The Rest of my Life

I found that phrase in a friend’s blog this morning: The Rest Of My Life.  It set me thinking.

Is this it?  Is this hiatus – this temporary pause in ‘normal’ – a rest from metaphysical and psychic ponderings?  Did I need, perhaps, a reminder to stop theorising and clamber back into living the hard, gruelling daily toil of physical life?  Certainly there’s been little or no opportunity for such things since circumstances changed back in February and I found myself catapulted into survival mode.  I’m at one of those ‘end of level challenges’ I wrote about in the Player’s Guide, with a many-legged monster attacking on all sides.  There’s no time and no opportunity to chat about akashic realms or the nature of the psyche.  Even my trusted and wonderful remote viewing partner – the one person I could rely on for a good weekly long-distance chat about all things numinous and mindbending has retired behind a wall of silence once more.  He does that sometimes, but this has been a long silence, even by his standards.  It’s almost as if the Universe is telling me something…

So am I, at soul level, resting myself?  Has my greater self designed this strange sojourn to remind me that I’m currently engaged in being human, and being a human being is all about having physical experiences?  After all, transcendental ones are always available, always there, whether or not I’m clad in a suit of skin-and-bone, blood-and-guts.  Will I emerge from this ‘rest’ period ready to grapple with even greater metaphysical challenges?

 

Then there’s the possibility – I must confront it – that this is indeed the Rest of my Life in the sense that this struggle to confront physical, dreary, awkward and heart-wrenching challenges and support others on a daily basis will take over permanently.  I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that possibility.
“What would you like to return to?” asked a friend, recently. “What are you missing?”
He had this romantic notion that I long to return to Avalon, to drift back to a simple life of long talks with like-minded friends, of strolls in the Somerset hills and sacred sites, of writing weekly blogs from the heart and soul.
“What you’re looking for,” he suggested, “is Peace, isn’t it?”
And I shook my head.

Peace, to me, sounds far too much like that Heaven place the Sunday School teachers used to try to bribe me with when I was small – somewhere with no worries, no troubles, no challenges, just beauty and happiness and calm for eternity.  It sounds crushingly boring.  And if I’m scrupulously honest with myself, my life was getting perilously close to that state before all this happened.  I distinctly remember telling the Universe I was ready for a new challenge…

 

The third possibility is that The Rest of My Life will start when my lease on this nasty white box runs out and I return to Lime Cottage to take stock.  By then, the people I’m working with here should be settling into their new life.  That’s the plan, anyway.  The autumn equinox will arrive and the wheel of the year will turn to the quiet, darker, introspective times of log fires and contemplation.  That will be a time to take stock, to decide what matters to me the most and to determine how I would like to happen to the autumn of this particular physical life.

I don’t know yet which decisions I will make, but whatever I choose to do, it will expand my experience (and thus the experience of the Universe) in new and interesting ways, because that’s the mission I chose to accept when I arrived here in the physical this time around.

 

 

 

 

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Who Can You Trust?

It’s bothering me, this question, and I feel it shouldn’t.

Eye, Couple, Love, Betrayal, DesireTo explain why, I need to touch on some very personal stories.

When I was a student, I thought I had a boyfriend.  To all intents and purposes, I did.  He was a fellow student, but older than me and far wealthier.  We had a great time together and the relationship lasted two years.  He was in hall during the week, but each weekend went off, as I understood it, to visit his elderly mother.  Just before our final exams, he told me that in fact he had another girlfriend, whom he’d been living with at the weekends.  Now she was pregnant and he’d decided he would marry her.  He told me not to worry, as he was quite prepared to buy me a flat in North London and keep me as his mistress.  He actually seemed quite shocked when I told him where to stick his flat and stormed off.

Fast forward many years to the day I walked into a room of the home I shared with my husband of 30 years and found him on the phone to his lover, planning their next meeting.  I’d had not the remotest idea that this was happening under my nose.

In both cases, it wasn’t the betrayal that upset me as much as the ease with which my partners had led this double life and consistently and adeptly lied to me.  They both apologised and said they knew it was ‘wrong’, but that didn’t help.

I was chatting this through recently with a relative who had had a similar experience.

“I was at home with young children,” she said.  “I KNEW something was going on.  I found little notes in his pockets, but somehow he always managed to explain them away and make me feel bad for suspecting that he’d do such a thing.  He kept it up for two and a half years – a relationship with a woman at work.  They even planned a holiday together, with her feigning illness and having to be taken home from work by a colleague, while he was waiting at the love nest.  When it was finally discovered, he started trying to date his secretary instead.”

I’m not saying it is always men.  Another relative discovered that his girlfriend had been cheating on him for six months, while they shared and renovated their first home.

Now I’m watching another member of my family suffer similar torment.  For five years her partner has been caught up in a double life, lying and cheating and finally putting his family in mortal danger through his misdeeds.

Our stories are far from unique, I know.  Almost anyone reading this will know of, or have experienced similar horrors.  Some may even be living a double life, but somehow justifying it to themselves and feeling that it’s fine unless the partner finds out.

Despite all that, though, there are countless caring, trustworthy people in the world – people who, if they are no longer happy in a relationship, would have the courage to say so, rather than seeking solace elsewhere.

Because of my own beliefs, though, I’m not content to blame the erring partners.  I’m not even prepared to mutter the truism that no one is blameless in such a situation.

I believe we create our own lives.  I believe that events show up in them to teach us more about ourselves.  I believe that – at some level – my family and I invited these situations into our lives because, painful and heartbreaking as they are, they enable us to become stronger, wiser and more resilient.  They add to our Knowing.  Our experience adds to the Akasha which is all Knowing.

I still don’t know who to trust, so I keep very much to myself.

I still don’t know if trusting is something we should try to do.  We attempt to bind others to us with vows and promises, assurances and agreements, but such things are torn up and broken all the time.  We can’t hold and keep the love of another in our hands.

Perhaps we should just be our authentic selves at all times and trust Life/God/The Universe to help us to make our choices and move beyond such things.

I don’t know and, as I said, it’s bothering me.

Do you?

An Open Letter to The Universe

Dear Universe,

Here we are then – another morning, another day in the Life.  Let’s decide how this one is going to go.

I have to give you credit.  I opted into this particular Lifetime in order to expand and learn through experiences and requested from you that I should have some, er, interesting scenarios to work through in order to achieve that.  You, dear Universe, certainly delivered.

Here I am in the middle of one of them.  It’s arguably the most complex, challenging and painful of the lot.  Am I learning from it?  Certainly.  Is it allowing me to expand my consciousness and understanding?  I suppose it must be.  Am I flailing about, totally out of my depth and panicking for much of the time?  Definitely.

So back to basics for a moment.  Life does not happen to me; I happen to Life.  It’s very easy to forget that when I’m in the middle of a Life drama.  It’s easy to sink into victimhood and wallow about there yelling, “This isn’t fair!  This isn’t my fault!  Someone else caused all these problems.  I didn’t choose them.”

Woman Desperate Sad Tears Cry Depression MWell no, in everyday terms I would never have chosen to have people I love suffer what they are going through.  It is all too easy to blame the perpetrators.  If those people hadn’t done those things, Life wouldn’t be this way.  If those people hadn’t done those things, I wouldn’t be here, having to deal with the fallout, day after day.  If those people hadn’t done those things… something else would have shown up in my Life to allow me to learn and expand and find ways of dealing with the issues here, because that’s what I asked for when I began this Lifetime, and that is true for everyone involved.

So let’s dispense with all the victimhood and blame and anger – the easy stuff – and move on to happening to my Life.

This is what I’m learning, you see, Universe.  You’ve given me some real humdingers to deal with in the past and I’ve often seen myself or – worse yet – people I care about, suffering, and been willing to blame others for that.  It is hugely difficult to see that every single individual concerned acted from what he or she considered to be a reasonable or practical perspective.  They each carried out what they considered to be the best or most expedient response to a difficult situation.  It’s not my task to question their actions or to blame them.  It’s my task to take steps forward and move myself and my loved ones into a safer, more secure and comfortable situation.

My little family – the woman, the child and the toddler – are in a safe, though temporary, home.  We are making plans to move them into a relatively safe and secure permanent home.  We are taking steps to make that permanent home safer and more secure, but that is still not reaching to the nub of it.  Security devices, high fences and locked gates may help to protect against physical intruders, may help to make people whose previous home has been violated, whose lives have been threatened, whose trust has been destroyed feel slightly better, but the real work is to build up inner protection.

Tunnel, LightEach of them is traumatised.
The smallest is terrified by loud noises, raised voices or passers by who remind her in some way of the ‘bad men’.
The child has just built himself a dreamcatcher – a wooden pop gun beside his bed that ‘shoots’ nightmares into a hoop, from which they are projected into a baked bean tin across the room.  For him this is serious work – serious self preservation.
For the mother, who seeks to protect and nurture the little ones while dealing with her own loss, grief and traumatic stress, there is a long, slow and painful journey.  I can see the glimmerings of a stronger, wiser, truer woman emerging.  I can see tiny steps towards the rebuilding of shattered self confidence.  I can see a brighter, clearer future that far surpasses the web of lies and deceit that were lurking and waiting to sabotage the past.

My task is to hold that image and project it to you, Universe, because then you will mirror it back to us.

Yours in love and gratitude,

Jan

 

 

Warning: Incorrigible Optimist At Work

You saw it coming, didn’t you?  Some of you even commented on it…

What do you get when you stick an incorrigible optimist in the bleakest and most desperate situation anyone could imagine?

Fantasy, Clock, Statue, Light, SpiralMagic – that’s what.

Only we know, don’t we, that it isn’t magic at all – it’s natural.  It’s the way life really can be.  It’s far, far more natural than cause and effect, far more natural than coincidence or random chance, far more natural – I’ve recently discovered – than synchronicity, even.

So, taking a deep breath, I’m going to say it:

There is no such thing as objective reality.

Certainly there IS such a thing as default reality.  That’s where almost everyone lives for the majority of their human life.  It’s the way Life goes when people believe they can do nothing about what happens, because it happens TO them.  It seems so self-evident and relentless that many people never dream that they can escape the tyrany of Fate, Luck, Chance or whatever deity they hold responsible for the events that go on around them.  Grimly and doggedly they struggle on through Life at default setting, feeling cheered when things go well and depressed or angry when they go wrong, but never thinking for a moment that they could take responsiblity for these events – far less that they could choose and affect the outcome.

There are others, though, whose lives turn out very differently.  There are those (and I’ve had many amongst my family and acquaintances) who expect things to go wrong, expect to be cheated, disappointed, short-changed and beset by inconveniences.  Sure enough, Life delivers.  They are not surprised.  They expected nothing more.

At the other extreme there are the optimists – those who expect that, regardless of setbacks, Life will turn out well and they will find something great and precious emerging from every situation.  They expect nothing less.

I’m one of the latter group.  Not every day and in every moment of course.  There are times when I can rail against my fate with the best of them, but it only takes a little nudge from a caring friend or a tiny synchronicity for me to remember, “Hey, yes, I’ve got this covered; I can choose how it works out.  I can learn something valuable from it.  Let me just think for a sec about why it turned up in my Life at this point.”

That’s what I’ve been doing this last week or two.

Certainly, some of the issues I’ve been dealing with have been serious and life-changing, but the example I’m going to give is of a much lighter kind – just to give any doubters amongst my readership confidence to start by choosing outcomes for the small stuff before building up to bigger and better things.

Sunglasses Glasses Fashion Style Summer HoA week ago I lost my sunglasses.  They were prescription lenses, as I’m quite short-sighted, and designer frames, so replacing them would have been costly.  I was irritated, naturally.  I searched everywhere I’d been and wondered where they could have gone missing.  What I didn’t do was to give them up for lost.  I maintained a conviction that they and I would be reunited.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a phone call from a staff member at some beautiful gardens I’d visited on the day the glasses disappeared.  I’d first noticed they were missing as I’d got out of the car when we arrived, so hadn’t been wearing them on my visit.  The other relevant fact is that I’d loved the gardens so much that I’d bought a season ticket, filling in a form with all my contact details.

“Is that Jan?” asked a cheery voice.  “I think I’ve found your sunglasses!”
I was stunned for a moment. “Well I have lost them,” I said.
“I KNEW it!” she squealed triumphantly. “I just KNEW they belonged to you. Describe them for me.”
I did so and – naturally – they were mine.
“But how did you know they belonged to me,” I asked. “The only name on them is Ted Baker’s!”
There was a slight pause before she responded, “I don’t know. I just looked at them and a sudden inspiration came to me that they must belong to you. I remembered you buying the season ticket and I knew they had to be yours.”

 

I’m happy to say that the important issues are changing too.  Since I arrived in my new temporary abode to support my family, one thing after another has slotted neatly into place.  My daughter is now also a believer in manifesting a great future and together we are planning and choosing each next positive step along the road to recovery and towards building a new, happy life for her and her children.  Still a long way to go, but all will be well … because that is what we have chosen.

In case anyone who reads this would like some specific help in manifesting change in their lives, I’d like to add a link to the wonderful words that helped us climb out of the abyss in our darkest hour and allowed us to move forward: Cheryl’s Prayer of Choices.

There is also a children’s version which I worked on with Cheryl here.

 

Lost in Conurbation

“Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage.”

wrote Richard Lovelace, back in the 1600s.

I’d sometimes wondered, passingly, how true that was.  Could the human spirit rise above physical incarceration and fly free, despite all?

Life – considerate as ever – has given me the opportunity to find out.  Not, I hasten to add, that I have been walled up in some dreadful prison cell.  I’m free to come and go as I wish and my surroundings are clean, dry and comfortable.  It is, nonetheless, a cell.

I will be living, through the rest of spring and summer and well into autumn, in a square white room.  There is a tiny shower room, but all other aspects of life must be accomplished here.  Where once I had rooms, now I have corners – one for cooking, another for sleeping, an eating, relaxing and working area.  Where once I had a garden to tend, stuffed with nodding daffodils, bluebells and tulips, I now have a single pot of hyacinths on a white windowsill.   Where once I watched the sun set amidst distant hills across the Somerset Levels, now it drops below a tower block across the car park from the one I live in.

My windows look out on to other blocks of flats.  A hollow-eyed woman with dark hair sometimes peers out from the one opposite.  A gaunt man coughs and gasps in the window as he drags at a cigarette from the room below hers.  Beyond the blocks are housing estates on two sides and roads on the others.

Yes, it would be easy to sink into self pity in this sterile, soulless, monotone place.  On my first night here, I lay in bed listening to the sound of traffic, far below, on the dual carriageway that leads to London – a soft, irregular swishing sound that rose to a crescendo and fell away again.  It could almost have been taken for waves, breaking on a pebble beach, I decided, before noticing that this gave me no comfort at all.  I’ve never much enjoyed the sea – too wide, too cold, too unpredictable.

I have with me the few comforts and essentials I was able to cram into a relative’s small hatchback and a few sticks of furniture I’ve borrowed, or bought from local second-hand shops.  It’s a world away from my lovely cottage, my dear friends and my contented life over in the west.

So is my spirit broken by this cruel exile?

Slightly battered, perhaps, in these early days of readjustment, but far from broken.  This has become an exercise in actively seeking out the positive.  Since my arrival two weeks ago, a froth of may blossom has covered the narrow strip of wilderness – a haven for dog-walkers and fly-tippers – that separates the estate from the trunk road, so that I now barely see the lorries and vans hurtling towards the city.  Tiny bluetits cling impossibly to vertical brick walls outside my window as they gather some form of sustenance from them.  Beyond the flyover, a single green field can be glimpsed obliquely from one window, if I position my chair carefully.

The greatest help, though, has come from the two little children I have come here to be with.  They and their mother have been permanently uprooted from their home, in the most traumatic of circumstances.  They, too, are living in temporary accomodation nearby, but with no hope of returning to their home and friends.  They have lost so much, yet they teach me, each day, about positivity and optimism.

“Grandma has a lake in her garden,” the six-year-old informed his mother, referring to the drainage ditch that crosses the small piece of grassland beside the flats.
Scale is unimportant. For us, now, it is a river, with meanders and tiny waterfalls created by twigs and leaf litter.

His three-year-old sister can easily spend ten minutes peering with total delight into a patch of wild violets she found there, stroking its petals reverently, or having earnest conversations with a passing beetle.

Even in my room, their imagination and creativity fills the space with magic. Image may contain: indoor A side table became an enchanted forest home for the fairies for a while.

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A garden, bath and sofa were created in a box for their toys.

For all of us, now, Life insists that we build our own joys and delights and that we trust to its bounty and goodness to allow my little family to heal and rebuild their lives, so that I can ultimately return to mine.

I won’t be the same person who left, though.  There is richness in this experience that will stay with me forever and I am deeply grateful for it.

 

 

Vitruvian Lines – Part 5: Autistic Thinking

Psychology, Psyche, Mask, Wire RackIn the last section I described one of my ‘lightbulb moments’ – the realisation that the natural method of communicating and socialising amongst the autistic population/ ‘square fillers’ involved a system that by-passed words and used a form of telepathy.  I’d just like to stress that every child in the group I observed was using and responding to it, and they ranged from very high-functioning individuals to at least one who was said to be at the lowest end of cognitive ability.  In other words, it wasn’t a skill some very gifted children had learned; it was a natural skill that – in these individuals – hadn’t yet been suppressed by society.

 

Despite the earnest efforts of their parents and caregivers, these kids had not been pressured into using and thinking with words.

In this section and the next, I will examine the reasons for this, according to the American thinker and educator Joseph Chilton Pearce.

In his book The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, Pearce speaks of a “primary process of mind”.  That means it is there, initially, in everyone.  This primary process, he goes on, is repressed and largely eliminated by what our society calls maturation.  The quote  from his book that follows is one of the key points of this whole series of articles, because once it is understood, it becomes clear how autistic perception differs from neurotypical perception, how the square fillers think and process information and why that way of perceiving is so valuable to society as a whole.

“Autistic thinking (or A-thinking) is an unstructured, non-logical (but not necessarily illogical) whimsical thinking that is the key to creativity.  It involves ‘unconscious processes’ but it is not necessarily unconscious.  Autistic thinking is indulged in, or in some cases happens to one in ordinary conscious states.  The autistic is a kind of dream-world mode of thinking.  This left-handed thinking is nevertheless a functional part of reality formation.  It is the connecting link between our ‘clearing’ and ‘forest’.  It is the pearl of great price.  It is the way by which potential unfolds.”

It’s possible that a high-functioning autist reading the above might be offended or put off by some of the language there – ‘non-logical’, ‘whimsical’, ‘dream-world’.  There are certain values placed by society on those words, and the earlier mention of ‘maturation’ could imply that those with autistic perception are locked in some eternal wondering infantile state, while the rest of the population has ‘grown up’ and left them behind.  I hope that, by labouring the point (throughout the last four sections) that our society’s norms offer only ONE possible way of developing and maturing, I will have mitigated that interpretation to some extent.

To be extremely clear, then:  All humans begin their terrestrial, three-dimensional existence as autistic thinkers.  They are infinitely creative, imaginative and open to new experiences.  It is only by being that way that they are able to achieve the momentous strides in development which are managed in the first few years of life.

Birth, Child, Baby, Newborn, Hand, KeepA baby is told, implicitly, “Within two or three years you will master several types of mobility, the ability to feed yourself, the ability to speak and understand the meaning, pronunciation and syntax of least one verbal language, the ability to perform complex tasks of manual dexterity and you will have formulated your own preferences in terms of what tastes you enjoy, what sounds and objects you like and dislike, and you will express those preferences clearly.  You will recognise and discriminate between a variety of objects and individuals and be able to name several of them and you will indulge in a rudimentary level of logical thinking and decision making.”

By and large, the baby not only accepts these absurdly high expectations, but goes on to achieve them.  This is not in spite of autistic thought but because of it.  Within the autistic mind there are no limits, so anything is possible.

 

Thus, to square fillers, all possibilities are achievable.  The ‘non-logical’ thinking is the Knowing/ gnosis, that allows the savant to draw the cityscape from memory, to recite π to hundreds of digits, to be the first to recognise that E=MC2 or to remotely view features of a location hundreds of miles away or identify a set of medical symptoms in a person he or she has never met.  This thinking doesn’t rely on cause and effect or logical consideration.  In fact, those – as Will and I have discovered and reported on this blog, during our experiments in some of these areas – are limiting factors which can undermine the ‘Knowing’ process.  That Knowing IS autistic thought.  It is only ‘whimsical’ or dream-like in that the members of society who have traded in such thinking for the so-called rational, logic-bound mental consideration they have been trained to follow cannot conceive of any way such things are possible, except in their dreams and fantasies.

So obviously, yes, there has been a trade-off.   At key points in their lives, each individual has, at some level, made a decision.   The personality has had to choose between retaining the innate level of autistic thinking, and complying with pressure to conform to society’s norms, abandoning the natural state of Knowing in favour of rational, logical thought.

This is not a simple either/or choice, of course.  That is why autistic perception is described as a spectrum.  There are those who elect to remain almost in the new-born baby state of total sensation and imagination and to pursue a lifetime of discovery in that condition.  To society, these people will be considered unfortunate, handicapped and limited, since there will often be no perceived method of communication between them and the care-givers and they will be completely dependent on others to see to their bodily needs.  Others individuals who elect to retain their A-thinking, however, agree to take on varying degrees of ‘maturation’; they will learn some of the key skills expected of the infant, although they may take their time over this.

Control, Quality, Rejected, StampAll the developmental expectations described in the imaginary conversation with the baby above were imposed on the child by parents or caregivers.  Experts such as paediatricians and health visitors would have been bombarding the carers with checklists showing ‘normal’ levels of development and this in turn pressurised them into encouraging the child to achieve all the milestones they had been given.  The parents did their very best to encourage the child to develop ‘normally’, rewarding success and attempting to discourage ‘babyish’ characteristics.  The children who failed to keep up with the checklists would be described by society as ‘delayed’ in certain areas.  Those who opted out of certain developmental targets completely or partially were labelled ‘disordered’.  Such is the pressure to conform exacted by our culture.

It seems obvious to me that the decision made NOT to conform and abandon autistic thinking must have a huge inherent value to the person who makes that choice.  In our society, living as a square filler is far from easy.  It is indeed what Pearce, rather romantically, refers to as ‘the pearl of great price’.  Each of these people has chosen, at some level of being, to reject, or partially reject, society’s norms in favour of this creative, unlimited form of being.

Next time, I’ll examine the particular wonders and pitfalls that beset the ‘high functioning’ square filler, who treads the line between the two populations.

 

Am I where I want to be?

Yesterday someone sent me an email.  If the photo the sender attached was to be believed, it was a smart, squeaky-clean young American.  He told me I’d been accepted as a member of an organisation called the Association of Spiritual Writers or some such.  Can’t remember the exact wording, as I deleted it pretty quick.

For a start, I hadn’t applied to join any such group.  For an end, he quickly moved into an unabashed sales patter, telling me that in order to get top price ticket sales at my talks, I needed to enrol on his training course, which would maximise my earnings.

Sorry to disappoint you, young Sir, but I have not the slightest interest in making money from spiritual writing or talking.  Sharing ideas, having dialogues, learning and discovering, yes – those things are hugely important to me, but that’s where it stops.

It made me think, though.  Do I have what I want now, in the autumn of my life?  And the answer seems to be that yes, I do.

I own a very small, sweet, though slightly damp and crumbly, old cottage in a beautiful part of England.  I get enough money from my pension to pay the bills and live each month and although I don’t run a car, have expensive holidays or buy luxury items, I have all I need to be comfortable and to give a little to charities I care about.

I still do some private tutoring, charging less by the hour than I pay a handyman to chop and stack my logs.  I’m fine with that, too.  I do it because teaching was my first love and I enjoy keeping contact with it and helping children who would otherwise be struggling.

I spend vast amounts of time making 1/12 scale miniature figures and room settings by upcycling mass produced and junk items.  It’s a brilliant hobby for me.  I can be creative, inventive and gloriously messy.  It involves constant problem-solving that keeps my mind active.
People say, “You must have such patience,” but for me it’s a kind of meditation.  I do my deepest meditating when I’m hand-stitching a minuscule white shirt or sticking tiny tufts of hair on to a wig base.
I display and sell the fruits of my labour at craft sales, get smiles and lovely comments and have fascinating conversations all day.  I make modest amounts of money – which I pass on to my son and his partner, as they are saving up for a deposit on their first home.

Strangely, at almost every sale I’m approached by some smartly dressed young man who eagerly tells me how I could make masses more money from my crafting by doing this on Instagram or that on You Tube.  I smile, thank them politely and carry on doing what I do.

I’ll happily trade the lack of stress, deadlines and problems for the lack of wealth and material goods.  I’m happy, I’m still learning every day and I have a wonderful life.

 

 

 

A Trail of Breadcrumbs

Learn, Child, View, Thumb, High, LikeIt was over twenty years ago, and I’ve taught a lot of lessons since then.  None, though, quite as extraordinary as that one.

They were 5 to 7 year olds, only ten of them, all with speech and language difficulties and several with autistic spectrum perception.  We were doing a mental addition and subtraction activity and I was recording their answers on the board.

There was a wide ability range and a couple of the kids were exceptionally bright.  I was doing my best to stretch them, while keeping the less able group involved.

I had a hidden agenda, though.  There was one boy – a six-year-old – whom I was watching particularly carefully.  He was one of the highly intelligent ones.  He always focused on the task at hand, worked hard and was unfailingly polite and charming.  We’d been watching him for a few weeks, my teaching assistant and myself, ever since I’d confided to her that I felt I was losing my grip on this class.  To be honest – and I’m not a person given to paranoid delusions – I was beginning to suspect that this little child was intentionally sabotaging my lessons.

The activity started quite normally, but before long he started.

‘27 +13?’ I asked.

‘40,’ someone said.

I wrote 40 on the board.

‘No, it’s 41,’ he said.

I talked through the calculation, using my best patient teacher voice.

‘But you said 28.  28 and 13 is 41, isn’t it?’

Hmm.  This sort of thing happened all the time in my class these days.  Normally I’d have accepted that I’d made a mistake and wondered, yet again, why I was becoming so absent-minded.  Today, though, I was ready for him.  I pretended to be flustered.  There was no flicker of a triumphant smile from him.  Maybe he’d made a genuine mistake…

We carried on.  He did it several more times, selecting his moments with infinite care.  If I stood my ground, he backed down instantly with a polite, ‘Oh, sorry.’  If I hesitated or acted confused, though, he’d capitalise on it, wasting vast amounts of time in the process.

By the end of the session I was in no further doubt.  All the times a vital piece of equipment I was sure I’d laid out for a lesson had gone missing and was then found in the most ridiculous place – by him, naturally; all the lessons where he was endlessly under my feet and I was practically falling over him, yet he’d always have a perfectly valid explanation for being there; all the times when half the class ended up repeating some stupid little phrase over and over, while he sat, bent over his work and looking up in mild surprise at their behaviour;  all this and more was being orchestrated by a child of six with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum and severe speech difficulties.  It beggared belief.

Later that day I took him aside and asked him, point blank, why he was playing these mind games.

‘What’s mind games?’ he asked innocently, but the mask was slipping.  I could see a gleeful twinkle in those wide green eyes.

‘The little wind-ups you use in my lessons, like in maths this morning,’ I replied.

He gave a yelp of delight.  ‘So it’s YOU!’ he said.  ‘I thought it was you.’  And he smiled his concrete-melting smile.

He went on to explain that he’d been trying his ‘tricks’ on a number of key adults in his life for some time, waiting to find the one who figured out what he was doing.  I had, it seemed, passed the test.

So as his teacher I had two choices.  I could get angry, label him as a disruptive and manipulative pupil and apply sanctions.  Alternatively, I could be delighted that I’d come across such an audacious, brilliant and imaginative mind, give him the deepest respect and remember never to underestimate him.  I chose the latter.  Of course I did.  This was a once in a lifetime meeting.

From that day onward we became the best of friends.  Twenty years on, we still are.

That’s not to say he’s let me off the hook.  Far from it.

If he wants me to discover something, to move closer towards his level of comprehension, he will never simply tell me.  He uses the Socratic Method.  It’s the most effective form of education ever developed.  The student is given scenarios and placed in situations which require high-level problem-solving skills.

Hiking, Nature, Walking Trails, JeansI’m given a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, often a heady mix of physical and psychic, since he operates in both modes.  He ruthlessly ignores my questions or pleas for hints.   If some of the breadcrumbs have disappeared or been blown off course, I’m simply expected to work harder and faster to find the rest.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating – the kind of buzz people get from climbing mountains or running marathons, I suppose.  If I fail, he ups the stakes.  If I succeed he’s utterly delighted and we are able to communicate on a higher level than I’d ever have achieved alone.

I’m busily following one such trail at the moment.  Here, as an example, is just one of the crumbs he’s thrown me:

Phone, Communication, ConnectionAutistic people are capable of communicating and socialising. They have a naturally different method of accomplishing this. What exactly that method is I don’t believe is fully understood at present by either autistics or non-autistics. I don’t believe the correct words have been attributed to autistic matters to describe or explain them properly. I suspect at some point this will be achieved and hopefully will allow autism to be harnessed to its full potential and remedy the blindness of so many.

Wish me luck  🙂

 

Orcadian Education – a better way?

What follows is little more than scattered traveller’s tales, gleaned from a very few days spent exploring the Orkney Islands.  I apologise to any Orcadians who should happen upon this post for the lack of detail and insight it contains, but would just like to throw in a few thoughts on a system which seems to me – from a very cursory glance – to be worthy of further consideration.

The first thing you notice, looking out from the hostel on one of the smaller and more northerly islands, is the idyllic view of land and sea, layered in horizontal swathes of colour, from emerald to deepest turquoise to heathery brown and finally ocean indigo, all set off by a clear, azure sky.  The second thing is a small herd of alpacas grazing a nearby field.

“Oh, they belong to the school children,” we were told.  “They learn to look after them and run the herd as a business.”

The school in question was the primary school.  It currently has seven pupils, but they are hoping to reach double figures in September.  Older children take the ferry to a secondary school each day – whatever the weather – on a larger island nearby.
“They do arrive a bit green some days and it’s a while before they can focus on the first lesson, but they never complain,” a parent told me.
Post sixteen, they weekly board on the island known as Mainland.
“They all have to sign an agreement,” she said, “Saying they’ll take full responsibility for their behaviour and attitude towards learning – and they stick to it.”

‘Taking responsibility’ seems to be the core ethic on the islands.  No one – young or old or in between – is mollycoddled and provided for.  Everyone does what they can to add to the quality of life.  We saw no litter, no graffiti or vandalism.  The ‘oldest home in Northern Europe’ – a magnificently preserved pair of buildings which predate the Egyptian pyramids – is protected only by a gated fence to keep the cattle out.  Not a DO NOT sign or so much as a crisp packet in sight.

I recently read a quote to the effect that you need a village to educate a child.  In this case, they have an island to do the job.  So yes, there are schools, and all the normal core curriculum subjects, but that’s just the start of it.   They learn not just about ‘The Vikings’, but their Vikings – the ones who farmed and fished their islands.  The history and culture of their home is shared with pride, so that every islander feels a deep and abiding connection with the land.  A local poultry farmer gives the children a few eggs to incubate and rear each year.  At lambing time each child is apprenticed to a farm worker and allowed to watch and sometimes help to deliver the babies.

The idea of informal apprenticeship pervades the place.  As soon as a child or young person is judged or declares themself ready to learn a new skill, an older islander will take it upon themselves to teach and supervise them.  Older ladies teach the skills of knitting and sewing to a new generation.  A lad is expected to pick up a skill set that will enable him to be a useful member of the community, whether it’s how to demolish a wall or how to service IT equipment.  Once these skills are mastered and the instructor judges the youngster to be capable, they are encouraged to do such tasks alone.  Each teenager develops his or her own abilities and is happy to give back to the community who gave them the skills in the first place.  The result:  young people are a valued part of the community, appreciated by everyone; the elderly are cared for by those who learned from them in the past and children look forward to becoming as skilled and useful as their older siblings.  No adolescent angst; no inter-generational tensions.

“Every new initiative on the island will only be given a grant if we can prove that it benefits every age group,” I was told by the development officer.  “So we have a youth council as well as an adult one, and they get to say how their share should be spent.  They were offered a youth worker, but they didn’t want that.  They said they’d prefer a dart board in the pub, so they could play while their parents were drinking!  Oh they all come to the pub.  Everyone knows their age, and when they’re old enough to drink, the adults are around to keep a watchful eye.”

The transition from kid to adult seems truly seamless there.

“Our son, at 17, wanted to start up a fishing business,” a mother explained.  “He told us he hadn’t a clue how to deal with all the paperwork, so I made an appointment for him with an accountant on Mainland.  He took himself off there and sat down with them and learned all they told him, then he came back and got on with it.  He’s never asked us for any help.  That’s how it should be.”

And it is, isn’t it?

 

 

Always will.

Glass, Shattered, Window, DestructionTen years ago, I was just finishing the most terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and arguably the most successful year of my life as an educator.

I’ve spoken about it before, but not for a while, and a few things have happened this week (like the message from D) to make me want to look back at it.

Briefly:  I worked in a primary school at a time when everything was controlled by THEM – the curriculum, the standards, the targets, the methods.  As educators we were under stupid amounts of pressure to conform and jump through all THEIR hoops.  The alternative was Special Measures.

Ours was a smallish school and – as sometimes happens – in that particular year, we were struggling with an above average number of, um, challenging pupils.  The reasons for the challenges weren’t hard to fathom – parents in prison, parents who had died or were seriously ill, parents with substance abuse issues, violent and abusive siblings and step-parents, family break-ups, history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.  Those are just the bits I can remember.  There was also peer influence and imitation; children would pick up on the behaviour of others and copy it.

Run Riot, Anarchy, City, Urban, GraffitiEvery class in the 7-11 age group had a few hard-core rebels and several who copied their behaviour.  Teachers felt their standards slipping as they struggled to deal with daily disruption.  Some were refusing to teach certain children or to have X and Y in the same class.  Exclusion of these youngsters wasn’t an option.  It was frowned upon by THEM, and anyway, we wanted to help these kids.

As a senior management team, we pondered long and hard on how we could organise classes for the next academic year.  No combinations worked.

Until I had my crazy/wonderful idea.

I opted to teach a mixed-age class of just 16 pupils, containing every one of the challenging children and a few others who had their own issues and difficulties, despite not being disruptive.  My conditions were that the National Curriculum would not be followed, testing would be optional – and then only at the very end of the year, targets would be replaced by frequent ‘look how far you’ve come’ reviews, the education would be holistic, with a different programme of study for each individual based on their personal circumstances and emotional needs as well as the educational ones.

Luckily, I had a brave, supportive head teacher and some brilliant, visionary and courageous support staff.  I was also able to buy in help from a very talented play therapist/counsellor.  Annoyingly, the local authority insisted on adding in its Behaviour Support Team, who tried to get me to run the class along the lines of Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s rats.  Not helpful.

My curriculum was, very broadly:  Term 1 – learn to tolerate and begin to like yourself.   Term 2 – like and take some responsibility for yourself and begin to tolerate one or two others, so you can manage to work in a very small group.  Term 3 – take responsibility for your own behaviour and actions and begin to tolerate and work with larger groups and the whole class.

Girl, Boys, Children, DevelopmentEach of the 16 who stayed at the school (such families travel around a fair bit, so some moved away) went on to rejoin a normal mainstream class the next year.  All of them opted to take part in the end of year tests and did as well or better than expected.  In the final term they did a whole class project and cooperated as well as any group I’ve ever taught.

Obviously the hardest bit – so hard I still have to fight back tears as I remember – was to get these lovely young people to tolerate and, later, like themselves.  Once that was achieved, the rest flowed relatively easily.

As I mentioned earlier, several synchronicities have turned up recently, drawing me back to 2007.  Some will have to wait for another post, but I will mention D.

He was one of the oldest in that class – an intelligent, painfully sensitive, deeply troubled young lad who somehow transformed during the year from having always been the class weirdo to becoming an excellent and much admired role model for the younger boys in our group.

Last night – as he does from time to time – he messaged me.  Said he hoped I was doing OK.  We chatted briefly.  I told him what was happening in my life; he told me a little about his.  Then we signed off.

“Thanks for remembering me,” I said.

“Always will,” came the reply.

I’ll always remember him, too, and the rest of the class who taught me that once you can like yourself, there are no limits to what you can do.