When I was younger, I was plagued with doubt. I did not seem to fit the mould and I thought that I ought to. I was different in so many ways.
The doubts started just before the end of primary school. I could sense that I was not as popular and it hurt. The happy carefree child that had laughed and danced through the early years started to feel self conscious. Things were about to get worse.
Big school started at eleven and so did the systematic bullying. The daily humiliation of the school playground took its toll. I stopped being me but the bullying continued. At sixteen I was suicidal and anxious and by eighteen I had surrendered my dreams and dropped out.
I often refer to my twenties as the lost years. I battled depression and failed. I bought a house and tried to fit into a suburban life that didn’t fit. As I approached thirty I lost my job and I felt worthless.
I met a woman on a plane. She was an English teacher and she reached out to me. The conversation with her didn’t change my life but it did help me turn a corner. Her positivity helped me see the hurdles I saw could be overcome.
I trained to be a teacher. I taught. I perfected my craft. I took risks in the classroom. I took risks outside of the classroom. I grew. I worked. I became less self conscious and more self aware.
Now I’m fifty one. I do not fit the mould and I ought not too. I am different in so many ways. In becoming me I have learnt that surviving is not living but it is important. I survived and now my life is on my terms.
So, if you are struggling, hurt, bullied or victimised please do not give up. We all have a place in life. The more unique your place is, the harder your struggle may be to get there. Breaking the mould isn’t easy but when you do, life can be anything you want it to be.
When I teach, I learn. That’s what Seneca said some thousands of years ago. I used it in an essay at college, but it has stayed with me. This year what did I learn from those 80 or so faces that have sat in my classrooms. What did they teach me.
I suppose the most important message was that teaching should be friendly but it is never friendship. Like a parent, a teacher must be strong enough to make decisions that are not popular. This idea of doing what is right and not what is easiest helps to make a good teacher.
The next message I learnt is that the rich and privileged children I have taught this year are just children. If you ignore the Lexus and the Chanel slippers, you just have a child with needs and wants. A boiling cauldron of hormones and ideas that are not yet quite ready to ladled out into wider society. Children need guidance and help if they are to become the next generation.
Finally I learnt that I am not what I aspire to be. I can be as petty and impatient as my students. I teach bad lessons. I teach mediocre lessons. I learnt that even good teachers are not always good. They have flaws. However, I learnt to keep trying. I learnt to walk back in to rooms where the enthusiasm had died and try to reignite sparks. I built relationships. I sustained relationships, and in doing so, taught above, beyond and around the book.
I hope my students have learned something this year beyond some grammar and vocabulary . I have been taught resilience, acceptance and perseverance and for that, dear students, I am grateful.
The repetition is the hard part. You would have thought I would realise by now but that pattern hits me like an abstract every time.
I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m bemused. A clever little sausage like myself takes pride in his intellect. I can solve puzzles, identify trends and, ironically see the patterns where others see the chaos. It’s a gift.
But not within me. I am a riddle to myself. I have the enigma code embedded in my DNA and I cannot crack it. This means that time and again I am taken by surprise.
Once I got my diagnosis I thought everything would improve. I could solve myself, learn what was expected, and develop an algorithm for living life. I can’t.
People want me to lie. They want me to not point things out. They want a celebration of success that refuses to see the shortcomings. Well I am sorry. The emperor is naked and I can’t stand by and say nothing. On the Asperger Path we speak out and we are castigated for doing so. When bad policies were written, I would highlight the errors. When there were causes for concern, it was me who would speak up in the meetings.
There was nothing wrong with my work. My students were happy and my lessons were well crafted. I was popular with colleagues. I was thanked for my input.
I am not required next year. It was me that was the problem. That is the pattern I never see and I may never understand.
He was a nice man, though I met him only once. He took my breath and left me reeling. I guess I will never forget him or the weaving of his stories.
Living alone in a foreign land can be somewhat up and down. When you factor in the chaos of being teacher there is the potential for high drama. I may not have chosen Aspergers but I have chosen my path. The decisions I make are made based on judgment and a logic that defies the understanding of others. I can survive life and whatever it tosses my way though even I am occasionally thrown off kilter.
When we first spoke, he was depressed. He wallowed in his melancholia and could see nothing but loneliness in his future. He was frozen in the trap of not being able to do things alone. He got several large spoonfuls of my good but unsolicited advice and a friendship rockily started.
He wanted to meet me but we lived in different countries. Eventually I decided he was worth six hours by bus and off I set with no expectations and free page in my passport . We were going to meet and it was all going to be so easy.
Twenty four hours later we part with tender promises and sore lips. I returned, assured that I am no longer alone and that he will soon be crossing the same border. I let down every guard. Logic was cast aside and vulnerability suited me. I wrote poems that ached with longing and were woven with trust.
Ten days passed on cloud nine. Then a message that didn’t make sense was quickly followed by a hundred more, each contradicting its predecessor. Everything I thought I knew, was not. Still, he was the victim, for I had plunged him into the sad confusion of choice. If only he had met me at a different time. If only we hadn’t spent those hours in that way. If only he could keep us both. He can’t because ifs are not part of my life. My syndrome deals in certainty. Within hours, my vulnerability disappeared. I am back behind the armour of my logical judgment.
This man I met once is not so nice but I am breathing and standing firm. I guess he will never forget me or the cutting of myself so cleanly from the lies he had woven to keep me reeling.
I am a traveller of sorts. A meanderer who has no set path or clear destination. After a year in one country you might argue I am settled, but my journey is more than merely physical.
I see the collectors of experience. They meticulously checklist their way through tomorrow’s memories without even stopping to whistle. Cultures are sipped and palates rarely cleansed before the next new taste is up for consumption.
I am no different. Instead of travelling through countries, I travel through people. Life is kept fresh by keeping the door to my mind wide open to passing souls who come, and sometimes go, with ease. Rapport is something that can build in a moment, especially with those rare few who resonate with the deepest vibrations of my soul.
This weekend I met man, so earnest and passionate and we talked. Stories of youth were shared and the depressingly universal experiences of growing up gay were bemoaned. My new friend was interested in self esteem and bullying, and the role educators can play in breaking the cycle of depression and self harm for young gay men. Bad histories were being turned into better tomorrows by his actions. It was talk that went somewhere.
We may not meet again but we are connected. A good conversation can change the course of life. I may not be the fastest traveller but he has moved me and shown me places I never expected to see.
Travellers on a journey we have happily coincided. This Emerald City is where we three live and teach. We were talking about Aspergers in the classroom, but my colleagues were unaware that I am the Tin Man. Thinking my knowledge was purely professional, the questions came flooding out. Questions reveal so much more than answers.
Do you think he knows he is different? Is he aware how others see him? Why can’t he adapt? Why does he look so sad?
Each question was given to me to answer. Such difficult heartbreaking questions to hear because each was so personal and yet I couldn’t say it. Why couldn’t I tell them? I guess because I fear their observation. I choose to remain a colleague.
I know I am different, but I forget until it slaps me in the face. I am unaware of how others see me. In fact most of the time I assume that they don’t see me. When they do, it usually another slap. I do adapt. I live in the world and I pass for almost normal in almost all situations. The sadness you see is when the world treats me badly. Sometimes it comes crowding into my carefully constructed spaces. It judges and points fingers in my face.
Those questions flooded me. The third person was not a barrier thick enough to deflect them. They told me how “other” I might be labelled. Until I’m brave enough to say I am like him, people will see us as not them. Aspergers might make me feel like a tin man, but sometimes I am just a cowardly lion.
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.
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.
When I was young I never really knew what I wanted to be. I was a good all rounder academically so I was not encouraged to make any decisions. People told me I should keep my options open and not specialise to early. I never committed to anything and, as I have made my way through life, I never really have.
So here I am. At fifty I am still drifting through life and wondering what and where is next. I fell into teaching more than twenty years ago. It was more about escaping the drudgery of life at the town hall than finding a vocation. I now appear to happily richochet between the two, though teaching is my preferred choice.
My current incarnation, a teacher of English in Cambodia, is going rather well. I am enjoying the challenges and there are plenty of them. My current path has taken down some very new and different teaching avenues and might almost tempt me to stay a while. I have already been here six months and it’s starting to feel like home but then there are so many other countries and they are so close.
I am a restless soul. I roll and I drift and I don’t gather moss because I can’t keep still. Some researchers say that ADHD and Aspergers are closely linked. I don’t know if it’s true but certainly I can switch my focus from one thing to another fairly easily. It’s what I do best. After all I am a good all rounder. It seems a bit daft to settle down to something at this point. So I will continue along my rather chaotic Asperger Path, passport in hand, and no doubt find some activities that will divert my attention. The only deficit I can see is the judgmental way society labels and classifies its dazzling differences and distinct diversities.
It’s been a tiring day and I am feeling every one of my fifty years. My students are a happy, chaotic bunch. I learn new things about them every day. Today was phase two of our poster making day. The theme was ‘all about us’. Having established that the word post and the word poster are not as intrinsically linked as they had supposed, we ditched early attempts at envelope making. We went gung-ho into a world of frantic colouring, with rather more reluctant sentence construction, but slowly a picture came together of each of the individuals I teach. The posters are up on the walls and I think they were genuinely proud to see their bright colourful efforts on display. .
With twenty nine in one class and twenty one in the other, I admit I don’t know them as well as I ought. With a ten year gap between the youngest and the oldest, I am often trapped, dazzled in the headlights of the differing needs and demands of fifty children. I don’t do hugs so luckily I have an assistant who deals with that for the very youngest. I remember to smile more than frown and I can see they enjoy the time we spend in class.
My mantra of working together and helping each other featured in a few pieces so I guess they have listened to more than I give them credit for. We love our teacher said one poster. My name wasn’t spelt correctly but they did a great job getting my baldness on to the page. I love my students too. However most days I leave school feeling quite overwhelmed because love divided by fifty doesn’t leave much of a remainder.