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.

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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?

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.

 

 

 

 

Ali on Fire

It was a shopping street, pedestrianised, but only because the steep, cobbled hill was never built for vehicles.  Fairly crowded.  I have no back-story for why I was there, but I was.

The young man passed close by me – his clothes were poor quality.  A white top with a grey and black hoodie over it.  He pulled the hood up as he walked by and something drew my attention to him.  I saw that he had a lighter in his hand.  Suddenly I realised what he was about to do.

He looked, rather shyly, around him and muttered, “Sorry,” as he put the flame to his clothing.

An instinct for self preservation made me leap back, but the street was narrow, with shops on either side.

“It won’t take long,” he was saying, in the same, sad apologetic tone.  “The pain will be over quick.”  He rolled himself into a ball and began rolling down the hill.

The flames licked half-heartedly at his clothes.  As he rolled, they went out.  Suddenly he was back at the top, close to me again.

“Not enough petrol,” he said miserably and began looking around as if searching for a source of more.

In an instant I was in front of him.  It struck me as slightly odd that I couldn’t smell any petrol.  “Think of your mother!”  I was screaming at him.

He sneered nastily, but looked at me.

I held his gaze and repeated it.  This time it got through.  He hung his head and looked so wretched and miserable that I risked putting my hand on his shoulder.  He didn’t resist.

“Come on, let’s sort you out,” I said, and led him back to where I worked.  It was an educational establishment.

“Hungry?” I asked, as he slumped into a chair.

He looked up, hope burning in his eyes.  The boy was ravenous.  I hunted about for pieces of food.  My teaching assistant, a lovely motherly soul I’d worked with for many years, found some cake and handed it to him.

“She’s a good guy,” he remarked to me, as he shovelled food into his mouth.  A couple of the students had appeared by now – lads around his age..  No one asked any questions.  They sized up the situation and began hunting in lockers and cupboards, finding more snacks he could eat.

He started talking to me then.  Told me his name was Ali.  Told me about his siblings and his father – a man he loved and respected; a man who would be heartbroken to know his son died a martyr to his fundamentalist cause.

He told me he belonged to a group.  They had a leader.
“We got to do what he says,” Ali explained, with a slight helpless shrug. “It’s like this -.”
And now I was seeing him in a separate location, over to the right and slightly above where I and the others were still gathered around the table.

Hold on…

Ali was over there with a rather ramshackle group of young guys who looked similar to him, being drilled by a thin man with dark eyes who barked commands and instructions at them.  They had to repeat what he said as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  No time for them to think – to process his words.  His words became their words.  Simple and effective.  Ali and the others were being indoctrinated.  Ali was being chosen.  I could feel his pride and his despair and his regret all mingled together.

So how come I’m able to see all this?  Just now Ali was sitting eating at my table.  His location has changed, like in a film… or… a dream.

I was still in the school, or college, or whatever it was.  The students who’d been helping find food for Ali were watching his scene as well.  They’d realised what was going on and were swearing at him, calling him ugly names.  I was remonstrating with them – imploring them to listen and understand his dilemma.

At the same time it’s dawning on me that this is a dream.  

Ali is a character in my dream.  

Or maybe I’m a character in his?  This feels more likely.

Now I know it’s a dream, it unravels.  But not before – telepathically now – Ali tells me he chose me to help him decide.  I wake up, knowing I’ve helped him.

 

Ever done that?  Gone to bed with a massive problem, slept on it and woken, knowing what you must do?  Would it be too far-fetched to believe that Ali, whoever he is, did just that, somewhere?  Might he, at some level beyond waking consciousness, have invited me into his dream to help him work through the choices?  If so, I’m honoured to have been chosen and I wish him well.

A-Thought

atlantic city at night

 

There are many ways of looking at this game of Life we’re playing.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to narrow them down to three.

 

The first way is what it’s proponents refer to as common sense.  In their world view there is cause and effect; time travels neatly from past to present and from there, they hope, into a yet-to-be-determined future.  The world can be classified neatly into living and non-living things, liquids, solids and gases.  Things move about in the space we see before us and as long as they don’t try to exceed the speed of light, all goes along just fine.  Humans interact with this cosy,  fairly predictable world via their senses until the day they die and stop being here.

 

Now let’s move to a very different, but still widely accepted view of life – the one where ‘quantum weirdness’ holds sway.  No wonder it bothered Einstein so deeply.  It’s all rather unsettling.

 

English: Diagram of Schrodinger's cat theory. ...

 

In the quantum world, we have notions such as entanglement – the idea that two objects can forge a link that transcends space, so that the behaviour of one affects the other no matter how far apart they might be.  Then there’s the peculiar ways in which particles can move in and out of existence.  Even the most diligent scientists seem unable to locate them in both time and space at once.  It’s almost as if they don’t truly belong in the common-sense world…

 

Before leaving our visit to this counter-intuitive universe, it may be worth mentioning the role of the observer – that’s you, me or the person in the lab coat who watches what is going on.  Everything, as I understand the theory, is possible.  There is a duality in which an electron is pure potential – it can be wave, particle, both or neither until it is observed or measured.  Then, the scientists tell us, the wave function collapses  – which means that the little subject of observation becomes one definite and observable object.

 

That gloriously anarchic world of pure potential is where we find the third way of viewing life, the universe and everything – the amazing world of A-Thought.

 

I discovered the term in one of my favourite books, The Crack in The Cosmic Egg: New Constructs in Mind and Reality by Joseph Chilton Pearce.  It’s not – as he freely admits – an ideal term, but Mr Pearce had considerable difficulty finding a description for this way of thinking which wasn’t riddled with negative connotations.  When I explain what A-Thinking is, you’ll see what I mean.

 

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al...

 

A-Thinking is the Fool card in the tarot.  It is the way a small child typically thinks – naive, random and with an unwavering belief in magic.  It is an unshakable conviction that anything is possible and that we and all things around us exist in a state of pure potential.  It is the complete antithesis of common sense.  A-Thinking is knowing that if something can be imagined, it can be.

 

Now I’ll tell you what the ‘A’ represents.  It is short for Autistic Thinking.

 

Just consider for a moment how society treats such an attitude in all but the very young.  I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of people I’ve known on the autistic spectrum who are patronised, laughed at, teased and criticised for the ideas they hold, for ‘wasting time’ on activities or interests mainstream society sees as unimportant or for refusing to respond to  ‘common sense’ conditioning or scientific parameters.

 

“Is there anything you don’t believe in?” I once asked my young Asperger’s friend.

 

“No,” he admitted, after thinking for a while. “It’s less complicated that way.”

 

Dissecting the Klein bottle results in Möbius ...

 

When he was about 14, that young man decided to build a time machine.  I was happy to go along with his ideas and allowed him to set up his prototype in my back garden.

Imagine a ring doughnut with sprinkles on top.  The technical name is a ring torus.  Now imagine cutting through it and somehow twisting it so that the sprinkles from one side now meet the underside next to them and it forms a whole like a 3D mobius strip (or are Mobius strips 3D already?  That was the paradox he was exploring.).  He was attempting to build this shape of indeterminate dimensions with a few discount store tarpaulins and huge quantities of duct tape.  I held the materials and followed instructions.  He became ever more excited at the prospect, despite the technical difficulties.  This little video shows roughly the concepts he was grappling with.  He had me just about believing that this was possible.  Then my decades of common sense conditioning kicked in and I became the rational scientist.

 

“Do you actually believe you can build an object that will enable you to travel in time?” I asked.

 

He looked at me then and – the wave function collapsed.  Up until that point, the potential had been infinite.  Suddenly he saw it through my eyes – a messy pile of plastic on the lawn.  The project was promptly abandoned and I felt wholly responsible.  What wonders might have taken place if I’d remained silent?

 

I’d believed the scientists.  Once we started to apply common sense – to observe and measure and rationalise, the magic vanished.

 

Now, though, I see things differently.  I no longer believe solely in the common-sense world, or even the quantum one.  I believe – as many spiritual leaders and channelled guides have been telling us – that everything IS pure potential, magic, imagination.  Didn’t Jesus say we needed to become like little children if we were to grasp what is really going on?

 

Maybe we, the observers, don’t collapse the wave function, it’s just that thinking as common-sense people, we can only observe ONE of the possibilities.  The rest are still there, patiently waiting for us to expand our perception.

 

The A-Thinkers are way ahead of the rest of us on this.  I hope to continue to learn from them – and share my discoveries with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want to teach Jed

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

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

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

I still believe and stand by every word.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Imagine an education system where the infant school teacher announces,

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Bring on the AFGOs

 

English: 5D virtual 2x2x2x2x2 sequential move ...

If I’m right in believing that I – and all of us – at some point outside of space and time and the other trappings of 3D existence, planned this lifetime in which certain situations and experiences would appear, then I have to take some responsibility for what is happening to me.  I can’t blame fate, ill luck or even other people, no matter how tempting that may be.

 

It’s taken a while, but I’m fine with that now.  When an AFGO (Another Bleeping Growth Opportunity) comes along, I’m fairly good at accepting that this is stuff I embarked on this life to work through.

Something I’ve noticed, though, after many years of working with children and young people, is how many of those who are special, sensitive, Version 2.0/ Old Souls or however you choose to describe them, seem to have selected particularly difficult, challenging and – frankly – horrifying ‘Growth Opportunities’.

It’s made all the harder, of course, because they didn’t consciously choose these situations – not in their current lifetimes.  The higher self / god-self / soul may be brilliant at selecting challenges that will allow them to make huge and wonderful amounts of spiritual growth, to bring more love to Earth and to heal themselves, the planet and those around them, but it is so very hard to watch them suffer as family problems or other circumstances tear their young lives apart.

(Explore-D) View On Black thanks a lot Nis! Th...

Yes, I could give specific examples – ones that are showing up amongst young people I know very well at this point in time.  Maybe I will in a future post,  if I think it will help.

For now, I just want to flag up how much harder it is, sometimes, to watch a child suffering than to work through one’s own difficulties.

On the other hand, we can be reasonably sure that, if they have shown up in our lives, there’s a reason for that too.

We have something to give them.

Or they have something to teach us.

Or, more likely, both of the above and more besides.

My pain, as I feel for them, is of no value, but showing them kindness and understanding, being ready to offer support and humble enough to learn from them about how to deal with the most challenging parts of this terrifyingly realistic game called Life – that’s where the value is, for all of us.

 

 

Available in paperback and Kindle editions

Available in paperback and Kindle editions

More ponderings on this and related subjects can be found in LIFE: A PLAYER’S GUIDE, available on Amazon or to order through booksellers.  

ISBN 9781 78176 7764

 

 

 

Thirteen and on crack

One of several versions of the painting "...

‘So here’s the deal,’ I told the kid.  ‘I’m going to take a huge risk on you.  I’m not going to tell social services or your school at this point.  I’m going to gamble that, as you’ve chosen to tell me, you want help to come off and stay clean.  I’ll do everything in my power to get you the help you need, to support you and to stand by you, but you’ve got to promise me, right here and now, that you’ll go along with everything I suggest, no matter how hard it is and no matter how tempted you are to use again.’

‘Okay,’ he said.

Nobody had written the book on how to react – far less what to do – when a 13 year old kid you’ve known since he was knee-high, a kid you’ve watched growing up, a kid you thought you knew inside out, tells you calmly that he’s been using crack for a while now.

That’s quite lucky – that no one had written the book, I mean.  If they had, I’d probably have gone by the book and I’d probably have lost him in the process.  As it was, I had no choice but to go with my heart.

No point blaming.  No point getting angry or whining that I was disappointed in him.  I knew I had to start from where we were.

Oh it was not easy.  It was easily the most not-easy thing I’d ever done.  I’d given my word, so I couldn’t call on support from friends or family.  Even the guy on the helpline (I needed information – fast – loads of it) did that sucking breath in through his teeth thing more usually associated with garage mechanics.
“Thirteen?? How long’s he been using?”
“He doesn’t know. He’s not been keeping a record.  A while.”
“And it’s definitely crack?”
“Yes.”
“There’s not a hope. I mean I’m really sorry but we have to be realistic here. There’s no way you’re going to get him to come off. The highs are so intense…”

I stayed calm.  I didn’t scream or swear.  I’d had quite a bit of practice at staying calm over the last few days, after all.  I gently reminded him of the purpose of his helpline.  I told him I didn’t have time or space for negativity.  I told him I needed him to behave as if there WAS hope – masses of it.  I told him to give me every shred of information and every contact number and address he possibly could and I told him that this boy was going to make it.

And he did.

Cover of "Junk"

This was the most desperate battle I’d fought in my entire life, but having decided on how it was going to pan out, help started to arrive exactly when and where it was needed.  I found him a counsellor.  I somehow got him to break away from his parasitic dealer.  I spent hours listening to teenage angst on the phone every night.  I bought him a copy of Melvin Burgess’ brilliant book Junk and above all, I cared.

A year or so later, when all the dust had settled and life was on a far more even keel, I asked him whether he’d be happy for me to write the story as a discussion workbook for the 10 and 11 year olds I was then teaching.  They were about to start secondary school where – I knew – the temptations would be all too similar to those he had faced.  He seemed to quite like the idea.  We changed names and a few biographical details but everything else was as authentic as I could get it.

For several years, the story of ‘Josh and Stuff’ was shared, analysed, discussed and sometimes wept over by successive year 6 classes.  At the end, the kids wrote messages to ‘Josh’ and I always passed them on.

I always thought drugs were just something everyone did.  Your story made me stop and think very hard.

I’m not going to do drugs because of your story.

Hope you’re OK now.  Thanks for sharing what happened.

I wish I could have been a true friend to you.  You needed one.

Last week I finished working through the book with another, slightly older, group of kids.  I’d honestly forgotten just how powerful the message was.  This page reduced almost the whole group to silence for a long time:

Josh decided to tell the teacher about his habit.  

He was shocked that she seemed so upset.  He didn’t  realise people cared that much about him.

She told him all the stuff he already knew, but some new things, too.

She told him that when he was on a ‘high’, his heart really started racing.  It went so fast that at any point he could have a heart attack.  If he was using in his bedroom, his Dad could walk in and find him dead.  If he was using outside, someone would find the body, call the police and they would knock on his parents’ door.

 She reminded him about his baby brother.  If Josh died now, he probably wouldn’t remember him – just have a photo of the big brother who died because he was a drug addict.

 She asked him to think how he missed his Mum; then to think how his family would miss him.

 She told him that, if he was caught, he’d be put on the child protection register.  Social workers would come round to check up on him, or maybe take him into care.  She told him about juvenile courts and about custodial sentences.

 She asked if a 20-minute high was worth all that.

 Then she said she’d help him come off, if that was what he wanted.

 

Take a bit of time to look back at Josh’s story.

 What if he’d known all the things this teacher has told him when Andy first offered him crack – would it have made a difference?

 

It was the quietest lad in the group who spoke.  His eyes were blazing.
‘Yes, of course it would,’ he said.  ‘That’s the sort of thing the teacher should have told the class.  Not just the slang names and how drugs are used and what the effects are.  If he’d known all this he’d never have done it.’

I’ve thought about that boy’s comments.  It all comes down to this:  young people would be far less likely to engage in risky behaviour if they realised how loved they are.

If  ‘Josh and Stuff’  has helped another group of kids to realise that, it’s done it’s job again.

 

Josh and StuffCopies of ‘Josh and Stuff’  – a discussion book for 9-13 year olds  – can be bought from Lulu.com here.  It is also available in PDF format as ‘Paul and Stuff’ – the same story, but with discussion prompts geared towards classroom use.

 There are other books there which deal with issues such as cyber bullying, under-age drinking, shoplifting and relationships, all of which have been tried and tested in the classroom.

 

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Further Adventures of Simeon – Looking Death in the Eye

Eye death

In my last post, I introduced Simeon – a 14 year old with learning difficulties and a strong desire to join the British Army, along with a conviction that his life was over because he wouldn’t be able to fulfil this dream.

My first thought was: ‘He’s right – they’d never accept him.  Still, at least that’s one nice kid who won’t come home in a coffin or with limbs missing a few years on.’

Hot on the heels of that came: ‘And anyhow, he has no idea what army life involves.  He’s just spent too many hours playing Call of Duty and fantasising about holding a gun and killing anyone who gets in his way.’

Slowly it occurred to me that beyond my prejudices I had no real knowledge about the army.  I also had no right to dismiss Simeon’s dream so lightly.  I therefore decided to investigate further.  That way, I’d be able to give him more information.  He’d know whether he had any hope of joining the army and he’d also have a more realistic idea of what army life involved.  I also nursed a suspicion and hope that as his skills and self-confidence improved, he’d be ready to let go of the desire to hide behind heavy weaponry.

As you might expect, the Ministry of Defence has a comprehensive website, positively bursting with information on recruitment.

The good news, from Simeon’s viewpoint, was that he wouldn’t be expected to have passed any school exams.  On the other hand, he would have to sit a whole raft of tests and assessments if he wished to join up.  There is a useful section of practice tests for aspiring squaddies to try out – even an interactive one where they take part in a team challenge with a bunch of other young hopefuls.

Tried and tested

So when Simeon turned up for the next lesson – quite smiley and cheerful this time – I explained our new programme of study.  We would continue with the maths and English as before, but would also devote some time each lesson to trying out the BARB tests and other assessments the MOD provides online.  We would also research all possible aspects of army life (or as many as the Ministry felt willing to show us) so that, when the time came, he’d be able to make an informed choice about his future career.

He approved.

The first test was called Reasoning.  It had questions like ‘Bill is heavier than Sam. Who weighs less?‘  Perfect!  Exactly the sort of activity Simeon needed to develop his language processing skills.  He focused completely and scored 10 out of 12.  High fives all round and he was positively beaming.

“I want to try another one,” he said, eagerly.

This time he selected Letter Checking.  It involved scanning pairs of letters and deciding how many of the pairs were matched large and small case versions of the same letter.  Simeon is a very visual learner, so this was a perfect morale-booster.  He scored 100%.  Unable to believe his luck, he ran through it again, with the same result.

As you have probably guessed, not every aspect of the assessment tasks went this smoothly.  Some contained instructions which went way beyond Simeon’s ability to process information.  Initially, he seemed fine with this and persevered by attempting the tests again to try and improve his scores.  However his strategies weren’t great.  He eventually resorted to guessing blindly and consequently found his marks dropping still further.

The following week he arrived in the blackest of moods and told me he’d decided he would live rough when he grew up and would be glad if this shortened his life.  It took a good forty minutes of morale-boosting tasks and encouragement to bring him to a point where he admitted he was feeling better and didn’t really want to be a vagrant.

We’re currently breaking the difficult tasks into smaller, achievable activities before returning to the BARBs.  I praised him at one point for working so hard and applying himself to the challenges I was setting him.
“You’re really making progress,” I said.
“That’s because – for the first time ever – I’m being taught by someone who’s not a complete asshole,” he responded.

Wow.

Like every young person I’ve encountered on the autistic spectrum, Simeon has a sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others that borders on telepathy.
“How would you feel,” he asked, watching my face keenly, “if I came back from a spell in the army and I had killed some people?”

I really didn’t need to reply.  He’d understood that despite the effort I’m making to help him reach his dream, I struggle with the idea of anyone ending the life of someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s spouse or parent.

He sat for a few moments, talking quietly about the implications of ending a life and admitting that he’d never before truly looked at the repercussions.  For the first time the fantasy and the reality were starting to separate in his mind and I saw that at some point, much further down the line, we’ll be having some deep conversations on this subject.

I have the greatest respect for Simeon and total faith in his ability to make positive choices in the future.

Meeting Simeon

English: Eyebrow, detail of File:Konferencja W...

It goes without saying that isn’t his real name.  I always alter certain details of the kids I write about, to preserve their privacy, but Simeon suits him well enough.

About six weeks ago he came slouching into my life.  He stomped into the study and eyed me warily.  He’s 14 and has autistic spectrum perception.  His parents had pulled him out of a special school where bullying was rife and learning, it seems, wasn’t.  They’d asked me to give him some weekly tuition in English and maths.

He was anxious, bitter, embarrassed by his ‘memory problems’ (receptive language processing difficulties) and lack of mathematical skills, and had enough chips on his shoulder to keep any fast food outlet going for a month.
“Let’s get this over with then,” he sighed, grabbing a chair.  “Two hours, right?”

Then the tests began…  What was it going to take to freak me out?

Week One included the following conversation:

Chocolate Digestive

Me: “You’ve worked very hard. Do you want to stop for five minutes for a drink and a snack?”
Him: “Got any cocaine?”
Me: “Sorry, just biscuits.”
Him: “Uh. How about steroids?”
Me: “No, I think they’re chocolate digestives.”

By Week Two he’d had a rethink.

When asked to enliven a dull passage by adding extra detail, he  managed to insert copious amounts of blood and gore into every sentence.  The protagonists lost body parts with dizzying speed and in alarming quantities, and what was left of the ‘hero’ by the end provided a finale by going to the bathroom (sic) on what remained of his opponent’s corpse and heading off to get high.  (“Do you know what that means?” Simeon asked, solicitously.)

I complimented him on having successfully completed the task he was set.  I spoke in glowing terms of the build-up of tension as the battle outcome remained uncertain until the very end.  I admired his range of vocabulary, while pointing out a few punctuation mistakes.  I then suggested that the euphemism for urinating was rather lame and that he needed to draw further distinction between heroic and villainous behaviour. if he wished to master characterisation.  Simeon silently made a few changes to his final sentence.

Comic Books

At the start of Week Three he reached into his backpack.  “I’ve brought something along I thought would be helpful for our lessons,”  he announced with an inscrutable smile.
He placed a copy of The Walking Dead comic on the desk.

“I could read some of it to you,” he offered, “like a reading book, y’know?”

“Fine,” I said.  “Which page would you like to start on?”

The reading session went on for a little longer than either of us had expected, because although the chunks of speech were not extensive, it took Simeon quite a while to apologise each time there was a swear word.  (“I’m sorry I said the f- word there.  It’s not like I was swearing at you, y’know.  I only said it because it was there on the page….”  and so on and on.)  There were many swear words.

After a while, mainly to save his blushes, I suggested returning to the Anthony Horowitz novel we’d selected as his regular reading book.   This he did with some relief, and since by a fortunate chance the first murder occurred a page or two into the chapter, he became totally hooked and complained when I asked him to stop.

By this time I was becoming rather fond of Simeon.  He could have become quite ratty at my refusal to be scandalised or offended by his carefully constructed ploys, but he took my responses calmly and was actually working extremely hard at the tasks I set him.   True, his obsession with weapons, the army and any dystopian videos,  games or reading matter he could lay his hands on could be wearing at times, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a disempowered teenager take refuge amongst such fantasies, and I felt I understood his perspective.  (See also this post.)

English: A British army Challenger II main bat...

Then, just as he was leaving on Week Three, he hit me with this:
“You know I dropped out of school?” he said.  “Well it was before I’d sat any of the exams, y’know?  All I’ve ever wanted is to join the army. But I don’t think they’ll take me without any exams.  So I think my life is just about over, really.”  He sighed so sadly.  “I think about that a lot.”

Oh.

That forced me to take a close look at my own prejudices – my feelings about the armed forces and military combat as well as my feelings about this socially isolated youngster with a considerable range of learning challenges.  The thought of Simeon being trained as a killing machine didn’t sit comfortably with me.  On the other hand nor did allowing a fourteen year old to believe his life was ‘just about over’, if I had any power to help him change his mind on that.

In the days and weeks that followed, I also thought about it a lot.  In a future post, I’ll let you know the conclusions I reached, and how my encounters with Simeon continued.