Catching up and Patching up

Gradually, day by day, life is returning to an acceptable state of affairs.  As I’ve found so many times in my LIME Cottage adventure, once I put myself in a positive mindset and expect everything to go well, it begins to do just that.

The huge engineer who came to fix my broadband on Monday was absurdly grateful for the coffee.  I was the first person that day, he told me, who had given him a friendly welcome.  He’s the ‘last resort man’, he explained – the one they send out when all others have failed.  Therefore he is often greeted by angry, disgruntled customers.  One woman that morning had sworn and screamed at him so much he’d withdrawn to his van for a while, to consider whether to go ahead with the job.

“Then I thought, well what do I know?” he said.  “She might have lost her mum last week or something.  There’s probably a reason she’s behaving that way and it’s her problem, not mine.  So I went in and did the job – got it working perfectly – and then she was leaping about, saying ‘You fixed it!  You fixed it! What did you do?’  And I’ll probably get into trouble for this but before I answered I told her she owed me an apology.  And I got one.  I still feel pretty shaky about it, though.”

I felt honoured to have met this thoughtful and sensitive man.  He sorted out my internet connection and promised to give me a call in a couple of weeks to check that everything is going well.

The old sink has gone.  A kind friend helped me load it into her car and take it to the local tip.

English: Wooden flooring Français : Parquet en...

Yesterday more delightful men arrived to put down my new flooring.  I’d been looking forward to that for several reasons: partly because I’d be rid of the ugly stained and ripped brown vinyl that had covered the kitchen, hall and bathroom; partly because until it was fitted my new sink can’t go in, but mostly because the workmen would be removing everything in my kitchen – including the fridge and washing machine.  That meant no more hiding places for rodents!  Even the darkest corners were revealed to be gloriously rat-free  – and the new floor looks lovely.

Other wonderful things have happened in my life, too.

I’ve been invited to stay for a few days in a house on the west coast of Ireland at the end of the week.  A friend of a friend is opening her doors to both of us – despite only having met me once, very briefly – and offering peace, tranquillity and views of the Atlantic and distant mountains.  It sounds the perfect antidote to the chaos and craziness here and the lady’s kindness touches me deeply.

I had a beautiful letter from little Tuesday – my ballet dancing ex-pupil.  She’s settling into her London dance school, struggling to be accepted by the other students, all of whom are from a very different background, worrying about her dad, whose tumour has grown larger, and unsure whether there will be enough money to pay for a second term at the school.  (Please click here if you’d like to read her story and maybe even help her family out.)  I hope she won’t mind if I quote briefly from her letter:

“I sound really angry but the ballet makes me feel like I’m in a beautiful  fairy land and I love it. The school is amazing but the girls are very prissy and it shocked me as I thought everyone would be nice but nothing in this 16 universes will put me off ballet.  I can feel it.  It helps me be happy in life.”

So rather a mixed up post this week, as I finally get the chance to write from my own computer, but linked perhaps by the way in which all of us interconnect and affect each others’ lives in ways we sometimes barely realise.  Each of us is on a journey to find what makes us ‘happy in life’, and to help others feel the same.

Normal service will resume when I return from County Mayo, refreshed and ready for the final push.

 

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I want to teach Jed

English: Hug a Hoodie! Some of Highworth's you...

What follows is a piece of writing I did about 8 years ago.

I was looking out some of my scribblings and thoughts of an educational nature for a friend’s daughter who has just graduated as a teacher, and thought this piece might be of interest to others.

I still believe and stand by every word.

I taught him last year.  I kept him in my classroom, most of the time.  I found ways to get him back, when he couldn’t stay there, and ways to get myself back, when it got too much for me.

 

Jed is courageous – massively so.  He takes on The Man.  He doesn’t conform because it’s the line of least resistance.  He stays true to himself, as he searches desperately for himself.  And that search, in our education system, could well destroy him.  I want to teach him and help him in his search.

 

Our system tells Jed he is ‘challenging’.  What a world we’d have, if every child grew up challenging, testing, thinking, experimenting and learning from their experiences, rather than their textbooks. 

 

Our system tells Jed his attitude is ‘wrong’.  He should accept unfairness, bias, dreary lessons from exhausted teachers who are buffeted from one new initiative to the next; targets that are number-driven, not people driven; results that compare unlike to unlike.  He should meekly bow down and cope with all these things, because life is like that.  What if it wasn’t?

 

Jed is very unsure of himself.  He swears and shouts loudly.  He throws chairs and punches.  He behaves in ways most people don’t.  He’s constantly told he’s bad and wrong and unteachable and impossible and he wonders who is right and what is right and why his way of reacting causes so many problems to him and everyone else.  He doubts himself.  He doubts his ways of interpreting the world.  He is deeply unhappy, but he doesn’t have a choice.  What if there was another way?

 

As educators, policy-makers, law-givers and law-enforcers, we rely on the fact that adults know best.  Children are young and know less, so we must teach them what we know, what we do and how we do it.  They must listen and work hard and develop self-motivation, so that when they grow up, they can run the world the way we run it.  What a recipe for progress!

 

A child who dares to say, “Hang on – I don’t think this is the right way; I don’t think this is the best you could do,” challenges us.

We left those feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt behind in childhood.  We don’t want them back.  We don’t want children moving us forward – challenging us.  No wonder we call it ‘challenging behaviour’.  No wonder we label them and exclude them.

 

Jed is excluded, again.  He calls back to see me after school.  He tells me what he did, what the teachers did and how much he wants to be back in school.  He has to have a special meeting before they decide whether to take him back.  He’s unhappy and unsure and he knows it will happen again and again until they finally wash their hands of him.

 

It goes without saying that Jed has massive strengths and a burning desire to learn.  With courage and tenacity like his, he could be a massive asset to society.  He could also be a suicide statistic or an inmate in a young offenders’ institution.

 

I want to teach Jed.  I want to teach him that there is another way.  I want to be able to tell him that our world desperately needs visionary young people like him who need to learn through experiencing and trying and testing; not through being told.

 

There are plenty of the other sort.  That’s fine.  Let them shine through the current system and come out with their clutch of A* passes and do the jobs suited to them.

 

Let the Jeds of this world learn in their way.  Let them not take anything for granted.  Let them learn philosophy and inter-personal skills and co-operative discovery and self-awareness from the moment they are discovered.

 

Imagine an education system where the infant school teacher announces,

“I think I’ve got a non-conformer here!”

She would say it with pride, like saying that Kirsty excels at literacy or Ahmed is amazing at sports.

 

They’d need a teacher who taught them how to learn, then let them try.  If they found a better method, they’d tell the teacher, who would also learn.  Targets and tests and results would be irrelevant, for the simple and excellent reason that anything worth being is, by its very nature, incapable of being tested and targeted.  The results would speak for themselves.  Society would be moved on by the people who dared to challenge our deeply imperfect system.

 

I want to teach Jed.  I want Jed to teach me.

 

 

 

 

Dis-Easy

Tropical Storm Yagi in the North Pacific Ocean

“Try to stay at the eye of the storm” a wise friend once commented, when we were discussing those times when everyone and everything around you starts typhooning.

I’ve become rather good at that now.  In fact, for the week or so leading up to this weekend, I was very aware that every friend who contacted me had a problem.  People they’d trusted had let them down, finances had suddenly become a nightmare, relationships had fractured, illness or physical pain was afflicting them.

I listened to each of them with compassion and care.  I echoed back their statements, to allow them to find answers or ways forward where I could, and I tried very hard not to offer solutions or to drift into monologues about similar situations of my own, because I’ve learned that neither of those is particularly helpful.

You see, the Janonlife belief system is that each of us creates our own reality – and that includes any difficulties and problems – in order to gain the most experience possible from this short and tricky lifetime we are currently playing out, and to bring as much light as possible from our expanded, multi-dimensional selves into the existence of the Humans we are Being at this particular point.

I take full responsibility for what happened next, because I actually remember the thought that triggered it.

“This eye-of-the-storm bit is all well and good,” I commented to what I call my God-Self (also variously known as Soul, Spirit, Higher-Self, Essence, God, Goddess or what you will).  “Trouble is, this life has been going along smoothly for such a long time now.  I think I could do with a slight tweak, just to throw me a wake-up call.”

Oh be careful what you ask for, my friends!  By the end of the week, I was laid out by a physical meltdown.  All energy evaporated.  My skin became hypersensitive – to the point that even turning over in bed was agony.  My digestive system seemed to have temporarily been replaced by a particularly bad-tempered nest of vipers.  Strange swooshing noises swirled between my ears at every attempt to move about and waves dizziness overtook me even when I stayed still.

“OK.  Right.  Fine.  Got it,” I told the G-S.  “I take to my bed, drink water, stop eating and wait to see what comes in terms of experience from this lot.  Got it.  And could you ease up slightly on the stomach cramps please?”

So that’s how I spent the next few days.  I’ve had enough similar episodes in my life to recognise that – just as the New Agey lot say – physical illness is, quite literally, dis-ease.  This time, I’d even noticed beforehand that something inside me needed a hiatus – a cessation of everyday activities to give it the time and space to shift.

I didn’t force it.  I felt way too ill to do so, in any case.  I knew that something would come of this.  It always does.

Anger

Anger (Photo credit: ZORIN DENU)

On Sunday night, the something arrived.  Just as the physical symptoms were beginning to subside and I was ready for a relatively normal night’s sleep, huge tidal waves of anger swept through me.

Shaken but not altogether surprised, I grabbed a notepad and allowed a storm of fury against situations, individuals and events – recent and far in the past – to flow through the pen.  Whoa!  Can’t remember the last time I did anger.  I was amazed how much I’d been bottling up.

Did I feel any better for expressing it?

No.

I now had a list of people and events that I felt totally, utterly, mind-numbingly furious about.  I sat back exhausted for a few minutes and asked the G-S to remind me what came next.

“Er, mirrors?” the G-S hinted.

Oh yes.   Of course – I knew that.  Each of them was mirroring something inside my self – showing me aspects of my Being Human self that I was ready to change.

I returned to the list and worked my way through each situation.  None of these people was intentionally angering me.  Each was mirroring behaviour or attitudes I wanted to alter in myself.  Some took a bit of ferreting out.  One remained stubbornly insoluble, so I decide to sleep on it.

On Monday morning I woke feeling extremely weak, but physically fine.  All trace of anger and spite had evaporated along with the mysterious illness.  The elusive answer arrived as I relaxed in a fragrant bubbly bath and I knew the dis-ease had done its work well.

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Better Answer Needed

Case O' Guns

“I know how to get hold of a gun,” crowed the 14-year-old at my side.
He looked at me quickly – part jubilant, part watchful, and waiting to see how I would react.

We live in England, where such things are strictly illegal, but I believed him.  There are always ways, if you have enough money and can find the right contacts.  This boy certainly knew where such contacts could be found.

“And why might you want to do that?” I asked, as levelly as I could.

He was the sweetest, gentlest, kindest of kids.  He still regularly came to visit me (his old primary school teacher) and usually chatted about our mutual interests.  Today, though, I was being shown a different side to him.

“If I had a gun – a really big gun – people would have to listen to me!   They’d have to take notice.  I’d be a big man.”

I watched him as he spoke.  He was half serious, half parodying himself, knowing as he said the words how stupid and clichéd they sounded.  Yet he badly wanted to believe them.  He wanted to believe there was some magical way to transform himself from a timid, socially anxious teenager into someone who would be held in awe by his classmates.

“And that’s the best solution you can come up with?” I asked.

He began to bluster then, to talk about an ever-increasing arsenal of weapons, of the penalties he’d exact on anyone who wouldn’t listen to him, of how revered he would be.

“They’d respect the gun,” I agreed, when he finally paused for breath, with a big soppy grin on his face.  “Do you think they’d have any respect for the guy holding it, though?”

The bravado continued.  “It wouldn’t matter.  They’d just have to do as I said.”

“It matters to you,” I persisted.  “You’re not looking to be surrounded by a bunch of dead bodies, you’re looking to feel empowered, to have a voice and to be looked up to by the others at school.  You’d like their respect and you’d like them to hear the thoughts and ideas that are burning away there in your head but never spoken because you’re scared the rest of them will laugh you down.  That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?  You want to feel brave.”

He thrust his hands into his pocket and lumbered off ahead.  I caught him up.

“We covered all this when you were in primary school,” I reminded him.  “The coward who wants power will bully weaker, smaller people or he’ll surround himself with a few mindless thugs to be his henchmen – or, I suppose, he’ll get a weapon to threaten others with.  None of those things will remove his fear, though.  He’ll still be terrified all the time.”

“SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER, THEN?” he yelled in my face.

What indeed?  What could I say?

I could offer him a whole bunch of truisms:  ‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself’; ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’; ‘There is no fear until we make it up’ and so on and on…

adolescence

adolescence (Photo credit: dongdawei)

He was fourteen, in the midst of that agonising transformation from child to man.  He was a chess player amongst a throng of football fans, a quiet, gently spoken kid in a rough school where the mouth, the fist and occasionally the knife ruled supreme.

I had no magical words of comfort, no panacea for the whole, sorry business.

“Just don’t try to take them on,” I told him finally.  “Try to keep your head down and stay out of their way whenever possible.  Stay in safer, central areas and hold tight to your knowledge that you are a great person with a brilliant mind and your time will come.  School seems endless now, but in a few short years you’ll be free of it.  University or the workplace will be far less threatening and you’ll find people who give you respect for who you are.  You’ll also find that the fear gradually fades as you get older.  That’s the best I can offer.”

Was it enough?  It’s a long way from the perfect answer.  I’m still searching for that.

Angry kids – a few strategies

Angry Talk (Comic Style)

Angry Talk (Comic Style) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days ago, a friend asked me for some hints on dealing with the anger her young son, diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, was experiencing.

My first thought was, ‘What can I teach her? She’s an amazing mum.’  Then I realised that, over the long years of working with kids, I’d actually amassed quite a range of strategies and insights.  So while fully accepting that I don’t have all the answers, or any special training, I’m going to use this post to throw in some ideas that may help parents, teachers and carers to cope with anger in children.

If you hate anecdotes, by all means skip to the bullet point below, but I’m including Jason’s story because he did such a brilliant job of teaching me how, given the chance, children can often find their own ways to deal with extreme anger.

The eight-year-old was beside himself in the days and weeks after his father’s death, from an alcohol-related illness.  He was violent, loud, abusive and unable to listen, concentrate, discuss or acknowledge his problem.  I found him prowling the school corridors with a dangerous glint in his eyes.

“Come on Jason,” I said. “Let’s go and have a chat.”

To my surprise, he followed me into the play room quite readily.

“Want to talk?” I asked, aiming to sound interested but ‘cool’.

Jason yelled, screamed a lot, thumped the sofa and swore profusely.  He clearly didn’t.

My Pet Monster

I threw him a cuddly toy monster – bright blue fur fabric body, a truly horrible face and wearing plastic handcuffs; ideal for expressing deep fears in a totally safe way – like Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things.

“He looks really angry,” I said. “Maybe you could tell me a story about him.  I’ll write it down and draw it if you like.”

I suppose on some subliminal level I’d done the shrink bit and decided that Jason couldn’t handle his own emotions and needed to dump them somewhere else.  I could never have guessed what would follow, though.  It turned out to be a great example of how using puppets, toys, pictures and so on can help children to explore feelings they are unable to address in themselves.

“He’s a horrible monster!  He wants to KILL people.  He’s nasty and ugly and he should be sent to prison.”

He paused and looked at me.  “Draw the monster on your page.” he commanded.  “Write ‘His name is Bignose’ over the top.”

I made a lame but honest attempt to create some sort of likeness of the monster.  Jason continued to berate Bignose.  “Look at his face!  He’s really ugly.  Everyone says he’s horrible and he’s so angry, he just wants to kill everyone.  He ain’t got any friends.”

His mood softened slightly.  “That’s quite a good picture.  It looks just like him.  The hair’s a different red, but it doesn’t matter.”

Then, quite suddenly, he embarked on his story.  “ He used to be alright.  He was a dog.  He was all right then but he drank too much beer and whisky and that turned him into a monster.  Now the police are after him.  He has to go to prison because he’s so bad.”

(While he was saying this, Jason took the monster’s handcuffs off and placed them on himself.  Hmmm.)

He turned and took another cuddly toy – a rather demented but harmless looking red thing with lots of legs.  He told me it was a spider.

“Now draw the spider.  He’s scared of the monster.  The monster wants to eat him.  Draw him in his garden and do a fence – no – I’ll do it!  Give me the pens.  I’ll make a fence right round the spider, like this…”

I watched as Jason took great care to completely encircle the spider with closely packed, black fence panels.

“Now it looks like the spider’s in prison,” I commented.

“No!  He’s in his garden!  He likes the fence.  Draw a big smile on his face.  Write ‘The spider is happy because he is safe in his garden and the monster can’t get him.’  Now draw the handcuffs on the monster,” and, you’ve guessed it, he removed the remaining handcuff from his own wrist and put it on to the monster.

We don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell us what all that was about.

In a 15-minute session Jason had shown me his own uncontrollable anger, his guilt and self-disgust, his desire to be separated from the angry beast inside himself and his need for firm boundaries – the one thing that made him feel safe and happy.  Not a bad start.

 

So now to some practical strategies:

scream and shout

scream and shout (Photo credit: mdanys)

Expressing anger is important.  Ex-press, as in press it out of your body, rather than bottling it up and leaving it to simmer and grow until it finally explodes or leads to other problems.

When a child is having a fully-fledged tantrum or attack of rage, trying to ‘take them on’ doesn’t help.  I’ve tried to sit with them, telling them gently that I understand the feelings they have and reassuring them that although it feels bad right now, that feeling will pass.

Once they’ve calmed down a bit, I’ve asked them to work with me to come up with some safe and useful anger-management strategies that will work for that child.  I’ve given them the following list to test out.  They then rate each strategy from useless to helpful:

  • ‘Run out of anger’ – literally!  Get the kid racing round a playing field until they are gasping for breath, probably giggling, and able to tell you they’ve totally run out of anger.
  • ‘Draw out the anger’ – red and black are great colours and huge sheets of scrap paper or even old newspapers.  Experiment with crazy scribbling, ugly faces or whatever the child needs to express. (Try not to judge – Jason’s early attempts showed furious gun-toting gangsters on roller skates ‘so they can go fast and kill more people’ but after a few sessions his figures dispensed with the skates, then the guns and began looking sad and – eventually – calm.)
  • Hitting safely.  Crash mats, punch bags, cushions etc. are good – little brothers, pets and brick walls are not.  Discuss the golden rules – don’t hurt yourself or anything that’s alive.  One parent I know bought her son a drum kit!
  • Screaming into a pillow or in the shower.  Warning others in the house that you’re about to do this is often helpful, though.
  • Finding your own boundaries.  Unsurprisingly, this one worked well for Jason.  Walk round the bedroom/garden/school grounds, touching the walls or fences all the way around, telling yourself you’re in a safe place.
  • Safe throwing.  I’ve used a realistic-looking foam brick from a joke shop, but screwing up newspaper and hurling it at a target is just as good.
  • Shredding!  Our very understanding school secretary would often agree to hand over a stack of unwanted papers to one of the angry small people, who could sit and feed them into the shredder.  Very therapeutic!
  • Pounding play dough  – or bread mix, which can be put aside to rise and become light and airy, and eventually be transformed into something good.

Remember that strategies to control anger are exactly that.  I feel it’s important to keep checking back with the child: ‘How are you feeling now?  Has the anger gone away?’  Once they are feeling calm, the activity should stop.  It’s easy to get locked into throwing/screaming/hitting behaviours and that can actually cause more aggression.

A final word on what children can teach us about anger:

The friend who contacted me for advice commented on her young autistic son that the battle seemed always to be in his own head, rather than with anyone else.  I thought about that and realised that that’s where it really is with all of us.  People and situations don’t actually ‘make’ us mad.  We react to them and project our anger on to them.

In my experience, young children – and particularly those on the autistic spectrum – don’t blame others, they just look for ways to express their own feelings.  We should help and maybe learn from them.  Just look around the world at the crazy things that happen when righteous anger is projected on to other people…