I might get my arse metaphorically kicked for this post. But here goes nothing.
A few weeks ago I read a post here where Twindaddy speaks on that awful shooting in Santa Barbara and other matters arising from it. When I read it a few light bulbs went off in my head but nothing I could quite put my finger on exactly. I just knew that certain words were jumping out at me and that I had a sense of something. Since then I’ve been thinking – dangerous pastime – and I’ve read a number of other things and heard some more that make me want to put the ideas together into some sort of coherent thought. I’ll let you be the judge of that. I know what I mean.
First off, I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a teacher. Kids who come under my radar are aged 3 to 12. I’ve been doing this job now for over thirty years. And I’ve seen changes not only in the way children are taught but in the children themselves. In the past, I would occasionally come across a child with behaviour issues. It might not even have been in my own class but there were always at least a few in any school who were known to all the staff as ‘problem children’.
Nowadays, only having one or two in a class would be a miracle. And I’m talking from the earliest classes here. The youngest age group. Behaviour problems that beg to be addressed and solutions to be found. Not for the teacher’s sake although, god knows, it’s a damn sight easier to teach children who are prepared to be taught than to root out the reasons why so many children demonstrate disturbed behaviour.
No, the reason the problems need addressing is because the behaviour of these children impacts negatively on the learning environment and on the other children present in the class. Not to mention the fact that the children who have the problems are among some of the most unhappy little people you may ever come across. Their unhappiness though impacts on society as a whole. Now, in the present time. And later, when problematic becomes unmanaged and unmanageable. Later, when children are grown to adults and they carry with them the scars of a childhood that should never have been.
The job I’ve been doing the last nine years or so is called Area Cover. I go to many different schools as and when required, taking whatever class the headteacher needs me to cover. Sometimes it’s for a year, sometimes for half a day. Mostly it’s for a number of weeks or months at a time. I love it. Prior to doing Area Cover I was in the same school all the time and I got fed up with school politics and the same faces. Also, I had a bad bout of depression around that time and resigned from teaching. Just like that.
One of the reasons I probably was so depressed was that I had a child in my class that year who was a real problem. Not to me. I loved him. But his life was a Dickensian novel. His mother was a prostitute at home to feed her drug habit, his father was in prison and he was left responsible for a two year old child. He begged for food around doors in his neighbourhood – quite a tough one – and came to school late every day. He got into fights with the other children, he used language that they were mostly scandalised at and he had a whole lot more to worry about than whether he had his homework with him. He was too busy dealing with life in its most raw form.
At a meeting with his social worker and the head teacher I sat, waiting for his guardian – an aunt who had deigned to accommodate him under the stairs, a la Harry Potter – to make an appearance. She didn’t. Meanwhile, I was fretting that my own children, being minded by my mum, would be wondering where I was and why I wasn’t home yet. The social worker talked of this and that and how the problem would continue to grow as we saw more children being born to drug addicts and the children themselves going on to become parents and not knowing how to parent. I could feel my heart sinking inside like a stone and I just wanted to get home to my own kids to hold them and hug them and let them know that they were loved.
The meeting was abandoned and I drove home the three or four miles in my minibus – our then family vehicle to accommodate the five children I already had and the sixth I was expecting.
I cried all the way home, picked up my own kids, and then spoke to my husband that night about the boy in my class and how I just wanted to bring him home. This was not an option but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this child would be ok if only he had love and normality.
I went off on maternity leave shortly afterwards and never returned. Every time I thought of going back I thought of this boy who had eventually been taken into care, probably with no likelihood of fostering or adoption. His problems would have made him unwanted by many. And he had done nothing to deserve it. Except be born. His hand had been dealt and it was shit.
That was around twelve years ago. Every class then had a kid with some problem or other although his was by far and away the worst, at that time, that I’d ever come across.
Now, by nature of the job I do, I see cases like his to different degrees. I’m in and out of ‘good areas’ and ‘bad areas’ but the problems occur right across the spectrum.
Which kind of brings me to one of the words that Twindaddy used in his post. Asperger’s.
Given that I teach in so many schools and so many classes I do, naturally, encounter children with a range of difficulties. Asperger’s is just one form of autism on the Autistic Spectrum. And I still require help in managing the many different aspects of autism that I may encounter. Not being an expert on it means that I look to the experts for help in doing the best I can to aid learning for children whose needs are different than the norm. This year, for the first time, I’ve also worked with children with mental impairment and/or physical disabilities. The first time left me shell-shocked and in need of wine at the end of the day.
Then I began to enjoy it in a way I hadn’t expected. The challenge of reaching children whose difficulties were more than the average expected proved exciting in a way I wouldn’t have believed. I accidentally one day had a child in stitches laughing and tried to remember what I’d said that had communicated itself to her when usually she sat in her wheelchair unable to speak but obviously taking in more than I’d given her credit for. Then I realised I hadn’t said anything special, just spoken to her as I’d speak to any of the other children I usually teach. I’d made some remark that she’d found funny and as soon as I realised the range of her understanding it became a challenge with me to see if I could get her and a few others laughing. Maybe that’s not my job. But, faced with children who appear to be incapable of normal interaction and discovering that their abilities and difficulties varied hugely all in one class, inspired for me a new way to work with them than my initial reaction had suggested. My perceptions were wrong.
What I do know is that while they had learning difficulties this in no way reflected the level of violence they were capable of. Most of them were pussy cats. One or two certainly could kick off and would invariably turn over a chair or two before taking themselves off to a conveniently padded room that allowed them to vent their anger/frustrations in safety.
We don’t have padded rooms as a matter of course attached to classrooms. That’s only in those units where the risk is deemed sufficient to protect the child from themselves.
But. And this is a big but. In mainstream classes I have wished, for the sake of the children concerned, that there were such rooms. There are children deemed to be normal whose behaviours are violent and aggressive and whose only apparent recourse is venting in action and voice. And then tears.
These are not happy children. These are not ‘normal’ children because their childhoods are not normal. In almost every case there are facts that become apparent that explain the reasons for their behaviour. And, behind every one, there is at least one adult whose inability to parent effectively, for whatever reasons, is a major factor in their child’s behaviour and unhappiness.
And if you’re unhappy in childhood what chance do you have for a normal adulthood, free of mental torment?
Which kind of brings me to Rene’s post Monkeys and Morality from Hank Green, one half of the brother team who, through their online vlogs, seek to educate a world to more than video games and shallow thought. Their bite-sized education should be compulsory for many if not all parents and adults who seek to understand how we as humans tick. This particular video addresses significant areas in child development. This is the stuff I studied at college. I have no idea whether it is still taught to teachers although I have my doubts based on certain information I’m gathering around education, how it’s taught and what training is given to future educators. Whole other post. And a rather worrying one.
Children are not small adults. That’s the main thing. Their normal development is dependent on kind touch and an authoritative but understanding parenting style that guides but explains. It is dependent on interaction from parents/carers that expresses concern and love in a way that we think everyone knows but not all practise.
The results of non-contact as outlined in the video and conducted as an experiment on monkeys a fair number of years ago reflects the many negative aspects of absence of parental contact and care-giving. It is so worth a watch. (11.38 mins worth)
The unfortunate infant monkey in the experiment manifested self-abusive behaviours and later went on to become incapable of parenting when allowed to breed. It had no idea what to do. How could it? Imagine generations of the same scenario.
Imagine generations of the same scenario among humans. Humans with their supposedly greater capacity to reason and communicate. We don’t have to imagine. It is happening now. Where we live. Everywhere. There are children being born to parents whose neglect of love in a meaningful way is and has been impacting on the capabilities subsequent generations have to show love. Both for themselves and for others.
I’d say that affects mental health. It doesn’t perhaps cover all range of mental illnesses and the reasons for them. But it sure goes some way to understanding why so many suffer in ways that cannot be explained or diagnosed through medical knowledge and why so many have need of psychiatric assistance to unravel the damage often done in the earliest formative years.
So are any of us normal?
I’m thinking of my own parents here. My father was a strict man. He had standards of behaviour he expected us to live by. But he was also very loving and explained the world to us in ways we could understand. My mother was more of a soft mark when it came to getting what we wanted but she was also no pushover and tempered giving with explanations of why certain things had to be, the practicalities of life. She opened up a world of questions for us and allowed free speech in a way that my dad sometimes overruled by virtue of his fatherhood. The ‘because I said so’ school.
Between the two of them I guess there was a balance. But does that mean I’m normal? I have suffered from depression off and on since I was about twelve. I get angst ridden about the world, my world, my ability to cope with certain aspects of life. Then I come out of it.
I’ve called myself here an optimistic depressive. Then I came across a blog post, that I can’t remember where, put my phraseology into another light. So now I’m a flexible optimist. I do believe that most things turn out for the best and trust way too often when experience should have taught me otherwise. Maybe I’m just a bit thick in that department. But it’s who I am and I accept it. Just as I accept that there will be times when my flexible optimism takes a bit of a nose dive and leaves me wondering WTF?
I’m operating on a spectrum. A range of feelings and emotions and life-experiences that colour how I perceive and react to the good and bad stuff that happens to us all. So, sometimes I cope. Sometimes I don’t. Then I do again.
Since I started here just over a year ago I have come to realise, in a way that I might never otherwise have, that pretty much everybody appears to be operating on this spectrum of mental health. And I kind of think that’s normal. Maybe we should stop thinking of mental health as the presence or absence of an illness diagnosed or otherwise and perhaps perceive it as a spectrum we all operate on, sometimes verging on the extremes for one reason or another be it chemical or circumstantial but with each of us sliding along it dependent on our ability to cope with any given set of circumstances at any given time based on life experiences and the tools to cope with them.
Or would that be a Copernican idea too far?
And what the hell does all of this have to do with guns? Or the control of them?
You might be aware that here in the UK we don’t have the ‘right to bear arms’ either selectively interpreting the Second Amendment or otherwise. Our police aren’t armed either. Except in exceptional circumstances. I haven’t really weighed in on this in the past because I’ve thought that others might think, ‘Shut the fuck up. This has nothing to do with you.’ And maybe it hasn’t.
But an outside perspective, I’ve decided, can sometimes help. That’s my reasoning. And I’m sticking to it.
It seems every time there is an atrocity committed that a reason behind it has to be found. That a possible diagnosis of mental illness can excuse or explain why someone takes a gun and essentially executes innocents. But I think that’s a cop out. How many people do you know who have mental health issues and how many of those are likely to harm anyone in that way other than possibly themselves?
Of those I have taught and those I still do I could lay bets on who would likely be the perpetrator of such an act and the most likely candidates I can think of given their penchant for violence and aggression are those who live with that as their childhood. And even that doesn’t signify that they would. They’re much more likely to commit suicide too. Or go on to inflict the same rotten childhood on their own young in the absence of any better example or overriding desire. But, if I were to seek reasons why someone randomly opens fire I’d be looking at their childhood for answers. Who we become is formed essentially in the earliest of years. What scars we carry or otherwise remain until relieved in some way.
If screening for mental health issues were to become a factor in determining who should have the right to carry a gun then that would have to be extended to all those who have had a childhood of violence or neglect or control or laxity. That’s a lot of screening. And who knows who might slip through? Could be the police officer who rescues an abused or neglected child and whose own mental trigger determines whether that parent should live or die.
We are too complex as beings to determine these things based on some random testing. We are too complex as beings to be judged on mental stability based on others’ perceptions of what mental health and illness are. But, even monkeys know that love and nurture determine how we perceive the world around us. And that its absence muddies the colours of the spectrum of life from one end to the other.
Asperger’s when mentioned in TD’s post got me thinking about how so much of life is on a spectrum of one sort or another. Happiness/sadness. Pain/joy. Reality/unreality. Positivity/negativity. Knowledge/ignorance. Love/hate. Right/wrong. Evil/goodness. Innocence/guilt. Everything in between is deemed normal. But we all shift on the spectrums. For good or bad. We cope sometimes. We don’t sometimes. Our perceptions change and reflect circumstances and mitigating factors.
Maybe, in any extreme, there will always be the potential for someone to snap and react in a totally shocking way. Whether by gun or knife or any other weapon. Arming a population with guns – and I would include police here – increases the risk of greater damage than would otherwise be the case. Who can possibly know the internal workings of any mind and whose hand might itch to avenge their own unhappiness? The child that snaps in class may have been sitting quite calmly five minutes earlier before erupting over apparently nothing. I don’t want an unhappy anyone armed for more than turning over a few chairs with no padded room available to let off steam.
I don’t know what’s normal and what’s not other than what we perceive in general terms but how many of us fit into the general?
I’m choosing to see normal as life operating on various spectrums, all interconnected, all having significance. It won’t cure mental illnesses where medical diagnosis says medicate. It won’t change children and adults who operate on the Autistic Spectrum when recognised. All it changes for me is my perception. That maybe there are many spectrums we don’t yet think of. For me, my own little Copernican Revolution. Something of a shift in my cosmos.
Arse now bent over for a kicking. I’m hoping I’ve been more lucid than I suspect I have but I did want to get this down.
I had been attempting to comment on another much more succinct post on the subject of gun control when I lost it all to my kindle. It was getting way too long-winded anyway. Much like this post. If you’ve reached the end here, thank you for reading all the way through. I don’t even know if I’ve answered all my own thoughts on this. I’ll probably mull away some more especially if feedback suggests I’m way off mark or there are other things I should have weighted more.
Anyway, thanks for reading. Not only this post but all the bits and pieces I write. And thanks too for all that you write that gives me food for thought. Even if those thoughts are scattered at times.