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.
You only live once they say. YOLO says a generation who have not lived much as yet. I feel I have had many lives before this one. Each different, and each separated, so that my life is more like the different scenes of a play than a novel.
Dancing round the garden with a hole in my sock and my 99p sunglasses, I was a happy child who loved his mum. Bright yet wilful, I found it hard to settle at school and as I started to mature I realised that boys like me loved their mums because the world outside didn’t like fairies in the garden.
With my bleached hair covering half my face I declared to the no one that was listening my theory on music. The B52s were great and obviously Talking Heads were seminal. Grace was thrown in as reference to the cool indie gay I thought I was. He bore no resemblance to the plain fat boy staring at me in the mirror who dreamt of dance floors
Once I had a house with a gate and a privet hedge that required more attention than it got. I worked for the council and let out my spare room to meet the mortgage. I hated life and it seemed life hated me back. I was bored and realised, once again, that if you don’t fit you shouldn’t force it. I stopped going out and just stayed in.
Slovakia was an unexpected move. The grief of my early departed mother was set aside and I tried on some wings. I was no angel but sometimes I felt like a benevolent god in the classroom. I accepted life and being a foreigner, allowed myself to stand out from the crowd in so many ways.
Tired of London…
A decade in the capital was squandered in never ending round of parties and nightclubs. My career soared and so did my anxiety. Each promotion fuelling an ever more chaotic social life and an ever darker horizon. When I left London I moved to the quiet gravelled beaches of the east and walked myself into sanity. I found a sobriety and a calm in the flat landscape with large skies. I thought I’d never leave.
I sold it all. Everything I own can fit in a suitcase. I have nothing. I have no one. I have a freedom that makes me dizzy. My past is gone and here I am living in the moment. Inner calm has been hard won and I exercise my mind to exorcise its demons. The fairy has left the garden behind and dances on the world’s stage. Have I reincarnated myself until I have found nirvana or are there more short stories still to come.
As you like it
I run away from who I am or perhaps run towards the who I want to be. I have only had one life but my goodness I have played all the parts. All the world’s a stage, and even in Shakespeare’s day we were allowed to live multiple lives. So to the YOLO generation I say this – you just don’t know what’s coming next and that, for me is the greatest gift. Live life as you like it and if you don’t like it, change it until you do.
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.
Imagine standing in the middle of the desert. Nothing as far as the eye can see. Imagine looking at the ocean. Only the horizon disrupts waves. There is a majesty and splendour in that frightening isolation.
Here I sit in a café. The cars pass by, horns sounding warnings to the market shoppers. The street vendor’s bell jangles above the humming drum of the city. All of the chaos of Asian life is crammed into the narrow streets of Phnom Penh and in the February heat it feels as if there is no space for air.
Here I sit in a café. I shift my focus. The heat cools and the sounds silence. In the glaciers of my psyche I create a shimmering isolation. The lone man lost in his mental landscape and divided from the jarring reality of life.
Once I found the world as an overload on my senses. It attacked and assaulted me with unwelcome sights and smells that left me aching and disoriented. Now I can disappear. I have made my Aspergers a rabbit hole and with a little focus I can fall into the detached wonderland of mind.
I can imagine standing in the middle of the desert for I do not fear the majesty and splendour of my own isolation.
We are born alone, live alone, die alone. My existential existence might be an excuse. I am really an individual or just too scared to trust other people.
I met this man. Just once. Just six and twenty crazy hours of being with someone who accepted me. He didn’t just accept me for being me, though that in itself would be awesome, he accepted me into his life. He moved over and made some space for me and without words he said walk with me a while.
I love words but he showed me in his deeds who he thinks I am. He sees a me I haven’t seen. He knows a someone I had forgotten I once wanted to be. When he left me, he didn’t leave because he lingers in my mind.
I met this man. Just once. I was born alone and I might die alone but I think I might want to walk with him a while. I won’t throw caution to the wind but I might put it away along with my fears and live life. I will meet this man again but he has already changed my existence.
I wake about thirty minutes before the alarm. A cup of tea is made and my bed is returned to. By the time the alarm decides to start my day, I am showered and towelled and a second tea is already half empty. Soon the sun rises and I walk to my workplace.
The banalities of work pass and do not bear mention.
After a swim I return to my house, stopping at the market to purchase a few odds and ends on my way. The setting sun marks the end of my dealings with the outside world. My sofa is comfortable and by nine my head droops.
It is a simple life lived plainly. Routines are set and they are adhered to. I’m comfortable in my ways and my ways are set. Set more like jelly than stone, but the Asperger path likes the known and the familiar.
I am the traveller who travels slowly enough to create routines but far enough for home to be a memory. The autist who fears the routines he craves and rebuilds the life he constantly tries to leave behind.
I wake about thirty minutes before the alarm…
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.
It was the sort of café one ends up in. A place that no one would choose, where time is wasted before something better happens. They were sitting at a table, four Europeans, with unloved luggage left carelessly on the forlorn terrace.
Smoking heavily, they must have been travellers on their way to the next awesome experience. Shorts that mismatched t shirts hinted at uniformly alternative new age leanings Long gaps in their millennial conversation were adequately plugged by the WiFi that comes free with the mediocre coffee.
It was fifteen minutes before I noticed her. A girl of no more than five years, who must have spent more moments than just these unwanted. She came from nowhere and talked to the group but no one seemed able to look up from the internet to respond. One or more of these slightly grubby people must have been her parent. A small blonde girl with blue eyes was bored in Asia and no one seemed concerned. So conspicuous and yet unacknowledged by those who have a duty of care.
Cigarettes were finished and butts were squashed underfoot. Backpacks were swung into position and the four travellers were ready to depart. The girl’s hand was taken wordlessly as if she were just excess baggage and off they set, towards the next adventure.
What untold want do you have, little voyager, whose parents have set sail to seek and find? What memories of childhood will you create? How must it feel to be incarcerated on the backpack trail of someone else’s escape?
The event takes centre stage at least geographically. The full moon is here and so boats are raced along the Tonlé Sap river which runs through the heart of the city. Yet, first time celebrant though I am, I mostly wander alone through the hinterlands of the Water Festival and stumble on scenes of familiarity in this quintessentially Cambodian celebration.
The festival itself is almost irrelevant and only the dignitaries in their tiered and shady seating can truly ascertain what’s going on. They sit on a dais sandwiched between the palace and the water, staring at the boats going simultaneously up and down stream. A thin line of supporters extends either side along the river bank but many thousands are focused elsewhere.
Towards the front the vendors are very much pitching to the basic needs. Food and water are being sold as families picnic near but not in sight of the racing boats. Cramped but jovial the families laugh and joke as sour green mango is dipped in a chilli salt sugar mix that assaults and ultimately defies the tastebuds.
A street or two further away large bowls of boiling oil teeter perilously on charcoal burners to produce chicken that is ends up being somewhere between dried and fried but will never upset the stomach. Near by the generously stomached smiling coconut vendor skilfully wields his cleaver to prepare a cooling treat and then pierces the translucent thin flesh with the ever present plastic straw. Here the more complex epicurean desires mingle with other vendors selling balloons and little treats. None of these traders has a stall but merely sits or more often squats and trades alfresco. A mat forms a good base to sit for a picnic. There is more open space so families are sparser allowing room for children to run around and play games every bit as convoluted as those being enacted on the water.
A good kilometre away, but still within the network of closed roads there are the more formal markets and stages. Random big businesses each hawking their wares. Cell phones and detergents both play loudly distorted Khmer love songs to entice their customers. Empty now, but after sunset there will be quite a party on the big main stage. It’s corporate sponsored and it’s going to be loud.
As I head out past the gun toting police on the traffic exclusion barriers, normality, or what passes for it in Phnom Penh starts to reassert itself. The motorbikes and horns replace the vendors cry as I return through the crowded streets to my house. I do not see many solitary observers like myself so I feel slightly superfluous. The people will stay and talk, eat and promenade long after the boats have left the river. Food, family and business are the cornerstones of life here and this festival is ultimately a celebration of that.