Further Adventures of Simeon – Looking Death in the Eye

Eye death

In my last post, I introduced Simeon – a 14 year old with learning difficulties and a strong desire to join the British Army, along with a conviction that his life was over because he wouldn’t be able to fulfil this dream.

My first thought was: ‘He’s right – they’d never accept him.  Still, at least that’s one nice kid who won’t come home in a coffin or with limbs missing a few years on.’

Hot on the heels of that came: ‘And anyhow, he has no idea what army life involves.  He’s just spent too many hours playing Call of Duty and fantasising about holding a gun and killing anyone who gets in his way.’

Slowly it occurred to me that beyond my prejudices I had no real knowledge about the army.  I also had no right to dismiss Simeon’s dream so lightly.  I therefore decided to investigate further.  That way, I’d be able to give him more information.  He’d know whether he had any hope of joining the army and he’d also have a more realistic idea of what army life involved.  I also nursed a suspicion and hope that as his skills and self-confidence improved, he’d be ready to let go of the desire to hide behind heavy weaponry.

As you might expect, the Ministry of Defence has a comprehensive website, positively bursting with information on recruitment.

The good news, from Simeon’s viewpoint, was that he wouldn’t be expected to have passed any school exams.  On the other hand, he would have to sit a whole raft of tests and assessments if he wished to join up.  There is a useful section of practice tests for aspiring squaddies to try out – even an interactive one where they take part in a team challenge with a bunch of other young hopefuls.

Tried and tested

So when Simeon turned up for the next lesson – quite smiley and cheerful this time – I explained our new programme of study.  We would continue with the maths and English as before, but would also devote some time each lesson to trying out the BARB tests and other assessments the MOD provides online.  We would also research all possible aspects of army life (or as many as the Ministry felt willing to show us) so that, when the time came, he’d be able to make an informed choice about his future career.

He approved.

The first test was called Reasoning.  It had questions like ‘Bill is heavier than Sam. Who weighs less?‘  Perfect!  Exactly the sort of activity Simeon needed to develop his language processing skills.  He focused completely and scored 10 out of 12.  High fives all round and he was positively beaming.

“I want to try another one,” he said, eagerly.

This time he selected Letter Checking.  It involved scanning pairs of letters and deciding how many of the pairs were matched large and small case versions of the same letter.  Simeon is a very visual learner, so this was a perfect morale-booster.  He scored 100%.  Unable to believe his luck, he ran through it again, with the same result.

As you have probably guessed, not every aspect of the assessment tasks went this smoothly.  Some contained instructions which went way beyond Simeon’s ability to process information.  Initially, he seemed fine with this and persevered by attempting the tests again to try and improve his scores.  However his strategies weren’t great.  He eventually resorted to guessing blindly and consequently found his marks dropping still further.

The following week he arrived in the blackest of moods and told me he’d decided he would live rough when he grew up and would be glad if this shortened his life.  It took a good forty minutes of morale-boosting tasks and encouragement to bring him to a point where he admitted he was feeling better and didn’t really want to be a vagrant.

We’re currently breaking the difficult tasks into smaller, achievable activities before returning to the BARBs.  I praised him at one point for working so hard and applying himself to the challenges I was setting him.
“You’re really making progress,” I said.
“That’s because – for the first time ever – I’m being taught by someone who’s not a complete asshole,” he responded.

Wow.

Like every young person I’ve encountered on the autistic spectrum, Simeon has a sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others that borders on telepathy.
“How would you feel,” he asked, watching my face keenly, “if I came back from a spell in the army and I had killed some people?”

I really didn’t need to reply.  He’d understood that despite the effort I’m making to help him reach his dream, I struggle with the idea of anyone ending the life of someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s spouse or parent.

He sat for a few moments, talking quietly about the implications of ending a life and admitting that he’d never before truly looked at the repercussions.  For the first time the fantasy and the reality were starting to separate in his mind and I saw that at some point, much further down the line, we’ll be having some deep conversations on this subject.

I have the greatest respect for Simeon and total faith in his ability to make positive choices in the future.

Meeting Simeon

English: Eyebrow, detail of File:Konferencja W...

It goes without saying that isn’t his real name.  I always alter certain details of the kids I write about, to preserve their privacy, but Simeon suits him well enough.

About six weeks ago he came slouching into my life.  He stomped into the study and eyed me warily.  He’s 14 and has autistic spectrum perception.  His parents had pulled him out of a special school where bullying was rife and learning, it seems, wasn’t.  They’d asked me to give him some weekly tuition in English and maths.

He was anxious, bitter, embarrassed by his ‘memory problems’ (receptive language processing difficulties) and lack of mathematical skills, and had enough chips on his shoulder to keep any fast food outlet going for a month.
“Let’s get this over with then,” he sighed, grabbing a chair.  “Two hours, right?”

Then the tests began…  What was it going to take to freak me out?

Week One included the following conversation:

Chocolate Digestive

Me: “You’ve worked very hard. Do you want to stop for five minutes for a drink and a snack?”
Him: “Got any cocaine?”
Me: “Sorry, just biscuits.”
Him: “Uh. How about steroids?”
Me: “No, I think they’re chocolate digestives.”

By Week Two he’d had a rethink.

When asked to enliven a dull passage by adding extra detail, he  managed to insert copious amounts of blood and gore into every sentence.  The protagonists lost body parts with dizzying speed and in alarming quantities, and what was left of the ‘hero’ by the end provided a finale by going to the bathroom (sic) on what remained of his opponent’s corpse and heading off to get high.  (“Do you know what that means?” Simeon asked, solicitously.)

I complimented him on having successfully completed the task he was set.  I spoke in glowing terms of the build-up of tension as the battle outcome remained uncertain until the very end.  I admired his range of vocabulary, while pointing out a few punctuation mistakes.  I then suggested that the euphemism for urinating was rather lame and that he needed to draw further distinction between heroic and villainous behaviour. if he wished to master characterisation.  Simeon silently made a few changes to his final sentence.

Comic Books

At the start of Week Three he reached into his backpack.  “I’ve brought something along I thought would be helpful for our lessons,”  he announced with an inscrutable smile.
He placed a copy of The Walking Dead comic on the desk.

“I could read some of it to you,” he offered, “like a reading book, y’know?”

“Fine,” I said.  “Which page would you like to start on?”

The reading session went on for a little longer than either of us had expected, because although the chunks of speech were not extensive, it took Simeon quite a while to apologise each time there was a swear word.  (“I’m sorry I said the f- word there.  It’s not like I was swearing at you, y’know.  I only said it because it was there on the page….”  and so on and on.)  There were many swear words.

After a while, mainly to save his blushes, I suggested returning to the Anthony Horowitz novel we’d selected as his regular reading book.   This he did with some relief, and since by a fortunate chance the first murder occurred a page or two into the chapter, he became totally hooked and complained when I asked him to stop.

By this time I was becoming rather fond of Simeon.  He could have become quite ratty at my refusal to be scandalised or offended by his carefully constructed ploys, but he took my responses calmly and was actually working extremely hard at the tasks I set him.   True, his obsession with weapons, the army and any dystopian videos,  games or reading matter he could lay his hands on could be wearing at times, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a disempowered teenager take refuge amongst such fantasies, and I felt I understood his perspective.  (See also this post.)

English: A British army Challenger II main bat...

Then, just as he was leaving on Week Three, he hit me with this:
“You know I dropped out of school?” he said.  “Well it was before I’d sat any of the exams, y’know?  All I’ve ever wanted is to join the army. But I don’t think they’ll take me without any exams.  So I think my life is just about over, really.”  He sighed so sadly.  “I think about that a lot.”

Oh.

That forced me to take a close look at my own prejudices – my feelings about the armed forces and military combat as well as my feelings about this socially isolated youngster with a considerable range of learning challenges.  The thought of Simeon being trained as a killing machine didn’t sit comfortably with me.  On the other hand nor did allowing a fourteen year old to believe his life was ‘just about over’, if I had any power to help him change his mind on that.

In the days and weeks that followed, I also thought about it a lot.  In a future post, I’ll let you know the conclusions I reached, and how my encounters with Simeon continued.

And meanwhile, here’s me, getting the cold shoulder

Cold Shoulder

Cold Shoulder (Photo credit: smkybear)

I’m not sleeping.

Well, I say that.  Obviously some sleep goes on.  I’d estimate 2-3 hours a night – 4 on a really good one.  That isn’t deep, refreshing, all-at-once sleep, though.  I doze off for 40 minutes or so and then there’s the painful awakening.  I writhe and twist, gyre and gimble (Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky – I’m a massive fan) and vainly attempt to get some relief from the pains that are shooting down my back, my arm and up into my neck and head.

Eventually I get up and wander off to the bathroom or pace around the house for a while, before collapsing back on to the bed and waiting for the discomfort to return to a sleep-throughable level.  That can take hours; it usually does.

I have, I’m told, a ‘frozen shoulder‘.  It’s the most ridiculous ailment; even the doctor admitted as much.  The information sheet he gave me reads like something Lewis Carroll himself might have penned.  For reasons no one can discern, the shoulder becomes increasingly painful and stiff over a period of months.  This is, apparently, the ‘Freezing Stage’.  Seriously.

Mobility may be affected, it says.  My shoulder has definite and ever-expanding no-go areas.  They include behind and up.  Stray into them by mistake and the pain starts small and takes up to five minutes to develop a vice-like intensity that has me gasping for breath.

The pain is frequently worse at night, it says.  Hell, yeah.  As described above.

So what do I have to look forward to?  Apparently next comes the ‘Frozen Stage’.  I can expect less pain but the same level of stiffness and lack of movement.  That, it tells me, will typically last between 18 months and 3 years.  After that – you’ve guessed it – there is a ‘Thawing Stage’.  A year or two more for it to subside and disappear as quietly as it arrived and I will be back to normal.  Physiotherapy and painkillers are offered, more to placate the GP’s feelings of helplessness than to make any difference to the condition, he agreed.

I’ve already tried deep tissue massage and acupuncture, to no avail.  Since there’s no medical reason, and since I tend towards the Louise Hay view of dis-ease in any case, I opted for some Reiki.

Now this is where it gets seriously weird.

Reiki symbol1

I went to a Reiki practitioner I’d only met a week or two before.  She knew very little about me and I knew very little about Reiki.  I sat for a long time listening to pleasant music while the healing took place.

When she’d finished, she came to sit with me, looking rather shocked and puzzled.

“I saw a face,” she told me.  “He was right here.”  She motioned the front of my shoulder.  “He was looking straight at me.”

Like I say, this lady didn’t know me well, or any of the people in my life.  I asked her if she could describe the person she’d seen.  As she did so, I started to realise who it was.

I went to fetch a photo.  “Is this the person you saw?”

She gasped and nodded.  “The hair was a bit different, but that was exactly the face.”

Well that made sense.  The photo is about five years old.  It’s of someone who has played a huge part in my life; someone I helped, mentored and loved for many years.  And then, little by little, he moved out of my life and stopped responding to letters, calls and emails.  He’s given me, you could say, the cold shoulder…

Hmmm.

Of course, as I’ve said many times before in my blog, I don’t believe others cause us pain.  I believe we allow ourselves to feel pain in response to the way they act.  My Guide explained it to me in this way:

What if I stick a knife in someone.  Surely then I will hurt that person – cause their pain?
NO  YOU CAUSE THE CUT
And what causes the pain?
THE CUT GIVES THE PERSON THE CHANCE TO CAUSE PAIN TO THEMSELVES

Fortunately, my Reiki healer had another strategy for me.  She told me to smile into my body – giving a smile of love and gratitude to each part of my body in turn – and to linger on that shoulder, giving it extra love.

English: Smile

Oh how right she is!   I don’t intend to wait years for my shoulder to thaw.  I’ll see if that smile, and any others I can collect, can defrost it.

All smiles gratefully received 🙂

Twerking the message home

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus (Photo credit: rwoan)

I wasn’t particularly keen to write on this subject, but each time I try to put it aside, I get another little nudge telling me to get on with it.

So here we go:  the ‘Thank you Miley Cyrus‘ post.

Back in the day, my sex education lessons to classes full of anxiously giggling eleven-year-olds usually began with something like this:

Did you know that when a caterpillar develops a chrysalis and begins changing into a butterfly, every part of its body goes into a complete meltdown, and from the resulting goo an entirely new creature is formed?  Adolescence is a bit like that.   You start off as children and emerge as young adults, but the process in between can be pretty messy and radical.

Nothing I could say, though, would prepare the kids for the massive and traumatic changes that hormones would be wreaking on their bodies over the next few years, or the social and emotional fallout this would create.

The thing is, no one – not even the most sorted, mature and contented adult – can take self-esteem as a given.  Each of us is still racked, from time to time, with self-doubt, insecurities and a wavering self-image.  Yes?  And I’m pretty certain that everyone reading this can look back to their own adolescence and recall how exaggerated and extreme those doubts and horrors were, when sudden and dramatic changes were affecting their entire beings on a daily basis.  You’d wake up in the morning to find your voice, your skin, your smell, your height and weight, your emotions and mood and, of course, intimate parts of your body had suddenly transformed you into something quite new and unfamiliar.  How on earth were you supposed to go about developing self-esteem, when you didn’t know, from day to day, who you were?

Chrysalis to Butterfly (#1 of 5)

The caterpillar/butterfly is able to make these changes within the privacy of the chrysalis.  Our society doesn’t provide so much as a curtain for our developing young people to hide behind.  All these changes take place as they are going about their daily lives, interacting constantly on social media and – for an unfortunate few – in the full glare of publicity.

This is where Miley Cyrus comes in, of course.  How unimaginably ghastly for a talented and beautiful young girl to have to play out a fantasy life in front of millions on TV for years as she grows up and then to attempt to redraw herself as an adult in the same, unrelenting media glare.  It would seem that caring and helpful mentors have been sadly missing from her life, replaced instead by greedy and self-serving individuals encouraging her to boost their profits by – well – doing what she’s been doing.

I think we needed to see this hideously exaggerated adolescent transition played out on our screens, in order to recognise how much help and support the rest of our young people need.

A week or two back, the British media were reporting a story that many young people are being blackmailed into sending pornographic images of themselves to paedophiles.  They are, apparently, approached via social media by someone pretending to be an ideal potential friend of the required sex and age.  They are then asked by the new ‘friend’ to send compromising photos or videos of themselves.  

This they willingly do.

After that, of course, they are trapped.  The blackmailer threatens to send the pictures to their family and friends unless they provide more.  The suffering this causes to the kids in that already fragile, insecure and confused adolescent state can easily be imagined.

The point I want to pick up on is that so many of our young people will readily send such images of themselves to total strangers – because, I suppose, their lack of familiarity with their new, sexually aware selves, together with the blatant soft porn images surrounding them in the media, trick them into believing that only this will make them sufficiently attractive and desirable to a potential boyfriend or girlfriend.

Why did it take young Ms Cyrus’ public gyrations and disrobing to alert us to the warped message being fed to her generation?  Surely it’s vital for all of us who live with, work with or otherwise care for young people, to help them to recognise and respect the fragile and incredible beauty of their bodies, and to lovingly guide them through the hazards and fears of puberty so that they can emerge from the process as adults with a relatively secure self-image and the confidence to  seek out and attract partners who will recognise and admire their intrinsic uniqueness and value.

We should not be leaving them prey to those who would destroy and devour them greedily before they can emerge from the chrysalis transformation.

In Praise of the New Educators

"Teacher Appreciation" featured phot...

Over the year – exactly now – that I’ve been blogging, I’ve written several posts about the New Energy (or Version 2.0, as they are called in LIFE: A Player’s Guide) children and young people now populating our planet in ever-increasing numbers.  I’ve decided it’s time to celebrate the adults who are finding new ways of working with them, since recognising that the old teacher/pupil model needs a radical rethink.

At the weekend, I was sent an email by my friend  Astrid Witt, who is a visionary teacher in a secondary school in Germany.  She also – somehow – finds time to host free, cutting-edge interviews (in perfect English!) for educators and parents on her site What The Experts Know.  I’ve listened to many amazing and inspiring world class speakers there, including Astrid herself.

With her permission, I’m reproducing a story she told in her email:

Yesterday I was teaching a maths class to ninth graders introducing a new concept and after rephrasing my first explanation a second time it became somewhat  clear that the majority of the class didn’t get it. The noise level went up and I clearly felt that it was not only their frustration level rising but I too was getting exasperated with them for not getting it. Stress was building up…on both sides!

What happened then was the result of a level of cooperation and  mutual trust I had dedicated myself to build with that class for the past 15 months… A boy raised his hand and asked me to step down from the blackboard and pass on the chalk to a student in the class who claimed to have understood me.

Now, before I started changing my paradigm of what education should accomplish, this would have ruffled my feathers big time. After all, the traditional part of my teacher training had taught me to be the authority that knew it all and knew it better and that demonstrating this authority was vital to keeping order in the class. Instead I simply felt grateful that I could pass on the baton and share the responsibility.

The student, lets call him John, grinned with delight from ear to ear, the class immediately hushed to silence. Within another 5 minutes he explained the concept from a much more “primitive” perspective … and was rewarded by many “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” from the rest of the class. Suddenly they understood … They felt happy, and as a result I felt happy .. much happier than if I had insisted on being the authority not to be questioned… and them not understanding what I had explained “so clearly” 🙂

As Astrid went on to point out, it takes a massive amount of courage and humility for educators – be they parents or teachers – to step away from being the powerful authority figure and to accept that there are other ways of working with their students.

Online Educa Berlin 2007 - Opening Plenary, No...

I was deeply inspired by her message, but by another of those synchronicities (yes, they’re still coming thick and fast!) another friend sent me this Ted Talk, the very same day.  Even if you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, It’s certainly worth hearing Sugata Mitra‘s stunning explanation of the traditional education system at the beginning of the talk.  Definitely food for thought…

I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting we should hand education over to computers.  There is a crucial role for adults in guiding and educating even the most evolved and conscious ‘Version 2.0’ children.  However I truly believe it is changing from the old ‘top down’ model towards a partnership in which everyone has a stake – something to teach and something to learn.

I’ve yet to find a suitable title for my role in working with the children at GLOW (Glastonbury Learning OtherWise – the educational resource for home educated young people I co-run).  Facilitator?  Mentor?  Catalyst?  We certainly don’t see ourselves as teachers.  GLOW’s ethos (and name) comes from Plutarch‘s declaration that:

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled; it is a fire to be kindled.”

We simply light the imagination of our awesome young people and sit back to enjoy the glow!

I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to escape the education system and move into other ways of working with the young.  However I have the utmost respect and admiration for those who work to change and expand the system from within.  For that reason, I’ll finish with another reflection from Astrid Witt:

Instead of creating those moments of tense silence and subdued emotions (or stubborn defiance in children) that happen when someone (mis-)uses their power, you could be gifted with a deeper mutual understanding and discover a new level of communication that helps both sides! And it has a wonderful side effect of truly empowering those who need to learn to take responsibility for themselves.