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:
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.
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.)
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.”
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.