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Saint Adderall?

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.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

7 responses »

  1. Loved it Ann – oh so true!

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  2. Oh, Anne. The travails of parenting. Stephanie did not get proper help until I married Jim and she was in 7th grade. Her learning disabilities aren’t something you can drug into smarts. But Jim at least could spend the time taking her back to 2nd grade math, number sets and working toward understanding middle school science. This was because he’d experienced many such obstacles to learning, and still gotten a PhD. I never had any troubles at school and couldn’t fathom how to help her.

    Now there is AJ. ADHD on crack. Poor Mrs.Sung. By all accounts the best K teacher he could get! She has him on a behavior plan already. She should be able to start actually teaching the kids things in another few days when we see less notes like this on his daily report: bangs table, hits Bea in the chest, shouts out own comments and opinions, interrupts Ben when Ben is called on to answer, karate chops books of kids in line at media center time. She says: it’s almost like he has no impulse control. Duh. And AJ is ON ADDERALL. Can you imagine what life here is like as he comes down? Part of this is being 5, trouble with transitions, and 2 Parenting Times a week with highly dysfunctional father’s family.

    In Stephanie’s case, her disability is invisible. The most like label she gets from the ignorant masses is Lazy and Dumb. AJ will mostly be treated as a bully who just can’t seem to control himself. He has a clever, resourceful mind, great compassion and empathy, but his out-of-control 10-track brain function is interfering.

    At least Jim and I know that the school will do little to help. We are his best advocates in the world, at home, school, where ever. No, I’d say only 20 percent of Stephanie’s high school teachers would share their syllabus and notes so we could keep abreast of the work! So we were teaching at home by the seat of our pants a lot. At least in Sam and AJ’s case, their brain works well when the interference is cleared. So glad to hear you did get there for Sam. But it takes the parents. The schools just cannot do the unconditional love and perseverance for every student. Unrealistic, but when you’re a desperate parent who needs help, you are praying it could be so.

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  3. Totally relate to this as the mother of a child with high functioning autism. As a parent it is SO challenging to have a child who likes to color outside the lines, when the world wants us all to color inside the lines. Best of luck to Sam. I’m sure he will find his niche in the world.

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  4. As a teacher, I so loved your honest story of Sam’s journey through the past few grades – and I am so sorry that he wasn’t better able to be accommodated. I can say that it takes a combination of imagination, creativity, patience, dogged determination, and flexibility to work successfully with students that have ADD as a component of their learning differences. It is a challenge to keep a sense of cohesion and consistency across classroom routines and expectations, while allowing for the differences in behaviour that typically accompany attention deficit disorders. But, it can be done – so long as the teacher is prepared to let go of the “must fit square peg into round hole” inflexibility that goes along with maintaining his or her classroom they way s/he envisions.

    Last year I took over a “nightmare” class that had already worked its way through 3 other teachers. 35 kids, with all manner of needs – as all students have – but also some specifically diagnosed (and some not) – with ADD, Autism, Gifted, LD, and ED. Quite a combination. In order to work successfully with this group, I had to change many of my typical routines. It is hard for teachers to change routines because they are honed through years of practice and those that are most efficient for the teacher tend to become the ones that stick. The “Let’s get through this day as efficiently as possible” approach just isn’t effective when there are students who struggle with organisation and self-control, not to mention the often delightful blurt-outs from my student with Autism. This is when the teacher needs to abandon his or her determined march through the curriculum, and start working WITH the students and work with WHO they are. At this point, everything changes.

    My classroom lay-out changed. I managed to get a different desks (without the inner pit to trap paper monsters), I had to corral the scissors and pencil sharpeners, I gave my cell phone number to every parent involved and called regularly during the months to talk through how things were going. The daily planner became a significant communication tool, and my schedule changed to include time for writing in certain students’ planners and attaching notes and documents. We had classroom meetings to discuss issues that emerged with particular students, and gave “kudos” to little things that helped everyone get along.

    It’s true that my days weren’t as efficient last year, my classroom wasn’t the immaculate sanctuary I envisioned, and we didn’t cover as much ground in the curriculum. But, I had students who became more tolerant and understanding of differences, who learned how to be flexible in working with others – and those others heard from classmates that boundaries needed to be respected. My most difficult students knew I cared enough to take the time to work with them to help them be successful – even if that meant in organising their stuff (in the end a milk crate was the most useful).

    Last year, we had to develop a “we’re in this together” approach (students-teacher-parents) and I had to let go of the race to get everything done on time. It’s not easy to do that. Especially in a middle-class, highly motivated educational environment. As a teacher, there is enormous pressure to keep up, and to make sure the kids are always on top of what’s going on – your class should be the first across the finish line. The trouble is, in the current education climate, everyone’s ploughing through curriculum, meeting standards and preparing for testing in a panic to make sure no kid gets left behind. And what happens is that the kids that don’t immediately fit – the square pegs – do get left behind. I don’t think our system is the better for it.

    I’m so glad Sam is doing better. I hope no other teachers fail him. I miss my students from last year, and the many from previous years. Teaching’s hard, no doubt about it. But, it’s the students that make it worthwhile.

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  5. We struggle to find answers for them, don’t we? And when we finally hit upon the thing that works for our kids – that thing to clears the clouds, lets in the sunlight and the birds singing – we can celebrate for a breath and then move on to the next challenge with a wee bit more confidence. But here’s the thing, you cared enough to be the parent who struggled; there seems to be far too few of those kinds of parents these days, and I’m proud of you and happy for Sam.

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  6. Once upon a time, in the days of yore, when I taught self-contained Special Education classes, I must admit that I wished for a Ritalin/Adderall dispenser in my classroom. Some days are just like that.
    And yet, your concerns about squelching the crazy-smart deer chasers of the world are very real to me, too.
    This district and these not-very-fictional teachers exist partly because they haven’t been able to see the deer chasers in other contexts. I was blest to know Sam as a capable, intelligent young man in a different context. Every time I looked out at him in class, that’s how I saw him. I saw his potential because I knew of his successes in other arenas. Others didn’t have that perspective. If I had any success with him, I attribute part of it to the ‘other Sam’ I saw. (I’m sure patience, a sense of humor, and a dose of humility were also part of it)
    Middle school and high school can be some of the most hellish, but awesome years of life…and I’m glad he’s having some success these days. But you must feel the same strong sense I have — he’s going to find his niche, he’s going to survive in this crazy world just fine, and he may even surprise his biggest supporters (us) by inventing the next superdee-dooper widget thingy we all have to have.
    Peace and joy in the journey…

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  7. I hope this gives you some hope. Your story of Sam is a replica for my daughter. The parent teacher nights were my worse nightmare. I was the first parent to arrive and the very last to leave, with every teacher greeting was “Oh, so you’re Poppy’s Mother!” By her second high school change (Steiner School) I was told she should be tested for ADHD, like you I had the same sentiments, plus being a single Mum I did not want people to say it was an excuse for poor parenting. Like you, I did all the….. ‘to live in this world you have to’… but it made not the slightest difference. The Ritalin was prescribed and within a very short time my daughter was sailing along fantastically. She remained on the Ritalin nearly two years till she graduated from high school, then came off the drug. There were many ups and downs in the in between from coming off the drug and a year or so ago. The good news is, now 22 years old, she is doing really well. Her outgoing gregarious personality enabled her to become one of the youngest Managers Vodafone hired; managing 3 stores in her 4th year at the job. It was the ‘gap year’ job that became permanent and after four years she decided to move on to recruitment, where she is now enjoying a happy working life with a good salary, living away from home and in a stable relationship. Looking back she was like a square peg in a round hole. Her concentration was terrible for school work but her mind was sharp as a tack. I wonder how many children suffer this isolation and frustration in school at not being able to communicate, ostracized by teachers, for being naughty children who never concentrate? Hang in there, he is probably extremely creative, just you wait and see.

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