Literally life-changing

00:22, Sep 15 2014
Dennis Finlayson
LEARNING CURVE: Night-shift treatment plant operator Dennis Finlayson says he would still be an angry old man if he hadn’t learned to read and write.

Dennis Finlayson read his first book at the age of 52. It was Sir Ray Avery's autobiography and it took him nine months.

Finlayson had always struggled with literacy, but learned to hide it from family and friends.

He admitted perfecting his handwriting as a cover.

"I was an aggressive, demanding alpha male. If you could speak well and write to a certain degree, people didn't ask."

At the age of 50, Finlayson had the reading age of a 10-year-old.

Getting older and a changing culture at Kaituna Sawmill, near Renwick, where he worked meant he could no longer rely on his hands to keep a job.


In his youth he wasn't ready to read and school didn't interest him, Finlayson said.

"I was at school at the start of 1965 when they still had strapping and caning. Under-achievers didn't get any help."

He left school with no qualifications at 15. After working in a fishing boat in Fiordland he joined the mill as a labourer. Two years ago, there were about 12 men on site who struggled with literacy and were unable to read critical health and safety memos.

What started as a discussion among workmates developed into a literacy programme.

"Some guys thought they couldn't learn, some thought this was their lot and they were made this way," Finlayson said.

According to Ministry of Education figures, 40 per cent of people in the New Zealand workforce have literacy and numeracy problems.

Kaituna Sawmill site manager Darrell O'Brien said the problem was endemic in trades across New Zealand.

"There is a certain expectation that when people come to a job they are able to read and write but it just isn't the case. We take it for granted."

Roles in the workplace were more complex than 50 years ago, O'Brien said.

"The focus on safety standards and operating procedures mean employees have to be able to read and write to deliver standards."

Supported by Literacy Marlborough and the mill, the men spent an hour each week studying with a tutor.

"I got a lady who was old-school. She was excellent and put me in my place, something I wasn't used to," Finlayson said.

"Initially I felt very uncomfortable. It is easy to ask for help but doing it is the hard part."

They initially played Scrabble and had to come up with words no longer than three letters.

After two years of hard graft, Finlayson read his first book, Sir Ray Avery's Rebel With A Cause. But his journey didn't end there.

He has been instrumental in changing the lives of his workmates. One man had started teaching his grandchildren to read and another who was previously shy, was more confident.

"If I hadn't learned to read and write I would still be an angry old man," Finlayson said.

"If I had these opportunities open to me in my 20s I would be in a different place. I kick myself for being so lazy and not doing it earlier in life."

He is the on-site certified Competenz skills assessor and encourages others within the company to take part in Literacy Marlborough programmes.

O'Brien said what was a hidden problem at the mill was now freely discussed.

The Marlborough Express