James was a loner, he had trouble relating to other children even in primary; no, not trouble, that would imply he saw it as a problem. He didn't. He was content to sit in a corner in the playground and play in his mind, he was happy running round the playing field, swinging on the swings, being the outsider. It wasn't that he was unpopular, if he was engaged he was a fast runner and a good dribbler in football. He was never left to be picked last like 'Blister' ("cos he's round and squishy like a blister") or Kevin (who just had no coordination and really didn't care about football). No he was alright to have on the team, as long as he was engaged.
It was the adults, the teachers, the parents, the grandparents, the doctors (brought in to check out his brain patterns); they all thought he needed friends. They didn't recognise that forcing him into social situations was stressful and made him behave more oddly. Well no, made him behave oddly. He wasn't odd if left to himself, just not as sociable as adults thought he should be.
"He'll grow out of it" said his Grandmother Jones, unconvincingly "It's just a phase"
The other adults nodded, all unconvinced but unsure what else to do, James was his own person and would do what he would do.
What he did was to continue, contentedly, on the periphery of any social group he was 'in'. He was joined to Wolfcubs and was content to be a seconder, and then a sixer, with little of the normal desire of young boys to exert authority over others. What he would do was analyse a situation far more than his compatriots, so in the game of hide and seek at the camp each year his six always won because they did what others didn't do and didn't expect. He gained popularity because he was 'weird' rather than in spite of it. And that popularity meant little to him but a lot to his parents.
At secondary school he would sit at the back with the troublemakers but get on with his work with an ability to tune out any disruptions. If he sometimes over did the careful presentation of an essay (rewriting it because of one crossing out for instance), if he was left to get on with it he stayed unstressed. Exams were hard, he hated to have to hand in work that was untidy, teachers learned to remove his work as he did the first draft so he would not simple return to it again and again and fail to complete all the tasks. Maths was fine though, except that the requirement to 'show your working' was often irrelevant – all his working was in his head and then the answer was written down. Ax2+Bx+C would be solved in his head with a look of intense concentration. The first time the teacher accused him of cheating and then looked at his face, the face was a bland look of incomprehension, not the blank look of pretend innocence that the guilty would show. Mr Kenneth gave him another one to solve and realised this was a boy who was not so much very clever, just able to store the figures in his mind by expelling distractions. After that his answers in Maths were accepted.
He had trouble at secondary school, he was different and this was the age range where everybody was learning to be different by being the same. Every boy had to support their own football team so on Monday they could happily rib each other about the Saturday results; but to NOT have a team was to be too different. Every pupil had favourite teachers and least favourite ones. They might all be different combinations because everyone was different, but they had to have these preferences. Simply replying "he teaches English" to the question "What do you think of Mr Smith" was to either be making a 'clever' joke (hit him for being 'clever') or too different (so hit him anyway). This lasted for a year or two and then the students came to accept him, and anyway there was Mahomed who had joined and was very, very different and so a much easier target.
The discovery of his empathy with animals came by chance, a visit to the zoo with the school; educational talks by a couple of keepers on how they were preserving rare Island Land Snails from a Caribbean island (the keeper had an extra button undone on her shirt, revealing the hint of a well developed pair of breasts, and so her message was largely lost on the boys), and breeding attempts of Galapagos Tortoises. Then they were given a tour. At the big cats the Lions were being fed; when they group turned to move on James was at the other end, looking intently at the leopard, who was looking right back. There might not have been the bars and the mesh in between, there might have been no-one else in the park. When the group came up with the keeper, James simply said "will she be alright?"
"What do you mean?"
"She's not well, she's in pain"
"Did you read that somewhere?"
"We only found out yesterday, she has a cyst. She'll have the operation tomorrow. How did you know?"
"She told me, you can see it in her eyes" And if you looked with that knowledge, you could see it. But James had seen it first, before being told.
He insisted on returning at the weekend; the leopard wasn't in the enclosure. A keeper walked past and now, for once animated, James asked about the leopard. The keeper was bemused, knowing this was not public knowledge, called the keeper of the cats, the one who had spoken with him before. She smiled when she saw him. "Sheba is recovering, would you like to see her?"
Together, the two of them walked with James' parents beyond the public area to the hospital and there was the cat, resting. As soon as she saw James she got up painfully and walked to the small enclosure's bars and before anybody could say "No!" James had put his hand through. The cat licked his hand and James grimaced with a smile "Her tongue is very rough".
So that's how they learnt, animals, that was the key. A puppy was obtained from the animal sanctuary, a small, sorrowful thing that immediately snuggled up to him on the sofa. As it grew, so did his confidence. He would walk it, teach it to be housetrained (not by slapping it or rubbing his nose in it or any of the other more violent methods advocated at the time, simply by explaining and taking the dog out each time it peed on the floor and praising it for cocking its little leg on the geraniums), and feed it. They were friends and friends not easily parted. When James went to school the puppy was disconsolate; and then overjoyed by his return, a joy only matched by James' at reuniting with the dog.