A year ago, with the ink still drying on my autism diagnosis, I waved goodbye to the ugly face of blatant, corporate discrimination. Someone had decided I didn't fit and my professional life became a living hell. I was good at my job and wanted to continue there. I was assured that obtaining this diagnosis would ease the situation and protect me. It did not. After fighting and losing the battle to keep my job, I gave up. I gave up the round hole life I had been living.
I am no stranger to starting again. I have had to do it before. I was once a teacher, possibly a good one. However, I battled homophobia every day in the classrooms and the corridors of London. After a few incidents outside of school too, I decided I couldn't take any more. I lost that fight but preserved my sanity. Years before that, I lost my job in a local authority up north. My boss decided I didn't fit in. She made it clear that she could find no fault with my work. It was me that was a problem. I was a square peg.
I may lose jobs but I am not a loser. Life can be unkind because I am a gay man with cerebral palsy and Asperger's Syndrome. However hidden beneath the labels and the isms, I am just another human being. I may not fit in but that is because I no longer choose to. I am a lover of life and a seeker of happiness. I am a pacifist but will go bare knuckle to fight my corner.
That life I love is now the Asperger Path. Since I set off a year ago I have seen and done things I never thought I'd do. I am travelling very slowly and stopping to look at life along the way. I am exploring whatever I choose. Writing is one way I explore the world. It has become very important to me and I make time to write every day. My thoughts and my poetry will never change the universe, but they are changing my perception of the world and my place in it. It's my way of squaring the circle.
In Britain I was expected to be so much more than just a teacher. A social worker, counsellor, parent, friend, mentor, big brother and psychologist. A multitasking miracle worker who would whizz into a room and create a positive learning environment from whatever I found. With Pavlovian conditioning, I could change tack with every tolling bell, ploughing through a long day where breaks and lunch evaporated and needs were met, anticipated and dealt with. The gifted were stretched, the less motivated were encouraged and the hungry were fed. Sometimes even clean clothing was appropriated. I made a difference. London’s schools were challenging and dynamic, and not for the fainthearted.
Cambodia is no place for the fainthearted either. Grinding poverty, years of internal corruption, and searing heat bring their own challenges. However, like many foreigners work in elite, private settings with students who are relatively wealthy. The library has precious few books and the school feels under resourced but the parents all have big four wheel drive cars.
I set a task and my class of students do it. I have never taught students like this before. They are respectful and engaged, no matter what. Are we doing something creative and engaging right now. Not particularly. In fact, we are doing peer and self assessment of paragraph writing with a final draft to be produced by the end of the lesson. Deathly dull if you ask me, and I am theoretically a writer.
In addition to having no real classroom management issues, I am not expected to analyse or deep dive data. I do not produce reports or graphs highlighting student underachievement nor am I expected to contact parents and build home school relationships.
I come to class. I teach. I assess. I grade papers. I give feedback. However, this generation will be pivotal in the the changes that are need to happen in this country so I might be just a teacher but, like all teachers, I can still make a difference.
Once I was blissfully unaware. I was an misfit, an oddball, an eccentric of a peculiarly English type but I thought nothing of it.
My few attempts to fit in were always just opportunities to stand out. I was a follower of fashion for example. However my “fashion-forward” sensibilities were heady when combined with my complete unawareness of the ripples I can create around me. Never thinking to look back, I sailed through the calm waters of life with the cut of my jib set jaunty.
Then they interfered. I was labelled. The very essence of who I was became the focus of others. Professionals were involved and meetings took place. People were concerned or perhaps even worried. I was placed on the Asperger Path and my life juddered to a halt.
Half the world away and here I am. The path is mine. I have owned myself and stuck two fingers up at those who told me what I could and couldn’t do. I live in a country where I don’t speak the language and my height, colour, build and beard separate me from the crowd. No one has really heard of Asperger here, let alone his blooming syndrome. We are all blissfully unaware.
I took a walk along the river today. I wandered down under the shady trees and crossed over on the bridge that usually takes me to work on my bicycle. I stopped for a bite to eat with the barbecue pork lady before heading north. So many times I have walked passed the pagoda there, meaning to stop, but somehow I never find the time.
Today I found I had time to spare. My tummy was full of rice and I was feeling in the mood for a meander. For me the temple itself was not the main attraction though it is undeniably beautiful. It is surrounded by other buildings as most temples are in Cambodia, but in Battambang the architecture always seems just a little more special.
I wandered about and took a few snaps and then headed north along the eastern river bank. It was a cool morning and it’s been a while since I just went for a walk. Up to the bridge that takes Highway Number 5 over the muddy brown Sangker river. I wandered up to the ferry terminal and found myself a coconut to satisfy a niggling thirst then abandoned the river for the frangipani shaded walk east.
My last leg reminded me that this seemingly sleepy city is in fact the second largest town in Cambodia. After my dreamy walk where I felt quite alone with my thoughts I turned south and soon was in the happy midst of daily Khmer life. Psar Boeung Chhouk teems with people. The Psar Nath may be the landmark market hall but Boeung Chhouk market is were people come to shop in droves.
Four months I have lived in this city. It still fills me with wonder, charms me senseless and brings a smile to my face. Sok Sabay I say to almost everyone I meet. Peace and happiness is easy to find in Battambang.
It never rains but it pours. Sometimes things are just badly timed. No matter how good your intentions are you end up down that well paved road and it can be slippery when wet. The last few weeks I’ve been in need of an umbrella.
It’s not that I am work shy, but, much as I love teaching, I am a firm believer that less is more so I choose to work part time. I cut my cloth accordingly. My life isn’t particularly ritzy but here in Cambodia my qualifications allow me to access a good hourly wage. I like to keep my teaching hours at around fifteen for the perfect life, work, remuneration balance. Recently my hours took a precariously low dip but I had been given the opportunity to teach amazingly interesting classes at the weekend. Thankfully, serendipity popped by with a more bread and butter offer of daily work.
The weekend classes were just one module of a Masters in teaching and my lovely students have all passed; most with flying colours. But the daily classes have already been running for three weeks. Today is my first day off after eighteen consecutive days of teaching. A few of weeks of teaching almost thirty contact hours has meant time has flown. I have had to exercise planning skills to ensure I was delivering well sequenced, well prepared lessons to four very different groups. Work life balance has been on hold and, this month, payday promises to be filthy in its richness.
Today, however, I am not a teacher. I have left my course books at work and Monday’s lessons are planned. It is time to recalibrate. Today I am grabbing a good friend, some swimming shorts and a place by the pool. I will sit under one umbrella whilst stirring a slightly ridiculous, fruity cocktail with another. It never rains but it pours.
It seemed a little cooler today so I thought I’d wear a really nice shirt. I have always been a bit particular clothes wise. It’s a tad thicker than my normal shirts but the temperature is only 32 degrees (that’s 90 in Fahrenheit). What a silly mistake.
So I get to work and I can feel my back. Can you feel a glisten. I can. The beading crescendos until I can sense the tsunami between my shoulder blades. As I cool, I continue to be a one man sprinkler system with no fire to extinguish. The overall effect, I was hoping for a post modern, post colonial elegance, has been washed away and I look like a sweaty foreigner who isn’t coping with the heat.
My students are kind. They won’t notice. Actually they can’t not notice, but they won’t comment. Soon I will be safely in the air conditioned temple of my classroom. As I explain the rather formulaic approach we are taking to paragraph construction I will become both drier and less self conscious.
So who do I dress for if no one really cares. I dress for me. I shave and shower and trim my beard because I am not just a teacher or a foreigner. I am in the poet autist, and although I walk a solitary Asperger Path it’s important to remember who I am. I have always been a bit particular and a good shirt is worth a little discomfort.
Thursdays are an early start for me. My eight o’clock class lasts until eleven so a good start to the morning is crucial, especially as I have my usual afternoon classes as well.
A good friend told me about the street café outside the Korean Steam Boat restaurant and as it’s on my way to work I thought I might give it a whirl. A lot of Cambodian people eat breakfast in a café. My Khmer language skills are pretty ropey but the aforementioned friend assured me there’s only one breakfast on offer with this lady. I know the word for one. It’s muy. And soon I was sitting down with a plate of rice, pickles and some truly magnificent barbecued pork. It was accompanied by some broth and was really tasty. I was feeling pretty lucky.
Just when I thought life couldn’t get any sweeter I realised that the noodle place next door sells coffee. So after my breakfast I indulged in an iced coffee and sat and watched the world go by.
Thursdays just got a whole lot better. I might even consider taking another morning class, or perhaps I should just get up early more often and enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the cool morning air by the river in Battambang.
Have a good day.
Over the years I have experimented with meditation. I have tried numerous approaches but now I’ve found something that works for me.
People with Aspergers tend to have high levels of anxiety. Making sense of a world where signals and messages are missed is tricky. Many doctors wanted to treat for depression but I think I am quite a happy soul. Meditation has a host of benefits and if you look on the Internet it can solve almost anything, including anxiety. So I started practicing by myself. Mindful minutes and creative visualisations were lovely. Clearing my mind was more difficult, and tiring it was almost impossible.
When I read about transcendental meditation and turning the focus inward I was intrigued. I have always talked about loving being in my own head. A few experiments later and I found something . I have a happy place. I close my eyes and relax. I imagine my eyes rolling back into my brain as look within. I focus on the black screen of my mind and the nothingness. Then I can feel a ball in my stomach. It’s almost a ball of light but I can’t see it. As I focus on it I feel a great sense of contentment. In the early days I couldn’t focus on it for a long time. Even now the feeling of goodness I get from it is almost too pleasurable to bear. As I focus I feel a smile on my face as I immerse myself in my own joy. It’s the most mind blowing thing I have ever experienced I still struggle to focus on it for a long time but I know it’s there.
That is what is changing my life, I think. Within me I possess this ball of joy and if I want I can get to it in thirty seconds. I meditate most days. Not much more than five minutes but that seems enough. Maybe this is a well known technique or maybe it only works for me.
So many years I wore boots. Big heavy boots that trampled a path through any terrain. I never stopped to think because I was always moving on.
I know that I have inadvertently trampled on some dreams. I know that my rough shod feet have caused more upset than they should. So many years I was unaware of the people around me. So what changed?
I did. Or more accurately I am. Changing that is. I realised one day that I had not been as kind as I could have been and that made pause for thought. I know that I have never been an intrinsically bad person. I am not a murderer, rapist or abuser. However it is not enough for me not to be a bad person. My aspirations are higher because I know I can be better than that. So I am changing.
Change is a long process. It is difficult and I will need to keep saying sorry every time I get it wrong. I will need to be develop my under exercised humility until it balances my pride and arrogance and become closer to the man I know I can be.
This then, is not an apology. Apologies are not generic, blanket statements that can issued impersonally. They should be a heartfelt message from one human soul to another. This is more a manifesto. I will throw away my boots and walk barefoot through this life. I will still move on but from now on my soul will be naked and exposed and each step will be taken gingerly. I think my journey will be all the better for it.
Once upon a time I was a boy who believed. I believed in everything I could imagine. I would look at a drop of water hanging like a silver pendent from a velvet green, dew drenched leaf and imagine how the universe it contained within it might be. Nothing was defined for me and life was a theoretical string of adventures to savour and discover.
I am still searching and savouring. My cynicism is feigned because too much enthusiasm can leave a man looking dangerously perky in a public place. My worn veneer of worldliness is a thin parchment which can be easily pierced by the questions of an interesting and inquisitive soul. I love to sit and ruminate about all those ifs and buts and maybes that maturity should have kicked out of me. When I meet a truly flexible minds is a gymnastic pleasure.
There are those who would accuse me of not living in reality and not shouldering responsibilities. I can see that belief that there is a path and I am not progressing along it at a satisfactory pace. I have made decisions in my life. I took myself on a detour and, having bypassed all commonly defined notions of success, briefly found myself lost in an existentialist neverland. I chose not to turn back and I faced the consequences of my actions and found I was no longer lost.
Now I live my life free of many impositions or comforts. I have no partner, no home, no plans, no future, no children and no employment contract. I have taken the road far less travelled and beaten my own way along it. It’s no lonelier than the information superhighway fast tracking path I see others on but it is less busy and my low speed limit is rarely exceeded.
I’m not lost and I’m not Peter Pan. I am still that boy who still believes life is best lived as a string of adventures.