In sixth grade, my bright, beautiful kid became a “problem” in school, and conferences went from unmitigated pleasure to embarrassing episodes in which we were told that he lost his papers, couldn’t pay attention, and had to be moved all over the room to avoid contact with any of his friends. Where was the second grader who was chosen to sit with the “problem child” and help him stay calm and do his work? Where was the fifth grader who was so good at technology that teachers called him all over the building to fix their computers and set up the sound system for assemblies? When did the fault line open between that sweet-natured, compliant little boy and The Bad Ass of Sixth Grade?
It didn’t get better. His test scores were still very, very high, but school was a disaster. Teachers who bothered to get to know him found him likeable, but couldn’t get around the fact that he just didn’t seem to do any work. His backpack was filled with crumpled handouts and notes from his friends, and his locker looked like the aftermath of a pipe bomb. We e-mailed teachers, we set limits, we nagged, we organized and re-organized and I went to school and attended classes with him. A good and compassionate teacher offered to help him get his homework done even after their official classroom relationship had ended. Multiple opinions were offered: “he’s just an adolescent,” “this will pass,” “you need to set limits,” “he’s bored,” “school just isn’t his thing,” and my very least favorite, “you should have him tested for ADD.”
Here’s the thing. There was clearly something wrong, but it was muddled in my own mind. I’m no teacher-basher, having been raised by teachers, but starting in sixth grade there were some issues that were beyond Sam’s control. His sixth grade teachers were ready to retire, a little jaded and bitter, and angry at the fifth grade teacher who had allowed Sam to move freely through the building fixing computers, overhead projectors and sound systems. They clamped down, really making a statement to the world about the laxity of the fifth grade teacher, but Sam was collateral damage. Suddenly everything he had been allowed, encouraged and thanked for doing was off limits. Some teachers still asked for his help, and when he went to another classroom to provide that help, he was “in trouble” and sent to the office. The principal, a woman concerned primarily with the condition of her hair and nails, never figured out or solved the adult war being played out on our son’s hide; she just threw up her well-manicured hands and agreed that he was “a problem.”
In seventh grade there was the science teacher who notoriously disliked boys (in my experience she was not fond of humans of any variety). We were warned, before the year started, that her shtick was iron rule, no flexibility, and no tolerance for 12-year-old boy stuff. She and Sam were a bad match, and by the middle of the year we were receiving reports from other parents that their children were shocked at how badly Sam was treated in science class. The problem was that Sam was not doing his work, and was not doing well in any of his classes. We didn’t have a leg to stand on. You can ask a teacher not to abuse your child if you are the parent of a fresh-faced innocent, but what if your child has become a Problem, and is not holding up his end of the social contract? The answer is that you do what we did, which was to explain over and over to Sam that there were always going to be teachers, and bosses who were irrational and negative, and that one simply needed to buck up and do the work. He didn’t.
He didn’t do it in eighth grade, either. By last year, his freshman year in high school, I saw no future for him other than that of a very intelligent McDonald’s fry cook. He could function in a couple of classes with very organized and motivated teachers, but budget cuts in the district resulted in a History teacher who was a music teacher who could neither teach history nor control the class, and an English teacher who was a football coach who was similarly disinterested in teaching English. There were behavior issues, Sam skipped classes, and a good day was a day when we didn’t get a call from the school. Sam lived in a state of perpetual anxiety; he knew he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing, but the way he explained it to us, he just couldn’t make himself care. He could fix any problem on a computer, he could negotiate Byzantine Craigslist schemes to get himself anything he needed or wanted, but he could not do an algebra worksheet. We punished, we begged, we took away privileges, and possessions and fawned over every success to no avail. There was failure. There was summer school.
Finally, in shame and despair, we had him evaluated for ADD. I know it exists, but I had my own baggage after working for years as a Social Security lawyer. Parents had brought in their small children seeking benefits based on their ADD and ADHD; often it was patently clear to me that the issue was terrible parenting and an unsupportive home environment. “Those people,” I would say judgmentally, “are willing to put a label on their child for their whole school career just because they want a monthly check and something to blame for their bad parenting skills. They are blaming schools and teachers because they have raised disrespectful, undisciplined children.” I had become “those people.” I also watched the movie “Thumbsucker,” which paints a picture of ADD medication as something that drastically alters personality, creating ultra-focused and high achieving zombies who are chemically separated from their actual personalities.
Our doctor explained that there have always been patient, dogged focusers, the prehistoric ancestors capable of tracking a rabbit for hours in order to make sure there was food. She said there had also always been those easily distracted by the flash of a white deer tail in the woods, people who would abandon the tracking of the rabbit for the chance at a much greater score. The world, she explained, needs both the diligent plodders and the distracted darters; sometimes the distracted folk find or create amazing things that no plodder would ever imagine. Sometimes they catch a deer instead of a rabbit, and they eat for days. School, however, is designed to accommodate and award the rabbit stalkers – the diligent, the focused, the calm and the biddable. ADD medication would help Sam to be a rabbit stalker during school hours, but when he didn’t take it he would still be his impulsive, creative self. We filled the prescription.
The good news, the GREAT news from where I’m sitting, is that Sam is a different person this year, partly because he’s growing up, but largely because of the daily dose of Adderall. His notebooks are tidy, he knows what’s going on in every class, he does his homework, he asks for help when he needs it, and I just saw a 20/20 on the outline for an English paper. He is focused, he is using his fine mind, and he is, I believe, comfortable in his own skin because he’s doing his job and doing it well. He has a great group of teachers, he likes them, and so far they seem to like him back. When he broke his right wrist longboarding last week, his first concern was that he would not be able to use that hand to do the computation necessary for Physics and Geometry. The fault line has closed, and the intelligent, ambitious little boy I lost after fifth grade has come back as a pretty impressive young man.
The bad news is that I keep wondering why we had so very little help or compassion for so many years. Sam can’t be the only boy who ever became an unmanageable squirrel when the hormones kicked in, the only kid who is not wired to sit still and fill in blanks on a ditto. I was always taught by my-parents-the-teachers that the job of an educator is to take each student as they are, and work to find a way that they can learn. I can understand that in a district walloped by poverty, rural or urban, that the prospect of differentiating for each student can be daunting. I understand about growing class sizes, shrinking budgets, and the michigoss of perpetual standardized testing – I really, really do. I would have expected, though, that in a district comprised largely of highly motivated, upper middle class students that we might have had some help, that more than two teachers in four years would have made an effort to see anything good in our kid, and try to engage him on his own terms. Last year, when I was contacting teachers to work with them to get Sam on track, two of them would not return an e-mail. I could not, as I had been advised, get from them a syllabus and an extra text book so that I could work with him at home. I could not get an e-mail.
So Sam’s okay, and I’m pretty confident that he will more than make up for The Lost Years. The Adderall helps him focus, and, honestly, to be more compliant. If he had started taking it in sixth grade, he would no doubt have been less easily distracted, and maybe been less stung by the post hoc criminalization of the “Head Techie” job that had kept him occupied and made him feel important. He would have been easier for the awful 7th grade science teacher, and not made waves. We would have known that he wasn’t being taught well, in many cases, but we would have known that his rear end was in his seat and that he was following the rules. He would have been a successful and diligent student, catching his daily rabbit.
Why, though, in a district more “8th Grade College Night” than “Girl Fight in the Bathroom” is a kid’s worth determined not by his intelligence, his imagination or his character, but by his compliance and ability to color inside the lines?
I’m not sorry that we got Sam “better living through chemistry” because I love him, and it makes his life easier and helps him get where he needs to go in life. It helps him to function well in the only system currently available. I’ve got to say, though, that I’m imagining a world in which we recognize the kinetic potential in a crazy-smart deer chaser, and don’t have to turn him into a rabbit tracker to insure his survival or success.