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  🙂

 

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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?

 

 

The Cornflour Test

Hand, Hands, Smudging, Create, ChildrenIt used to be one of my favourite science lessons – cheap, easy and fun: give the kids a bowl, some cornflour (I think Americans call it cornstarch) and a jug of water.  Tell them to try mixing the cornflour and water slowly and they’d get a nice, smooth liquid. Tell them to hit the mixture with the spoon or try beating it vigorously and it would splatter them with goo and/or become a slimy solid.  ‘A non-Newtonian liquid’, I’d tell them; ‘a thixotropic substance’   from the Greek thixis, “the act of handling” and trope, “change”.

So why am I reminiscing about my teaching days?  Because it’s just occurred to me (with a little help from my Guides) that our lives are – like the cornflour goo – thixotropic.  The way we handle them changes the way they work in exactly the manner described above.

 

20170222_150446As regular readers will know, last year I started up a very small cottage industry with one of my sons, making steampunk-style miniature figures, gadgets, dolls’ house rooms and jewellery.  He set up an online store.  I started a blog to link to it.  It all looked very promising and there has been plenty of interest.  Sales, though, have been almost non-existent.  The stock was piling up and we were getting disheartened.  20170119_085337So, encouraged by my other son and daughter, I’ve spent the last few weeks madly learning new tricks (difficult for an old dog) – attempting to master Instagram, creating a new business page on Facebook, approaching museums, shops, magazines… and generally running myself into a state of anxiety and frustration.

Yesterday I stopped.

I turned off the social media and tuned in to my Guides.  “What am I doing wrong?” I asked.  “I’m trying to create my own reality.  I can’t push any harder.  Whatever I do, it’s making me feel bad and it’s not having any appreciable results.”

I felt the smile they sent me.  Into my mind they placed the memory of that science lesson.

“I’ve been bashing the goo, haven’t I?” I exclaimed, as realisation flooded in.  “That’s why it has blocked up.  I need to slow down, to go with the flow, to drift lightly and follow all the synchronicities that come along.  As simple as that.”

‘As simple as that,’ my Guides agreed.

So maybe old dogs can learn new tricks after all.  I may never master the intricacies of Instagram, but in future I will apply the Cornflour Test to the way I move towards my intended goals.

Commercial Break

Wordpress, Blog, Blogger, BloggingMy blog empire is growing…

I have, for several years now, used this site – Looking at Life – to do exactly that.  I’ve told anecdotes from my own life, and those of others close to me; I’ve explored metaphysical themes in all manner of directions; I’ve ranted about education and its shortcomings in our society; I’ve shared the ups and downs of my creative endeavours, whether renovating the cottage or making models.

During those years, I’ve been fortunate enough to attract an ever-growing range of followers.  Thank you.  It’s great to have you along and I’ve enjoyed exploring your sites as much as reading your comments on mine.  Several of you I now count among my friends, despite not having met you in person.  I’m aware, though, that the range of subjects covered here won’t be to everyone’s taste.  For that reason, my blogging has split off in three directions.

Fractal, Spiral, Geometry, PerceptionLooking at Life: I will attempt (no promises, mind!) to keep this blog site for my explorations of all that LIFE involves – and by ‘life’ I mean every aspect of existence as a conscious being, whether physically present on Planet Earth, travelling through dreams or ‘alive’ in other realities.  I will also continue, from time to time, to muse upon the wonders of A-Thought (autistic thinking), remote viewing and other psychic abilities on this blog.  This will remain my ‘main’ site because this is where my heart and soul are based.

 

 

20161111_162239Steampunk – Shrunk!:   https://steampunk-shrunk.com/ This is my latest venture.  Please head over there if you’d like to follow the back-stories of the tiny, dolls’ house sized characters I’m fabricating for the shop my son is running online.  Each figure will have his or her own post and a link to their pages at the shop.  There will also be articles about the process of making the models and anything else related to that aspect of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

Book, Exposition, Composition, PolandOpen the box:   http://opentheboxweb.wordpress.com   This is my education blog.  I’ve given it very little attention recently, having put all my educational energy into planning lessons for my own pupils, but once full health is restored and energy levels repleted, I’ll carry on adding free resources to that site.

 

I look forward to virtually meeting you at one or more of my blog sites in the future.

Communication – another way?

Face, Soul, Head, Smoke, Light, SadI’m aware that I’ve gained a few new followers recently – thank you so much and welcome to my ramblings and wonderings – so I thought it might be a good time to briefly explain the William connection before launching into another post about him and autistic spectrum perception.

William is a young man in his mid twenties, whom I met almost 20 years ago.  He began as a pupil in a class I was teaching – a class for kids with speech and language difficulties.  A set of circumstances which might be considered very strange, if you didn’t believe in pre-planned soul contracts, caused our paths to cross and re-cross in many ways, so that even now we are the best of friends.  Despite the fact that he is only able to communicate with me through text and email at present, I still have longer and deeper communications with him than with anyone else I know.

School, Teacher, The PupilSo yes, to begin with I believed my role was to teach William to communicate.  He had oral dyspraxia, which meant he had a very limited range of speech sounds.  Additionally he was on the autistic spectrum, which meant that social communication – reading body language, facial expressions, tone of voice etc. was challenging for him.  He made excellent progress, no denying that.  However at the same time, he and a couple of his classmates began teaching me other ways of communicating – ways I’d never dreamed of.

Alan could ‘beam’ states of mind into my head.  I didn’t have to be facing him, or even thinking about him, to find that I was aware that he was feeling angry, frustrated, impatient or in need of help.  Martin’s speciality was sending words to me.  I could ‘hear’ what he was saying, although no words had been spoken aloud, sometimes from across the building.  Once I spotted him and made eye contact, he’d give the briefest of nods, meaning, “Good, you got it.”

William was on another level entirely.  “I think,” he told me, rather deferentially, one morning when he was about eight, “I should tell you that I’m telepathic.”
He waited, a slight smile playing around his lips, for the full impact to sink in.
“You mean you can read my mind?” I asked, suddenly feeling horribly exposed.
He nodded, allowing the smile to break loose.

Of course the children used this form of communication amongst themselves all the time.  I’d often wondered how a bunch of kids with only the most rudimentary verbal language abilities were able to engage in imaginative games, with each of them understanding their role perfectly.  Once William twigged that I was sometimes able to pick up snippets of their telepathic communication, he took it upon himself to tutor me in these skills, although never overtly.

It’s subtle, this hidden communication – infinitely so.  By comparison, spoken language is crass and imperfect.  Our labels and descriptions, no matter how extensive our vocabulary, are often open to misinterpretation or simply inadequate to convey our true intent.

Having spent a lifetime closely observing children of all ages, and in particular watching my own three and my two grandchildren develop language, I firmly believe that all humans begin life with the subtle, non-verbal language.
“Oh, she understands so much of what we say,” parents will tell you as they cradle an infant in their arms.
Maybe. I suspect the tiny person is understanding far more of what the parent thinks. I also believe she is using this telepathic (for want of a better word) skill to communicate her needs to the mother. Most would not put this at more than a ‘close bond’ between mother and child.  What, though, if it’s something far greater?

Learning, Telephone, To Call, AlarmOnce they had learned to speak clearly and to follow the conventions of conversation, my little students more-or-less ceased using their telepathy.  Our society places great value on effective spoken and written language.  The children – Will included – worked diligently to improve these.  I was busily congratulating myself on our success and only dimly aware of what we had lost in the process.

As I’ve said, though, this was a soul contract, and although the children  went their different ways and I moved back into mainstream teaching, William and I still had far more to teach one another.

We stayed in touch.  Sometimes we’d have long, rambling, fascinating conversations that would last for hours, and I’d be amazed at how brilliantly he’d picked up the ability to speak.  At other times, though, he’d withdraw for days, weeks or even months at a time.  Conventional language caused too much stress and the best I could hope for was a single word text to let me know he was still alive or a ‘beamed’ impression of his state of mind.  Not great, usually.

Now it’s come full circle.  Yesterday, William sent me a draft article for inclusion in his second book.  It’s a stunner.

He begins by explaining how it is for people on the autistic spectrum to attempt to learn social communication.  Ruefully, he says:

Having to learn such skills is generally very difficult and time consuming. An analogy may be learning a second language which for the vast majority, autistic or not, is again very difficult and time consuming. And even then, few who learn a second language can match the fluency and competency of a native speaker whose language skills developed naturally as part of growing up.

He bemoans the fact that, despite this, the non-autistic population expect perfection from those challenged in this way.

Later, he begins to consider the reason computer-based language is easier for ASP people to manage:

Man, Notebook, Continents, Binary, CodeMany autistic people demonstrate a good level of competency with computers – likely to be linked to their operation depending on clearly defined protocols and mathematics, things which are very different to how social communication and interaction works.  Most communication between people which occurs via computers is in a written format, offering a greater similarity with the clearly defined operating protocols of a computer, since written communication often takes a more formal and literal interpretation of language than face to face communication.  This also removes the need to attempt to understand body language and tone of voice – things often problematic for those with autism.

Only in the final paragraph does he allow his thoughts to wander into that other type of communication – the early ‘telepathy’ and our more recent forays into ‘remote viewing’.  William isn’t certain that either of these terms fully encompass or describe what is actually taking place.

[ASP people] have a naturally different method of accomplishing [communication].  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 it properly.  I suspect at some point this will be achieved and hopefully will allow for autism to be harnessed to it’s full potential and remedy the blindness of so many.

I hope so, William.

 

We are still compiling The Words of William Volume Two.  Volume One is available via Amazon as a paperback in the UK, Europe and North America and as a Kindle edition worldwide.

 

 

Positive steps

darkmarked: ”Down with this sort of thing!” ”Careful now!” Father Ted This feels much better!

I’ve been moaning on about the state of things in education for weeks now and doing my own Father Ted-type protest.  (You’d have to have seen the sitcom to know what I’m talking about, but some will know and love it as I do…)

That kind of negativity didn’t sit well with me, though.  It got even worse when the TES published a short article I’d written some weeks ago and still more people started wringing their hands and demanding to know what could be done to stem the flow of cramming-junk-education-into-small-kids-for-political-purposes.  That, of course, is the important question.

So now I’ve stopped protesting and done something positive instead.

Taking my WordPressing skills to their limits, I’ve create a new blog to provide free – and freeing – resources to stressed teachers, disillusioned and worried parents and, of course, home educators.

I only started it last night and already have my first follower!

If you’re interested in ‘this sort of thing’, do head over and take a look.  It’s very small and modest so far, but I’m hoping to grow something lovely, as well as keeping the metafizzing going over on this site, of course!

Here’s the link.

 

 

Down with Education: Bring Back Educetion

No, it isn’t a typo.  There’s a subtle but world-changing difference, you see, in the vowel.

Education comes from the Latin educare – to bring up or train.

Educetion (which I’ve just invented, of course) is derived from the Latin educere – to lead out, to draw from.

See the difference?  In the first, we have malleable individuals who can be trained in whatever way those in authority prefer.  In the second we have innately wise people who, with a sufficiently nurturing environment, can develop and hone their own skills, perhaps in entirely new ways.

Let me give an example of educetion from my own childhood.

Long, long ago, I sat in in a grammar school classroom ready for the first art class of the year with Mr Sutcliffe.  Our group was studying art as a ‘relaxation subject’, timetabled in as a break from the many hours working towards academic A-levels.

Bob Dylan, Musician, Joan Baez, Singer, 1960S, ComposerMy classmates and I had, for the past couple of months, been vicariously enjoying the Summer of Love, via our transistor radios and magazines.  The times, as Dylan had foretold a few years before, were a-changin’.  We were sixth formers now.  We felt ourselves to be groovy and trendy and hip – yet Mr Sutcliffe was about to do something so shocking, so daring, so different, that we would walk out of that room as changed people.

No paints.  No pencils or pastels even.  Just Mr S at the front of the class, holding up a magazine advert for washing powder.

“Persil Washes Whiter!” he boomed.
We stared in confused silence.
“Than WHAT?” he demanded.
He seemed to require a response. We glanced at one another.
“Than – other brands, sir?” one boy suggested, nervously.
“Does it say that?” Sutcliffe snapped back. “Is there proof?”
“No,” we mumbled.
“No,” he agreed, his voice returning to its usual friendly, comfortable tone.
“No.” He sighed sadly. “And yet – just because of things like THIS,” (shaking the magazine page accusingly) “millions of people spend their money on this product rather than another.”

We sat, mesmerised, while Mr Sutcliffe went on to demonstrate, clearly and convincingly, how we – the unsuspecting public – were constantly duped by advertisers, politicians, the media and anyone else with a vested interest in manipulating our minds.  He showed us how colour, design and typefaces created a desired attitude.  He showed us how empty words and clever phrases would place ideas in our minds.  He entreated us to stop and think and avoid being led blindly into behaving as They wanted us to.

“You are wise, intelligent young people,” he said, his voice almost cracking with emotion.  “You have the wit and the ability to make your own choices, to decide whether or not you believe what you are being told.  Be critical.  Be wary.  Be sceptical.  No one has the right – or the ability – to tell YOU what to think!”

Mr Sutcliffe had put his job on the line – even back in those liberal, relatively unmonitored times.  He had not given us an art lesson.  He’d given us educetion.  He’d shown us that we were not empty vessels to be filled with facts and instructions, but autonomous people with the ability to make our own choices.  Such behaviour was unheard of in those days.  We were being trained to be obedient little consumers; that was how capitalism worked.  We were being trained to believe those in authority; that was how politics worked.

Today, of course, things are very different.  Advertising is (somewhat) regulated.  Conspiracy theories and debunking explode from the internet in every direction.  Students in schools are taught critical thinking skills and encouraged to form their own opinions… aren’t they?

Call me sceptical and cynical and so forth if you like, but I was taught by Mr Sutcliffe.  I’ve learned to smell a rat.

Exam, College Students, Library, ReadingThe tide is turning.  Times are a-changin’ again.  Our leaders – fearful that their authority, and even their purpose, are being eroded – are fighting back.  They are being very clever about it, too.

The British education system is being overwhelmed by Junk Learning.  It is imposed by the government.  It isn’t in the National Curriculum – that would be too obvious.  It’s in the tests they are imposing on our children.  If schools want to survive, they need good test scores.  To get good test scores, the teachers must teach what will be tested.  It’s no accident that there has been a sudden leap in the amount of difficult, obscure and downright pointless material primary school children – as young as six – are required to learn and regurgitate on cue.

A recent study found – unsurprisingly – that a group of university academics, even when they were allowed to confer, were unable to complete the tests being given to 10 and 11-year-olds this year.  Needless to say, the stress caused to teachers, parents and children is utterly unacceptable.  Thousands of English parents are planning to ‘strike’ and keep their 6 and 7-year-olds out of school next Tuesday to show their displeasure at the test system.

Man, Suit, Leave, Marker, Text, FontSo why is it there?  Well, I venture to suggest, there are a finite number of hours in the school day.  The more of those hours that are devoted to the rote learning of pointless grammar and complex arithmetic, the less are available for educetion.  Children who are not given the chance to develop their innate talents and creativity, not encouraged to consider alternative viewpoints, not allowed to have any choice in what they study or how they study it will grow up believing themselves to be successes or failures, based on their ability (at the age of eleven) to identify a prepositional phrase or a modal verb or to multiply a fraction by another fraction.

How much easier will it be to manipulate such citizens, broken by a harsh, unreasonable and destructive system, than those who have been empowered to think and reason for themselves?

Guidance…

Well that was unexpected.

A request from a potential new Facebook friend.  The name’s distantly familiar.  So is the face, when I take a look at his profile, and those dim bells clanging at the very back of my mind are telling me he’s somehow connected to the school I worked at, before everything changed.  His profile says he’s from my old town.  Slightly bemused and curious, I press the Accept button.

An hour later, the young man messages me.  He’d been a student teacher at the school for a few weeks, it emerges, while I was working there.  We’d chatted several times in the staff room.  I feel slightly less embarrassed now that my recall was somewhat dim.  In the intervening years, he’s moved around the country, married, had children and is now back there and doing my old job – teaching Year 6 at the same Essex school.  Somewhat synchronous…

He tells me about life there these days.  Sounds ghastly – endless new initiatives imposed by clueless, reactionary politicians, ‘special measures’ imposed on the staff, ‘academy status’ whatever that is – more and more control from above, obviously – and packs of disaffected kids prowling the building and contemplating escape.  I suddenly feel very safe and cosseted by my present easy lifestyle.  Also mildly guilty for getting out when I did.

Then he totally amazes me.
“I read your book,” he says.

Available in paperback and Kindle editions

Really?  I can’t imagine anyone in Essex reading my book.  He tells me it inspired him and that he now has a totally new attitude towards education and is considering getting out of the crumbling system and educating in other ways.  He’s been on a Forest Schools course.  He’s thinking about working for a local wildlife trust and using that as a base for educating.

Good grief!  What did I write in that book?  It’s been a long while since I read it, so I take it off the shelf and have another look.

It most certainly isn’t about education, or how to educate.  It does have a rather teacherly style, though.  Re-reading it makes me wince slightly.  Did I really explain a multi-dimensional universe by instructing the reader on how to make a paper model?  It reads like the script of a 1980s episode of Blue Peter, for those who know what that is.  And yet it kind of works…

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

What I was trying to do, when I put it together, was to write a book about the meaning and purpose of Life, the Universe and Everything which avoided all the wafty new-age psychobabble, mystical ramblings and cliches, (How DO you insert an acute accent on WordPress??) that were so prevalent when it was published in 2012.

The video game analogy is hopelessly overworked; the style (in an attempt to draw in a ‘youth’ audience) veers much closer to patronising than I’d now wish, yet it still has a sort of raw charm and honesty, I suppose, and a few ideas and insights which I haven’t seen expressed anywhere else.  Not a complete waste of time, then.

So how the young man discovered it and chose to read it, I’ll probably never know, but I’m all about encouraging everyone, myself included, to move out of the comfort zone and into newer and greater experience.  That appears to be – so early indications are suggesting – what 2016 is all about.

And what is the message for me?  There definitely is one; it says so in the book:

These synchronicities act like a sort of mental sticking plaster and are strong enough to hold the two of you together; to keep you talking and interacting until you both get the information or experience that you need…

Is this episode telling me to stop faffing about and to get on with writing the next book… and making it better?

Probably.

 

A Fairytale Finale

English: Ballet shool Deutsch: Tanzklasse

A true story, this – and if not stranger than fiction, it at least has more or less all the features of a fairytale.

Those of you with long memories, who have been following my blog for quite a while, may remember the Tale of Tuesday.  Tuesday (her real name, for once, as I’m sure someday she’ll be famous) was a young girl I taught here in Somerset until a year or so back.  My job was to teach her maths and English.  It wasn’t always easy, as sitting at a table writing was the hardest thing in the world for her.
“I need to MOVE!” she’d say, so there would be several breaks in a lesson when she was allowed to waft around the study, arms and feet stretching and waving wildly, before settling for a bit more learning.

All she wanted to do – and I truly mean ALL – was to dance.

Her ballet teacher told her parents  how talented she was.  She advised them to try for a place at a ballet school.  So it was that, in the spring of last year, Tuesday was accepted at one of London’s most prestigious (and expensive) ballet schools.  Now she was not from some wealthy, upper-middle class family.  The cost of moving to London, paying rent there and covering her fees would have been prohibitive at the best of times but this, it turned out, was the worst of times.

No sooner had Tuesday got her place, than her father was diagnosed with cancer.  He is one of the most focused people I’ve ever met, and thinks the world of his daughter.  He’d been quite prepared to work all hours to fund her place, but his health deteriorated very fast and things became incredibly difficult.

So do you believe in magic?  Friends rallied round, a crowd-funding appeal was set up and somehow – none of us are quite sure how it happened – the rent, the fees and the cost of all the extras a young dancer needs were paid month by month.  I know that some of my blog followers were kind enough to contribute to her fund, so heartfelt thanks to them.

Those were hard and difficult days.  Her mother was worried sick each day.  Her dad was battling his illness and still trying to work when he could.  Tuesday struggled to fit in with a class of children from very different backgrounds to herself.  When I met up with them in London last Christmas things looked bleak.  None of us knew what would happen.

Bridge, Wood, Forest, Woods, Tree, TreesTime for a sprinkling of fairy dust now, though.

The ballet school discovered the desperate situation the family were in.  They also discovered that Tuesday was an outstanding dancer – one they wanted to hold on to.  They offered her a bursary, so that she could keep attending for free.  Her dad was moved to one of London’s best hospitals specialising in cancer, so that he had access to pioneering treatment and expert care.  He’s still with us.  Tuesday began to earn the respect of her classmates and to fit in far better.  By the summer, things were looking up.

Every Christmas, the school puts on a performance of The Nutcracker at a small London theatre.  When I discovered that Tuesday had been chosen to dance Clara – the leading role, I knew I had to go and watch.

As in all fairy tales, though, there are twists and turns in the plot right up to the end.  The theatre was closed at very short notice and it seemed the show would have to be cancelled.  I did tell you it was a prestigious school, didn’t I?  There were friends in high places and somehow or other they were given the run of one of the most famous theatres in London’s West End for a day.

Statue of Anna Pavlova on the dome of the Vict...

Thus it was that I found myself sitting in the royal circle, watching the most magical production, while the little girl who had twirled and glided around my study just a year or so before was giving an immaculate performance and capturing the hearts of everyone in the audience.

The ballet school had thoughtfully sent a car to pick her father up, so that he would be able to watch.  During the interval Darcey Bussell – one of the UK’s most celebrated ballerinas – introduced herself to him and told him how brilliant Tuesday’s performance was.

I just could not have been happier and prouder as I watched Tuesday take her curtain call and accept a bouquet of flowers with poise and grace that belied her tender age.

On the tube going home, I overheard a couple discussing the show.
“That little girl who danced the lead,” said the man, “What a future she has ahead of her!”
“She was splendid,” agreed his partner.

She was.

 

 

 

 

Thinner than blood?

Blood, they say, is thicker than water.  Maybe so.  Sometimes, though, the thinner, more watery relationships can show a surprising strength and tenacity.  Ours has.

Wondering what might have happened if… is a fairly pointless occupation, but I do sometimes find myself considering how my life and William’s would have been, had he not, at the tender age of six, joined the class I was teaching and had his mother not, almost immediately after that, developed breast cancer and slowly and sadly passed over just a few years later.

Regardless of what might have been, those things all happened.  I believe that’s the way all three of us – at soul level – planned it.

I was destined to devote many years of my working life to helping children with speech and language difficulties and autistic spectrum perception communicate with the rest of us, and many more years helping this one boy in particular.

Scrutinizing facial expressions

William was a child with a formidable intellect, an enhanced sensitivity which made ‘normal’ sounds, tastes or smells virtually unbearable, a gift for strategy bordering on brilliance (he was the school chess champion at 7, thrashing talented 11-year-old opponents – and me! – with consummate ease), marked telepathic skills, a smile that would melt the hardest heart and hardly any comprehensible spoken language.  While he would spend endless hours contemplating life, the universe and everything, watching Star Trek and devising codes and cyphers, he was totally baffled by everyday life and found other children particularly puzzling.  He couldn’t read facial expressions or tones of voice.  He could follow only the simplest of verbal instructions and idioms or sarcasm threw him into a meltdown.

I was fascinated – totally hooked – by this intriguing little kid, long before the tragedies in his life threw us together.

I did my best.  I befriended and supported his mum, did what I could to help the family – taking the children out to give the parents some time together or sitting with the mum so that Dad and the boys could have some afternoons doing normal family stuff together.  My head teacher came and read stories to the class once a week, so that I could give William some individual time to draw pictures, talk through his fears, his nightmares, his frustrations and fury.  A strong bond started to form between us.  Inasmuch as he could trust anyone in those days when his world was falling apart, he trusted me.

Later I’d visit his mum at the hospice.  We talked through what was to come and she begged me to stay in touch with him and keep caring and helping him after she’d gone and after he’d left my class.  I promised.

Teen, Teenager, Boy, Teens, MaleCaring was never a problem.  Helping often was.  There were times in the years that followed when we got along amazingly well together.  We shared many interests – chess, train journeys, a fascination with cosmology, time travel, past lives and the like.  There were times when he retreated totally and refused to speak to me.  There were times when he wanted to talk on the phone for hours every night.  There were dodgy mates and dangerous situations.  Adolescence is something of a tightrope for even the most well-adjusted boy.  Add in difficulties reading social situations and hidden motives, family rifts (he didn’t get along well with his new step-mother), childhood trauma and residual speech difficulties and you have a drug-pusher’s dream client, a bully’s perfect victim and someone guaranteed to swell the coffers of the local off-licence.

Falkensteiner Cave, Cave, Caves PortalI carried on doing my best.  I made it plain that I’d be there, whatever happened, and somehow – even when I’d more or less given up all hope – he’d eventually drift back into my life, start to share his amazing and original ideas with me again, and I would keep them safe.  There would be strange predictions about the future, diagrams of the cosmos, theories about anything from life after death to interdimensional portals.  I kept them in old journals, on scraps of paper and in all manner of files on my hard drive.  It felt important.

What happened to William, and all those words, will follow.

To be continued.