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One of a Kind

They called him 'Alien'. It was an insult, cruel, insensitive, deliberately isolationary, and shamefully understandable. He was different. Even us teachers could see that, and children are so much more perceptive to even the most subtle of differences.

Oh, he had all the usual requisites of boyhood; a tendency to a runny nose, an excess of detritus in his pockets, a stubborn inability to keep his shirt tucked in, and the stench of his PE bag was also right on the money. But he … well, he was sweet, ridiculously naïve, and whilst utterly beyond help in some subjects, he was light-years ahead in others. In some ways, I suppose I would have to say he was something of a favourite of mine. Maybe it was a latent maternal instinct, a desperate urge to protect him from a world he seemed so ill-prepared for. Maybe. But I think there was just something about him.

The strangest thing was, he had no interest in, nor understanding of, figures. Numeracy, arithmetic, dates, all eluded him. I remember testing the class on the historical dates I had been drilling them on for the better part of a term. He had sat at his desk, gazing out of the window for the duration of the test. He wrote nothing other than his name on the paper. He made no attempt to answer the questions, not even guesses. He wanted no part of it.

But whenever we began an English class, or art, or certain sciences, he would come alive. His comprehension of such subjects was innate, deep, passionate. He left the other kids reeling in his wake. That didn't help his popularity at all, but it made me wonder. The wiring of this boy's brain was clearly … different.

I pushed hard for testing for autistic spectrum disorders. It took some doing. His parents were resistant, the head teacher considered it a waste of precious funding, my fellow teachers were sceptical, but he was intrigued. He knew. He knew he was wired … not wrong ... just differently.

For all my efforts, and for all his compliance, the tests were frustratingly inconclusive. His socialisation issues apart, he didn't really fit any diagnosis. I think he was more disappointed than me. He wanted to understand why he was the way he was. And I wanted, more than anything, to get him the education he deserved. I still feel I failed him.

It was quite a year. I had a whole class to teach, and could not permit one child to dominate my attention. There were children in that class who could not tie their own laces. There were others who were considerably gifted. There was the boy whose parents were killed in a car crash. There was the girl who I'm convinced to this day was being abused by her step-father. There were lovely children, there were rotters, there were laughs and there were tears. It was a roller-coaster ride. But always there, always hovering, was 'Alien'.

He was teased and bullied. He had no friends to defend him, because no child would dare befriend one so different. He never said a word, never 'grassed', never pointed a finger, or railed against the unfairness of it all. He accepted it as life.

He was assigned to the team designing the backdrops for that year's school play. I walked into the hall one lunchtime to see him alone kneeling on the floor amidst a sea of paint pots, pencils, pens, rulers, sketches and canvasses. I asked him where the rest of the team were and he looked up, his expression perplexed.

'They left.'

'Why did they leave?'

He shrugged and stroked the bristles of the brush he was using. 'They didn't want to do it properly,' he said, avoiding my eye.

'How do you mean?' I said, tiptoeing through the chaos to crouch beside him. Sometimes proximity forced him to focus.

He sighed dramatically and handed me a pile of scribbled sketches buried beneath everything else. They were smudged, childlike, cartoonish, the kind of work only to be expected from ten year olds.

'These are their designs?' He nodded. I looked at the backdrops he was creating. They would have reduced a seasoned director to tears of delight, but that was not the point. 'You were supposed to work with them. Sometimes you have to compromise.'

He looked up at me, puzzlement mixing with distress that he had upset me. 'Why?'

It was a tough question.

When I spoke with the others, they told me they had no interest in working with the 'Alien', because he was, by all accounts, 'too weird'. I capitulated, thereby making everyone happy. And when he was called to the stage to accept a standing ovation for his work, I had to leave the room. Seeing him standing on the stage, looking out at all the parents applauding him, that perplexed expression still fixed in place, I cried. It was the first time he had received the praise he so deserved.

And then he disappeared.

One day, shortly after the play, he didn't come to school. I phoned his mother to ask where he was and the balloon went up. She told me in a voice close to panic that she had watched him walk to school, following him in secret until he reached the crossing patrol.

He never made it those final few yards.

The police could make nothing of it. Nothing had been seen of him. His distraught mother was placed under suspicion. Then his father. Then various local people of interest to the police. But there was nothing. He had simply vanished.

The children were fascinated, even inspired by the awfulness of it, and it wasn't long before stories circulated that the mother ship had returned for him and other such nonsense. I tried to put a stop to it all, but in many ways I think it helped them deal with it.

I think it helped me too.

Even now, on sleepless nights, I find myself imagining him in a spaceship somewhere, surrounded by others like him, discussing what he learned on his brief mission to Earth. I know it's absurd, but it's so much better than the alternative.


© 2014 Kay Lawrence.


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