Stuart Dakin has never doubted his intelligence - and he'd like the records to show that, thank you very much. He can argue his way out of anything and wipe the floor with his classmates in any debate - but he's never shared their love of the written word. Whether he's sounding them out, writing them down, or remembering how to spell them - words are, for Dakin, a necessary nuisance. For years, he's baffled himself and his teachers alike - the latter assuming he simply wasn't trying hard enough, whether because of arrogance or laziness or simply out of spite. He is trying, of course - even if sometimes it feels like he's working twice as hard just to stay afloat - but it never seems to be enough. Aged ten, his teachers tell him not to bother trying out for the local grammar - but he does so anyway, out of a pathological need to prove them wrong, and it's this tenacity that propels him through life.
Cutler's is more of the same - but eventually he finds that so long as he gets the grades and the school's record remains unblemished, they're content to leave him be and not push the issue any further. It gives him a confidence that he's able to turn into bravado - all the while keeping everyone at arm's length and maintaining the pretence that his marks are effortless.
That is, until Irwin turns up - the dynamite to his carefully-crafted defences - and pushes him to breaking point. Because suddenly it isn't just about the facts, it's about turning them on their head, being different, original - and he's working harder than ever before, and he's exhausted. Every essay he writes comes back to him a sea of words circled in red, and he knows it's only a matter of time before Irwin says something. When the rest of the boys get their practice exams back and he's asked to collect his after class, he knows it's not good news.
His heart sinks as Irwin hands him his essay back and he sees just how many words he's misspelt - words he knows how to spell, really, or at least should by now (after all, he's written God knows how many essays on the Renaissance).
"Dakin, can I ask you something? Look, your essays have improved, there's no doubt about that. They're compelling, and well-argued, and clearly you're incredibly smart for your age…"
"I'm flattered, sir - and do go on - but you said you wanted to ask me something."
"Right. It's just - your spelling. And - handwriting."
Dakin scowls at the writing on the page in front of him - and in that moment he hates it more than ever. Even he struggles to read his own writing sometimes - and not because it's prettily illegible like Scripps' handwriting, but because it's messy, scrawly - like a kid's, he thinks. "Yeah, it's atrocious. I know. People tell me all the fucking time," he mutters - and he can feel the heat rising in his cheeks as the frustration creeps in. "My grades are fine though, so what does it matter?"
Irwin's peering over his glasses at Dakin with something akin to concern, or worse, sympathy. He pauses like he's choosing his next words carefully, unsure how to address the elephant in the room. Dakin's teachers have called it every name under the sun - laziness, stupidity, sheer thick-headedness, and worse words too, ones his gran would have given him a clip round the ear for using in polite company. He tells himself he doesn't care - but somehow, he knows, it'll feel worse coming from Irwin.
"Dakin," he says tentatively, "are you familiar with something called dyslexia?"
He considers it for a moment. He's heard of it before, of course he has - but the dyslexic kids in primary school were always the slow ones, the hopeless cases - not the ones who got into Cutler's, not the straight-A students, and certainly not the Oxbridge candidates.
"Look, I know spelling isn't my strong point, but - I'm not... you know. Special needs, or whatever. I can read, sir."
"That's not what I'm saying at all, Dakin. There are a lot of misconceptions about this sort of thing. Some dyslexic kids are actually ahead of their peers in terms of reading comprehension, but then struggle with things like spelling, or pronouncing words, or-"
Oh. "Right - look, if this is about Nietzsche-"
"I - actually wasn't thinking of that, but now you mention it..."
"It's a stupid name!" He can feel himself getting angry now - mostly with Nietzsche, but also with Irwin for being infuriatingly right. "It's got no fucking business having that many letters in it. What does it need them all for? Half of them are silent, anyway."
"Do you find that sort of thing happens a lot, though?"
"Um... yeah, actually," he admits. "Totty took pity on me in the end and stopped picking on me to read aloud in class. So, hang on - how come none of my other teachers ever thought I might be-"
"Because, lovely as they seem, they probably all did their teacher training in the fifties or sixties. They wouldn't have learnt any of this. A lot of it I didn't even learn from my teaching course. I just sort of read up on it, because - well, it interested me."
"Of course it did. Nerd. So - what, you think I've no hope of getting into Oxford and I should just give up? Cheers for the vote of confidence."
Irwin shakes his head. "Quite the opposite, actually. I'm telling you this because I think you have a really good shot at getting in. Because I think you're - I think it's remarkable, really, how much you've achieved already, with no extra help. But - your tutors at Oxford - they'd be able to help you-"
"What, and have everyone know I'm fucking r-"
"Don't. Don't think like that, alright? All it means is that your brain works a bit differently."
"I'm not stupid. I know what it means."
"Then you know it's nothing to be ashamed of, right?"
"I, um…" Dakin tries for a laugh, but it comes out as an odd, strangled sort of sound. He can feel his eyes stinging now, and his voice cracking and God, this is a fucking nightmare. "Do you know how much shit people gave me about it when I was a kid? I thought there must have been something wrong with me but I never thought… It makes sense though. It finally makes fucking sense."
He buries his head in his hands to hide the stupid little smile he can't keep away any longer - but when he peeks through his fingers he sees Irwin smiling back.
"Dakin, I - I want you to know you can talk to me about all of this. If you're struggling with any of the set reading - or you just want to talk - I'm here to help. It's literally my job."
"Thanks." He glances up at the clock on the wall and decides he's shown just about enough emotion for one day. "I should go, but - thanks for not being a prick about it. Most people are, and - it makes a nice change, is all."
What he doesn't tell Irwin - the reason for his hasty retreat - is that seeing this side of him, the smile, the sweetness, the humanity he usually keeps hidden from his students, stirs feelings in Dakin that he can't name, that he won't name, that it will take him weeks to even begin to re-examine but that he will trace back to this moment when he does.
In other words, he's fucked.