was deeply unhappy and honestly believed that I would never amount to anything. I jumped well and truly on the rebellion train throughout my teenage years and left school feeling worthless with nothing to show for my time there but a lifetime of deep emotional scars.
My education was one which can only be described as wasted as I had thrown away the opportunity at school to make something of myself. Following a spell in care being bounced from home to home as a result of my challenging and rebellious behaviour anyone would have thought that I was determined to make things difficult for myself. I thought that I was stupid and hated everything about my life.
Much of my time in school was spent in the isolation room with my teacher’s harsh words echoing through my mind, “YOU will never amount to anything!” I was really interested in the subjects, but I opted to act like the class clown in order to hide the embarrassment of what recently turned out to be Neurodivergence! A good combination of ‘dyslexia’, ‘APD’, ‘ADHD’ ‘Irlen Syndrome’ and I highly suspect that I am Autistic too. My Neurodivergence is a part of me and something that I have actually grown to really love!
I have battled hard with my confidence and self-esteem over the last decade, fought against the model of disability that suggests that I am disabled and therefore cannot achieve and I have fought hard to become the person I always knew I was inside. I have actively gone out of my way to prove people wrong, to achieve things that I was always told would not be possible. I have turned my life around and dedicated the rest of it to improving the lives of thousands of other Neurodivergent children, adults and their families around the UK so they don’t ever have to feel how I used to myself.
Everyone deserves to be happy; everyone deserves to feel fulfilled; to have their needs fully identified and met. I have made it my mission to give those people struggling a voice to be heard alongside the knowledge, tools and inspiration to live the life that they want to live.
This is the first part of my story:
I was born in Salisbury in Wiltshire in December 1983. The notorious ‘middle child’ of the parents whose lives I would live to make hell! My parents both worked extremely hard to build a successful florist business in Amesbury, working seven days a week and often all day and night. My mum is wonderfully creative, and this was evident in her work where she would build life-size horses and a range of other amazing pieces that you would never imagine could be possibly made from flowers! She was a master of her craft and this reputation meant that her talents were sought after all over the country and little time was spent with us. Our nanny was lovely, and we were happy, but it would have been nice to have mum around a little bit more. Long hours and a lack of days out I think put a lot of pressure on my parent’s relationship and the cracks began to appear. My parents used to fight a lot which now I know was down to his inability to stay faithful to her and after a string of hurtful affairs and a devastating house fire which not only destroyed our home but my parents business downstairs, the decision was made to leave the ‘Rat Race’ and make a fresh start as a family with a move to Wales!
Unfortunately for me, as it turned out, I found school very difficult. I didn’t fit in. I felt a bit ‘weird’ and different and I had no idea why. I was trying hard to make friends but didn’t seem to make close connections easily. Some of the girls in my class would not let me play with them at playtime and would tell others to stay away from me too. This used to really upset me. At the time I put this down to being English in a first language Welsh School. I did pick up the language eventually, but it wasn’t easy, and I would often speak a combination of English and Welsh words when I forgot the words. This was really embarrassing and as a result, I would try and avoid speaking altogether. Often, I would opt to act like the class clown to get thrown out of the classroom instead. Sadly, this also meant that I was made to stand in the school hall outside. I can still see the hall now today when I close my eyes as real as it was then, and it makes my eyes well up. It was so lonely stood there.
The first few years of primary were not too bad. I loved the first year as I got to play all day but when it was time to read and do maths it was like hitting a wall. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to do sums they were never right. Long multiplications and divisions were the banes of my life. I could never remember where the numbers were meant to go, and I would lose count trying to count in my head. It also took me a long time to learn to read and even though I practised at home I didn’t seem to get any better. I hated reading in school as I would have to stand at the front of the class at the teacher’s desk which we did out loud as other children came up to get their work marked by our teacher. I would struggle to comprehend what I was reading and was extremely conscious that everyone could hear me which made me anxious. My stomach felt like it was tied in knots and the nausea was overwhelming. I would lose my place often, leaving my eyes darting across the page desperately overwhelmed by the wall of words that seemed to be competing for dominance on the page. Every day I dreaded getting ready for school.
I remember my school days feeling very long, exhausting in-fact. I would often curl up and fall asleep in the reading corner on the cushions. I used to try and sit away from the windows as it used to hurt my eyes, but the teacher didn’t like me sitting there anyway as she said it made me run ‘away with the fairies!’. I was easily distracted by everything going on outside and around me which made it very difficult to focus on the work that I was meant to be doing. I remember really struggling to copy work from the board every day. I would have to look back multiple times to copy each individual word, one by one, as I would forget what it was trying to write before my pencil hit the page. Writing was also incredibly uncomfortable and hurt my hands and wrists. I could never keep up so most of the writing in my schoolbooks was incomplete and often extremely untidy or illegible. I was always in trouble for this, often called naughty or lazy for not trying or working hard enough. The other children called me a ‘slowcoach’ and it made me want to just run away.
Moving up to year six was a traumatic. I did not like the Head Teacher who unfortunately taught this class as he would regularly grab and shake me in his office and make me recite my time’s tables in class stood on a chair which I did wrong and usually with tears rolling down my cheeks. It was a bit of a class joke (not to me) that I was always the last to leave the classroom. My teacher would play memory games with the prize being to leave in order of correct answers given. I was always too slow to work it out before anyone else despite fumbling to count with my fingers. I felt utterly stupid and detached myself from everything. I began to hate my parents for sending me to school.
I remember being openly mocked for being the only one that was still made to write in pencil whilst my peers had been promoted to pens. The quality of my writing was inconsistent and would deteriorate the further I wrote down the page. I would often find a mass of red ink and angrily written negative comments about my work across the page. I would sit there and think of all sorts of nasty things that I wanted to do to my teacher with my blood boiling. A lot of the feelings I felt during this time was ‘RAGE’. Why couldn’t they see how hard I was working and figure out what was wrong with my brain! I just wanted somebody to help me.
It didn’t matter how hard I worked, it was never good enough for my teachers and especially not for my father. I would always miss most of my playtime trying unsuccessfully to re-write my work neater a second or third time. My parents were often called in to school to discuss my behaviour or the state of my work which made them very angry. I hated it when my father shouted at me telling me I would be a failure if I didn’t try harder at school! I was trying as hard as I could.
Most of this time I have blanked out. I hated school and how it made me feel inside. I dreaded moving up to secondary school even more but deep down I hoped things would improve. I was hopeful of a fresh start as education to me so far had been torture and nothing less. I wanted to make something of my life and do well at school for once, but my dreams were short-lived and after the first few lessons, the feelings of frustration returned. I remember feeling angry with myself as I felt that I was intelligent in my thoughts but, I just didn’t get it. I enjoyed the discussion side and grasped things quite quickly, but my brain would just switch off with the slightest noise and I would struggle to hear myself think. I don’t remember much from my younger years but what I do remember reduces me to tears even now. I spent much of my early years crying. I vividly remember looking in the mirror one day and realising I was missing all my bottom eyelashes from my eyelids which seemed to be consistently red!
My father was born in the 30s and was very strict. He had very high expectations of myself and my 4 siblings and would remind us almost every day how successful his children were from his first marriage as they went to university and were very intelligent, but we were not going anywhere. The mound of suspension, detention and deviant and dismissive of authority letters soon began to grow into a folder an inch thick and I, in turn, became wild and unruly. I often barricaded myself in the bedroom each morning by pushing all my bedroom furniture in front of the door, so I didn’t have to go to school. I would angrily throw things at the wall leaving great big gaping holes. Once my father called the police to have me physically removed as verbal negotiations through the door were fruitless. Luckily for me, they couldn’t get in either – I was hopelessly lost and just wanted to shut everyone out.
Most of my lessons were spent alone in the corridor whilst my classmates learnt inside or in the Head Teachers office sat on my own in the corner. I was put on a report and made to sit at the front of the class most weeks. My teachers were very patronising and would shout at me often about how easy it was and how confused they were about my inability to learn such a simple concept! If I asked them to repeat it, I would be removed for disrupting the lesson.
When I was thrown out of French, I hit an all-time low after locking my teacher in her store cupboard. I loved learning about other countries but just could not remember the language and would become upset when I was confronted and hit out. My teacher was horrible, and, in my head, she would deliberately make me stand up in front of the class asking me questions which she knew I would get wrong! She did not do it to anyone else. I would never back down and would refuse to listen to anyone. My teachers were seemingly not particularly passionate about their own subject areas, never mind being passionate about engaging an extremely reluctant and disengaged me in learning.
I was sick of being made to feel stupid. It completely baffled me why I didn’t get things and why I found it impossible to remember my timetables. My home life was unsettled, and I felt like I had nowhere to turn. I was caught smoking and sadly drinking too several times and screamed at by angry teachers most days. My teachers quickly gave up on me as I did myself soon after. I was a lost cause.
Most break times would also end in fights which to be fair most times was my fault. A large crowd would often congregate around me shouting “fight, fight, fight” as we stormed around the school building starting trouble. I had alienated everyone through my bad behaviour but for some reason I allowed myself to be led. I knew that I didn’t really have ‘friends’ and did what I felt made me fit in. I was just deeply unhappy and felt helplessly frustrated.
Inevitably, I was removed from all my other classes and put with the rest of the ‘naughty’ kids where we would not disrupt everyone else’s learning. This was a holiday for me. I wasn’t pushed to learn and if I were to be honest, I was just deeply relieved to be left alone. The downside was that I was not allowed to visit the school tuck shop, not allowed out at break and was told that I could have a fifteen-minute supervised lunch break and that was my school day. This meant that I would often go without dinner opting to fill up on chocolate or crisps paid for with money given by my parents or stolen from the till in their shop.
After my ‘devastation’ of being banned from the school disco for hitting another pupil in year 8 I was suspended. This was in defence of my younger sister who was ‘being bullied’, however, as it turned out it was her that was doing the bullying and I had just helped! Lesson learnt! The crowd quickly dispended leaving me stood alone nursing a very upset Pamela who was covered in Blood. I took her to the toilets trying desperately to clear her up before the teachers saw what I had done but it was useless. I knew then that I was in big trouble!
Things at home had reached boiling point and, on several occasions, my mother would become violent attacking my father following yet more cheating! When I was 13 my parents separated. I think they had figured out that staying together for the sake of us was just not working and one day at dinner they asked us to choose between them. I wasn’t too happy thinking of the prospect of living with either of them. I just wanted to get as far away as I could. Instead, I screamed at the top of my lungs at them continuously demanding they call Social Services to come and take me into foster care. My older sister was having a similar experience to me and her behaviour meant that she had been expelled from school and placed in Foster care. She was a wild child too and I was jealous that she had a new life with new parents, and I wanted that too! To my delight, Social Services came and took me away to a new home and I was moved to a different school for year 9. Although my behaviour meant that I was thrown out of my first foster home I was glad to be away from home. My new school was not much better, and I suspect I was already tarred with the ‘naughty brush’ before I arrived. It was difficult starting a new school period, never mind starting at the one of our ‘arch-enemies’ in sport knowing full well that I had beaten them several times in several team sports.
My obnoxious behaviour meant that I had no support from my teachers at school. Instead, they made me feel like a failure. I was very defensive and when I felt that I was being attacked I would attack back which I did through my bad attitude and stubbornness. I was really good at sports though and broke records for throwing events in athletics (much of that I put down to the built up anger I had festering within me), but again my memory let me down and I failed to engage with the theory side of the course. I didn’t feel like I was good at anything and really couldn’t understand why I was wasting my time at school!
One by one I was removed from classes and my parents collected more and more letters. By year ten I had been kicked out of history. “She’s useless and never tries hard enough!” I once heard my teacher say to the head teacher. I had lost my temper in class after being ridiculed for not remembering what we were asked to learn for the lesson. He refused to believe that I had in-fact stayed up reading it repeatedly, until late into the night. I really liked history, but I was removed from the class.
It wasn’t long before I was removed from all my lessons and made to sit in a small glass room in the corner of the library working alone from a textbook. This was the isolation room and where I spent most of my school days. It was the same problems different place! I found it entertaining that they thought that sitting me in the isolation room was a punishment when it was in the corner of the library. The library where the 6th form boys did their lessons! I was more than happy to sit there slacking off. I didn’t learn anything, but I was away from everyone else, so the school were happy.
At one point an attempt was made to punish me by making me eat my dinner on the stage in front of the whole school. The first time they tried to get me to sit on the stage was the last as I threw my tray across the hall and refused to enter the room again before running away from school. I used to often run away from school and hide until the day was up. Most of the time I ran away, I would sit shivering alone in the bus stop in the centre of town or quietly I would sit and swing on the swings in the park away from everyone. I felt suffocated by everything and used to sit there wishing I wasn’t there. I didn’t think I had what it takes to be successful and really did hate my life. I used to wish there had been a mistake as I wasn’t living the life that I should have been living. I felt cheated and hurt. I wanted more from my life, but I had no choice but to accept it as it was.
When I was in school, I felt so awkward around people which didn’t go unnoticed by my peers which made it even worse. I felt like I was a nice person, but it really grated on me that I didn’t have a good group of friends like everyone else. Why was it so hard!?
I was thrown out of my second foster home after a row with my foster parents and returned home to live with my father where I was reminded daily that if I failed at school, I would be a failure in life. He made sure he knew how disappointed he was of me which was upsetting and made me angry. I really despised him for how he made me feel. I couldn’t wait to leave home! By April 2000, rapidly approaching the end of year ten, two months before my GCSE’S I was permanently excluded. I had been in a fight which on this occasion was genuinely not my fault, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. I was excluded for ‘bullying’ and I was not to enter school grounds unless physically sat in an exam and immediately after I had to leave. It was me that was being bullied but hey ho, I was the naughty kid! I wish things had been different.
I was very aggressive and deeply unhappy and needless to say… I left school with no useful qualifications. I hadn’t bothered to revise as I didn’t know how, and nothing went in anyway. I didn’t see the point in trying because as far as I was concerned, I knew that I would fail. My teachers and my father made sure I knew that. In fact, my head of year told me it would be a waste of paper me sitting my exams. I felt like I had no chance and shut down.
When my week of exams came it was horrific. I was so nervous, and I didn’t want to go at all – I felt physically sick. I didn’t even go to sit half of them as I was sure I would fail. I couldn’t face being teased or seeing smug looks on people’s faces when I inevitably became upset. The ones that I did attend I sat sobbing at my little table at the back of the stale smelling old gym with my head buried deep in my hands, my fingers drenched by tears.
I sat frantically reading and then re-reading each ‘foreign’ line again and again desperately trying to process what exactly the question was asking me to do. I just couldn’t focus at all. The time pressure was taking my breath away and the harder I tried to think, the louder my peers seemed to scribble eagerly around me, fidgeting in their chairs. Don’t even get me started on the large battered clock sitting proudly on the wall at the front cruelly taunting me..
“TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK… TICK…TICK…TICK…TICK… TICK…TICK…
The waves of pressure consumed me and I was overcome with emotion as those painfully harsh words that had been drummed into me for so long bounced relentlessly around the walls of my brain, their combined voices echoing loudly in my mind, crushing the remainder of any hope that I had left,
“YOU WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING!”
After my last GCSE was over, I slowly walked through the corridors, completely deflated, feeling emotional with my soul well and truly crushed to try and track down my younger brother Thomas. Half way down the narrow corridor I was confronted by ‘Limbo’ my old Design and Technology teacher. I froze and began to panic.. He stood firmly facing me with his hands gripped to his hips, his eyes stared hard and his thin lips pursed widely beneath his old school moustache. The bell began to ring and I could see through the glass windows that filled half the interior classroom walls all the way down that we were about to be joined by a hundred pairs of eyes and ears.
The corridor quickly filled with my peers which provided the perfect platform for him to humiliate me once more! “Wadeley!” he finally screamed harshly after what felt like a slow motion eternity from down the far end of the corridor at the top of his lungs..
This summed up my whole experience of school and after screaming back a strong piece of my mind at the bullying weasel of a man, I was gone!
What a waste of my time. 16 years for nothing. I am sure the school were glad to see the back of me, but I was them! I was officially a ‘reject’, firmly branded a failure, I was bitter, angry and wholeheartedly believed that I had ruined my life. The school had far from empowered me. Instead, I felt broken. Like ‘damaged goods,’ with low confidence and my self-esteem was unsurprisingly in tatters.
My one saving grace?……… I was finally free to leave!
This is my ‘WHY’..
Sarah Chapman, Founder and CEO, Operation Diversity, and the Operation Diversity Academy a specialist UK membership website for professionals, parents carers and guardians of Neurodivergent Children and Young Adults with Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND) – https://operationdiversityacademy.co.uk/
As of today 9th May 2020 I am also supporting 971 families inside my membership website and private members community group (a sister group to our free one!). I have worked passionately and relentlessly to build a combined audience of approx 30, 000 people across our social media platforms, website and mailing list!
This I am sure will surprise my teachers, and all those ‘influencers’ in my life who made me feel worthless for all those years. The people who should have empowered me, but instead grossly underestimated me. These years of trauma have left me deeply scarred but I am not a victim. I am a survivor! I use my experiences, my qualifications and skills every day to change the life and learning experiences of others who without my help may otherwise have fallen down the rabbit hole too.
What I have learnt is that the biggest indicator of our current and future success is ‘OUR OWN PERCEPTION’ of our ourselves, our neurology, and how we interpret our differences… Our sense-of self, our motivations, our ambitions and the opportunities we seek out should not be in spite of our ‘NEURODIVERGENCE’ but because of IT Our ‘neurodivergence’ means that we are anatomically, and cognitively ‘wired differently.’ Given the right ‘Knowledge’, ‘Tools’ and ‘Inspiration’ we will be unstoppable! – This is where my heart is and my mission for the rest of my days..
More to come!…. There is a lot to write about!
Sarah Chapman, *proudly neurodivergent* and a….
University Graduate – *First Class*! – BA (Hons) – Education Studies with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) – University of Derby.
*Winner of The East Midlands ‘Adult Learners Week’ Award (2012).
*Winner of The ‘Volunteer of the Year’ Award (University of Derby Student Union Awards, 2014).
*Winner of The ‘Equality & Diversity’ Award (University of Derby Student Union Awards, 2014).
*Winner of the ‘Community Project of the Year’ Award (University of Derby Student Union Awards, 2014).
*Winner of The ‘Positive Role Model for Disability’ Award (National Diversity Awards, 2014) – 21, 000 nominations and they picked me as their winner! 💜💜🥰🥰
*Winner of The ‘Derby and Derbyshire’s Inspirational Woman of the Year’ Award in the ‘Voluntary, Community & Charity sector’ (Fox Femm, 2015).