Cracked Vessels – Letting in the Light?

Today I’d like to share what I can only haltingly call a vision, and the synchronicities and trains of thought associated with it.

Let me give you some context:  I had been in deep discussion with a couple of friends about my experiences as a teacher.  I’ll diverge into a brief ‘then and now’ to give you a flavour of those times…

Around half a century ago, when I was training to become a teacher, a debate was raging in educational circles.  Should children arriving in full-time education be seen as ‘vessels to be filled’ or ‘candles to be lit’?  A report by Lady Plowden and her committee – the go-to document of the time – concluded the latter, and I embarked enthusiastically on my chosen career as a lighter of small candles.

Today, of course, any such discussion is rotting beneath some long forgotten carpet, where it was swept several decades ago.  I quietly left the educational establishment and set up shop in an alternative teaching and mentoring setting when it became clear that the balance had settled firmly on the side of the empty vessels, to be crammed with as much junk knowledge as was deemed necessary to prevent troublesome teachers and students from having time to encourage or indulge in creativity, imagination and critical thinking.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, when the swing towards the ’empty vessels’ model was firmly in motion but before the quality of independent writing was judged by the number of similes, metaphors and examples of personification a child could cram into each paragraph, or obscure aspects of grammar guaranteed never to enhance or crop up in any aspect of life were stuffed into the minds of ten year olds, I found myself quite unexpectedly teaching in a specialist provision for children with speech and language difficulties.  It was this time of my life I had been considering as I went to bed on Friday night.

I was in that hypnogogic state, poised between waking and dreaming, when the ‘vision’ (what else can I call it?) appeared.  I saw containers – vases, perhaps or maybe orbs or bottles.  Each was cracked in its own individual way. some had a maze of hairline cracks, others a single fault line.  What fascinated me, though, was that through every fissure, a dazzling light was shining.  The light was not visible through the solid parts of the containers, just through the places where the cracks allowed it to appear.

“Remember this!” someone or something was telling me.  “It’s important!  Don’t let the image drift away.”

I lay for some time, trying to commit what I had seen to memory, toying with the idea of turning on the bedside lamp and attempting to write or draw it, but the helpful something in my ear assured me that I’d get more clarity through dreaming about it, so that’s what I did.

By Saturday morning I had an idea of what the vision had been about.  It was, as you may well have guessed, an image stemming from my sad thoughts about the ’empty vessels’ – the hapless children in our education system who day after day are ‘filled’ with largely pointless facts and knowledge, despite the sterling efforts of teachers to sugar the pill.  The cracked vessels represented the youngsters with what are variously called ‘special needs’, ‘additional needs’ or those with otherwise non-standard perception and cognition.

 

My teaching career increasingly nudged me towards a fascination and delight in working with those judged to be on the autistic spectrum or with some form of communication difficulty in the written, spoken or receptive aspects of language.

The instructions passed down to teachers from our leaders were to patch up the cracks in those ‘faulty’ vessels, to enable them to resemble their ‘undamaged’ peers and then to allow the ‘filling’ to continue.  That is what I was paid to do in the Speech and Language Unit – get them as close to normal communication skills as possible and return them to a cheaper, one-size-fits-all mainstream classroom.  Fortunately, as the leaders and inspectors had no specialist knowledge or understanding of such children, I had far more leeway than my mainstream colleagues in the way those children were taught.  

Those leaders didn’t see what I saw.  They didn’t know that small children with no intelligible speech could communicate perfectly well with others via telepathy.  They didn’t discover the deep, amazing and stunning twists and turns of the young autistic mind.  They couldn’t glimpse the creativity of the dyslexic when freed from pen or laptop and allowed free rein in the realms of shape and space.  I’d somehow slipped into a world where heightened senses and awareness way beyond common experience held sway.  Those children discussed out of body experiences, viewing ‘funny lights around people and animals that change with their mood’, remote viewing and the like as if they were everyday events.  For them, they were.

Perhaps those in charge of education didn’t want to be dazzled by the light shining through the cracks in the extraordinary ‘different’ children.

Egg, Cracks, Food, Nature, Blur, Dark

My vision and the dreams and ponderings that followed it left me with a conviction that the light shining in was vital to our world and badly needed to alleviate the darkness.  I was reminded of one of my favourite books: The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce.  Was this light appearing within those cracked vessels heralding a breaking of the eggs that hold in a deeper Gnosis or understanding of Cosmic Laws?  Perhaps each of us is, at some level, a ‘vessel’ – but not an empty one.  Perhaps we all hold within ourselves a brilliant light, but one we have hidden inside a container while we go about our humdrum daily tasks.  Perhaps the youngsters I had met on my journey through education were, in a very real sense, the light-showers or shining ones…

…Or perhaps I was a semi-deranged old woman falling down yet another of my many rabbit holes…

On Saturday night I settled to enjoy my current bedtime book: Gayle Kimball’s The Mysteries of Reality: Dialogues with Visionary Scientists.  I was reading an interview with Bernardo Kastrup PhD about contemporary idealism.  He pointed out that if, as the materialist scientific paradigm suggests, all thought experiences occur within the human brain, any impairment of that brain should result in more limited experiences and thoughts.  However, he explained, the reverse is true.  The body of evidence showing enhanced mental experiences (such as those described above in relation to my students) in those with certain types of brain damage or impairment, due to such events as bullet wounds, hypoxia or chemical impairments, strongly suggests that in such cases the brain’s filter system becomes more porous, disrupting the boundary between the brain and greater levels of consciousness. 

A synchronicity, perhaps?

 

The Art of Magic (and the magic of art)

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Picasso

Oekaki, Drawing, Children, GraffitiThat from the artist who also claimed that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.  It’s a perspective that interests me.

About thirty years ago I recall a family picnic on the banks of the River Stour on the Essex-Suffolk border.  My 18 month old son (now a professional graphic artist and illustrator) seized his father’s sketchbook and pencil, stared intently at the reeds and bull rushes growing at the water’s edge, then proceeded to draw a series of vertical and near-vertical lines on the paper.  It took him seconds.  His first representational landscape drawing!  The child moved on to other ways of exploring the environment immediately.  It was as if the drawing was some kind of instinctive yet fleeting need to capture the 3D world in just two dimensions.  He didn’t, as his older siblings might have done, compare it to his father’s sketches or seek anyone’s approval or praise.  In fact he was confused by our excitement and delight.

A tiny child will not seek out the ‘right’ colours or consider shapes and ratios.  What they do, though, when you think about it, is pure magic.  They use their crayons to create the significant people and objects around them at that moment in time.  Their art freezes an aspect of the swirl of life and movement and emotion they find themselves in and places it on a flat sheet of paper.   How very different that is from our own self-conscious attempts to draw a representational image.  We are hung up on how realistic it looks, whether our lines are straight or whether the perspective is right.  Most of all, we are worried about how others will judge it.  That, I suspect, is the ‘problem’ Picasso was referring to.

“That’s a lovely picture.  Would you like to tell me about it?” we were taught to say when I was training to be a teacher.  It avoided the problems of, “What a beautiful picture of Mummy!  Oh, I see – it’s a green tractor with lots of mud, is it?  Right.”

Gradually we ‘help’ the child to fit their depictions to the conventions of art in our world.  In medieval times, drawing the mother or self far larger than other people would have been quite acceptable.  The convention was ‘important people are shown larger than less significant people’.  In our modern world the convention is photographic, so a person shown large is closer in physical space to the artist’s viewpoint than those standing further away.

 

Light, Effect, Light Effect, Magic LightAnd what of magic?  I would argue that this, too, is something a small child experiences and responds to in a very natural, comfortable way and trying to regain that instinctive connection to the magic inherent in their lives takes many years, once the child has been trained to put it aside.

We allow – even encourage – small children to fill their lives with magic.  We tell them of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and read them stories or show them videos of unicorns and dragons, magicians and heroes with fantastic powers.

At some point, though – perhaps around the same time we start insisting that humans should be drawn with bodies, not just a circular head with legs and arms – we begin to teach them what is ‘real’ and what is ‘pretend’.  What many of us don’t recognise is that this is just as arbitrary and incomplete a world view as the one we are asking them to leave behind.

Magic has a strong similarity to art.  When painting and drawing we encapsulate three dimensions in two.  With magic, we bring multiple dimensions into the three that form what current convention sees as our world.  (Again, I suspect our ancestors would have viewed it quite differently.)

In the children’s story book I’ve just published, I made sure enough magic was embedded within it to at least allow my 8-12 year old audience to keep wondering.  My metaphysician (yes, of course there had to be one!) observes three members of a family who find themselves confronted with a magical ‘coincidence’ as follows:

The lady in the blue dress looked from one to the other of them – the mother, who was slowly shaking her head and muttering, “Extraordinary…”, the boy who was now clutching his cheeks and laughing with amazement and pure delight, and the small child beside her who was still young enough to understand how real magic was and therefore not surprised at all.

I’d love to think that a few children reading The Glassmaker’s Children will recognise the magic my young hero Stellan rediscovers and notice how, by using attention and intention, both he and they can find way of surviving and thriving, despite the setbacks and challenges they encounter.

 

Small note:  I originally set up this blog (back in 2012) to publicise my first book.  Since then it’s be come more of a vehicle for my metaphysical ramblings, and I’d like it to stay that way.  For that reason, I’m placing most of my posts about The Glassmaker’s Children on my Open the Box blog.  This one, for example, explains the particular challenges my two young characters face as they battle to cope with a narcissistic parent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curing

I feel safest with stories.  They soothe me.  And the old stories are the best of all.

Today I want to share an old story with you – one that came to me and was most anxious to be shared.  Even the synchronicities that drew this story to me tell a tale in themselves.

I live in England, where currently entire households in which anyone has a fever or a cough must self-isolate for 14 days.  When my grandchild developed both these symptoms, her mother was faced with trying to work from home and care for both children.  I live far away, but decided to have a daily one hour video talk session with the children, giving my daughter a chance to get some uninterrupted work time.  I’m an ex-teacher, so we play maths games, draw, read, write and learn together.  It’s a delightful time for all of us.

I went to my still fairly extensive children’s book collection (who can throw books away?) looking for stories that would interest a 5 year old and her 8 year old brother.  Almost at once my eyes fell upon Hugh Lipton and Niamh Sharkey’s beautiful ‘Tales of Wisdom & Wonder’.  It’s a glorious collection of folk tales from around the world.

On day 1, we read the first story, a delightfully silly tale of a monkey who demonstrates that we should be very careful what we ask for.

Last night I sat down to read the second story – a Cree tale called The Curing Fox – in order to re-familiarise myself with it.

The first sentence told of a little girl who became desperately ill with a high fever, dreadful cough and breathing difficulties.

Ah.  My initial instinct was to put this one aside.  Who knows what fears and nightmares the children are having as Covid-19 spreads through the world?  Then I thought deeper.  Why, of all the stories in my bookcase, had I been led to this one, at this time?  That almost imperceptible tingling that tells me synchronicity is drawing me in had appeared.  I read the story.

Mr Lipton tells it wonderfully, but here is the briefest summary:

The child’s anxious parents summon an ancient wise woman, who listens very carefully to the rattling in the girl’s chest.  She tells the couple that she hears from it that a small, sickly female fox is undertaking an arduous journey through the snow outside.  When the child coughs, the wise woman hears the sound of the fox’s paws breaking through the crust of the frozen snow.  The father offers to track and bring back the fox.  As he journeys, the wise woman is able to track his progress, and that of the starving fox, by observing the little girl’s illness; when she senses that the hunter has stopped for the night and lit a fire, the girl has a high fever.  Finally he catches the fox, cradles her in his arms and takes her back to the village.  The mother is told to feed the fox.  It then curls up and sleeps.  The child, too, falls into a deep sleep.  Eventually, both fox and girl awake at the same moment.  The parents are asked to feed the fox again and then release it.  The little girl watches from the doorway as the fox runs off.  As it disappears, so does her illness.  The wise woman asks them whether the fox cured the girl or she cured the fox.  The mother replies that the woman cured them both.  The old lady just smiles.

I sat and pondered the wisdom of that story.  Half awake and half asleep, I thought my way back into that First Nation culture and bank of knowledge that showed such subtle yet deep and abiding connectedness.  I wondered at the idea that the symptoms of an illness could, with the right level of focus, lead the wise to find and alleviate suffering elsewhere.  I marvelled that, in taking steps to alleviate that suffering, the illness itself would vanish.  Further and further I meditated my way into the meaning this story held for me.  I thought of the symptoms – the fever, the choking cough, the inability to breathe.  Clearly the girl stands for us in our present crisis.

And the fox?  What does she represent?

The words that floated into my heart were, “Think of the World’s cough.”

 

It was from the Cree that this prophecy came:

 

 

I’ve got sunflowers on a cloudy day

Sunflower, Bud, Blossom, Go Up, BloomThey’ve not flowering quite yet, but the buds are forming.  I can see them still – just – if I reach up on tiptoe.  These are strong, sturdy plants, growing by inches every day, almost as I watch them, and they make me feel so PROUD.

Why?

Because the person who gave me the seeds, back on my birthday in the early spring, is one of the people I’ve watched and nurtured since childhood.  There are quite a few of these brilliant, shining young people – my own kids and grandchildren as well as pupils and youngsters I’ve mentored or just been there to listen to, on the right day.

Oh yes, they’ve caused me plenty of headaches along the way.  Sometimes I’ve had to watch patiently (and often very impatiently) as they ventured off into dangerous friendships or relationships, harmful habits and addictions or endured heartbreaking, life-changing challenges.  I’ve tried to get the balance right – deciding when to intervene and when to allow them to make their own choices, when to offer suggestions and guidance and when to keep my mouth firmly shut.  Sometimes I got it wrong; sometimes I got it right.  Sometimes I helped; sometimes I was a confounded nuisance.  What I’m most proud of, though, is that I hung in there, even when the going was really tough.  True, I’d sometimes retire to a safe distance while the fireworks exploded, but I always made it clear to them that I’d be there if they needed someone to talk to, someone to scream at, someone with a shoulder to cry on and that nothing they told me would shock me enough to make me pull away.

I hope my firstborn won’t mind me sharing this.  There were times I despaired of ever reaching her.  She was sharp-tongued, harsh and so materialistic that I often wondered how we could share a blood tie.

I once spoke to a very gifted psychic who said, “Oh, your daughter!  That bond between you!  That closeness and connection is so wonderful.”

I stared in amazement.  “Sorry, no.  I wish it were true, but that’s not the way it is.  I really struggle to connect with her on any level.”

The psychic pondered for a moment.  “No,” she said.  “It’s true.  Maybe further down the time line, but I promise you it will come.  There will be a time when you are so close.  She shares your values.  You have rubbed off on her and you will be so proud to be her mother.”

Many years later, when she became a mother herself, she started to change.  She retrained as a relaxation and massage therapist.  She was a wonderful parent.  Still, though, I could see the ruthless, hard, brittle personality traits and at some level I sensed that something had to give.  There was a storm brewing.

When it finally broke, my daughter’s life splintered and cracked beyond all recognition.  Horrified, I rushed to help.  I was fearful, and not just for her.  I worried that she would vent all her fury and spite on me and I wondered whether I was strong enough to take it, because I loved her so deeply.  She didn’t, though.  Slowly and gently we worked together to rebuild her life, to protect and nurture her children and to move her into a new and unknown future.  The spite and anger dissipated.  I watched in wonder as she worked so courageously through the pain and anguish and was transformed in the process.

Materially, now, she’s far worse off.  She has a very modest home and has to work ridiculously hard to keep even that roof over her children’s heads.  Spiritually and emotionally, though, her growth has been miraculous.  I watch in awe as she reaches out to help others and to improve their lives.

image 0As well as working as a freelance reviewer and a therapist, she has opened her own online shop, selling beautiful resources to promote mindfulness, calm and happiness for children and teens.  I am incredibly proud, so I make no excuse for promoting her new project here.

I’m proud of all of them, these young people whose lives I’ve touched and I’m so happy when they come back to me and show me how their lives have changed and the progress they’ve made.

I’m looking forward to the days when my sunflowers bloom and pour so much beauty and light into my life and I’m grateful to the lovely young person who put them into my life.

 

 

 

Musing in Miniature

This isn’t a covert way of publicising my tiny cottage industry.  You’d need to head over to my other blog for that.  It’s just that most of my days at the moment are spent transforming, upcycling and creating tiny objects of various kinds from what most people would regard as junk, and it gives me an absurd amount of joy and satisfaction.

reject purchaseBack in the summer, I picked up this little 12th scale (that’s one inch to one foot) figure from a reject box at a miniatures fair.

Not difficult to see why he was a reject.  He wasn’t, at first sight, the most promising of specimens, with his vacant stare, twisted legs and stringy hair, but I knew his day would come!

In some strange way, discovering the hidden potential in what others consider rejects is what has always given me the greatest pleasure.  I remember the scruffy, fidgety boy I once taught who auditioned for a part in our school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.  I remember my pure delight as the clearest, most beautiful voice drifted across the room.  The head teacher and I glanced at each other and smiled – Joseph!  True, he took up many, many hours of rehearsals – far more than one of the bright young hopefuls who had expected the part would have done.  True, I had to tape the complicated words of Close Every Door to Me to the floor of his prison cell, because he’d never have learnt them, but it worked perfectly and the pleasure of watching that kid revel in his hour or two of fame has stayed with me forever.

It was the same with the shy, quiet, dumpy little girl who produced a beautiful piece of writing.  Before I handed back the class’s work, I read out this one piece and they were all staring round the room, wondering who had written it, mouthing, ‘You?’ to the high fliers and looking puzzled.  That simple act, and then handing the work back to the young author with the words, ‘Superb work – well done’, was enough to raise that child’s self-esteem and status within the class to a ridiculous degree.

upcycled doll by Jan StoneSadly, my little porcelain doll had no esteem for me to raise, but when I decided I wanted to make a replica of one of my idols – Nikola Tesla – he was the one I chose.  I looked beyond his defects to the long face, the high cheekbones, the firm chin and the centre-parted hair.  The face was removed as easily as a spot of nail varnish and painted anew, the hair was cut, styled and recoloured.  A tiny shirt, trousers and jacket were cut out and hand stitched.  The dodgy leg was re-wired and, once dressed, Mr Tesla looked as proud as a small piece of porcelain, foam and wire could hope to.

room box by Jan StoneAnd now, when I look at him sitting calmly in his experimental station, gazing at the coils and equipment I’ve been patiently wrapping in copper wire all week, I feel proud too!

This is what we all do – take something rough and unfinished and inject enough energy into it to allow it to transform it into something so much better.

 

Old Friends – sat on a park bench like bookends

J and I met in our teens.  We enrolled as student teachers together, we lived just across the corridor in hall, we learned the realities of teaching kids in tough London schools, we partied, we got drunk and we hitchhiked around the country at dead of night.  One of us owned the Bookends album.  We’d listen to this track and feel uncomfortable at the lyrics – How terribly strange to be seventy… 

We passed our exams and got our first teaching posts.  We shared a flat for a while, then I left to get married and move somewhere rural.  She was my bridesmaid.  I had children; she didn’t.  We met up a few times, then just exchanged Christmas and birthday cards and hastily scribbled once-a-year notes about how that year had been.  Hers would tell of exotic holidays on far-flung islands; mine would tell of family budget ones in Devon.

This year, as I wrote her birthday card, I added a note to say I was back in the East for a while.  We were both retired now, and living not too far apart, after all, so might we meet up?

What a crazy idea.  We’d lived a lifetime apart, doing different things.  College was a distant memory.  Would we even recognise each other now?

Yesterday, we met.

Yes, we did recognise each other.  It took a moment to work our way past the portly bodies, the white hair, the sensible shoes and wrinkles, to spot the familiar old friend who shone from behind all that.  Thirty years, we worked out, since we’d last met.  The thirty years of experiences, pains and joys we had gained from life flowed between us.

Not quite seventy, but only a very few years off.  So were we the old people Paul Simon had imagined in his lyrics?  Perhaps – to any twenty-somethings passing by, that was how we’d look.  Those lyrics, though, are a young person’s idea of old age.

We did share a park bench for a while, but not quietly.  We talked of what we’d done, children we’d taught, how we railed against the education system with its focus on exams and fact-learning, fought for the rights of the kids and parents, struggled to open the young minds and encourage free-thinking and creativity.  We spoke of how we’d shared our ideas and experience, mentored young teachers.  We spoke sadly of how the government-controlled education system had finally driven us out, as the job we’d loved and devoted our lives to was subsumed by paper-pushing and statistics.  We’d both taken early retirement and headed off to educate in different, freer ways.  And now, we decided, was a time for pride and reflection, a time for relaxation without clock-watching, but not – oh so definitely not – a time to stop learning and wondering, thinking and discovering.

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.