Inside Out

This week, my life is turning inside-out and upside-down. I’m viewing my future from a new, uncomfortable perspective.

What is this event that’s triggering such a torrent of emotion? My son is starting kindergarten. In three days, I’ll be depositing him in his new classroom, leaving him in the hands of a stranger. A kind, compassionate stranger with both a degree in and experience in special education — but still, to my anxious mother’s mind, a stranger.

I taught in Anchorage, Alaska for five years, three of which were in second grade. Each fall,  particularly in second grade, I watched with tactfully-hidden amusement as the parents lingered next to their little ones’ desks — giving one last hug three times, snapping photos, checking to see that supplies fit into desks. I bit my tongue to keep from telling them, Just go! They’ll be fine! I kept my amusement to myself and refrained from giving advice, knowing (in theory) how hard it is to walk away from our little ones. After my son was born, I had a bit more understanding of what it was like to leave a beloved child with someone else. But then, he was just a baby, his personality undeveloped, and our babysitter quickly became like a member of our family. I didn’t have as much difficulty leaving him as these parents did with their children.

Now, as my almost-six-year-old is entering kindergarten, I believe I finally understand what my class’s parents were going through. I think constantly about that moment three days from now, when I’ll walk away from my son and leave him till 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m nervous — terrified, to be honest — for him and for me.

My son is a quirky little boy, with foibles and idiosyncrasies in plenty. He received a  diagnosis of ADHD and began receiving special education services at his preschool in the spring. The diagnosis helps his dad and me understand some of his qualities, and he now takes medication, which makes him both easier to manage and happier. But despite these positive developments, I worry. I worry that someone he encounters won’t recognize or appreciate the curious, bright little boy disguised under his twitchy and excitable exterior. I worry that his teachers won’t be willing to try unusual methods to help him focus, like giving him extra breaks or letting him stand up to work. I worry that his busyness and impulsiveness will alienate both the adults and children at his school and prevent him from making friends.

As a teacher, I knew my own capabilities in the classroom. I knew that I worked well with many “special” kids. I tend to project a gentle, calming atmosphere. Having ADHD myself, I have an inside knowledge of what tends to work for these brains. I’ve put many hours of research into learning about the world of autism. I worked hard to find support for students for whom our regular curriculum wasn’t working. I also knew about the amazing staff in our school, and to whom I could go for advice and support for students that weren’t as easy to help. So from my perspective, I had no doubt that these small ones were going to be in good hands from that first day of school on. I knew their parents would soon relax, as they saw that their children were doing well.

As a parent, though, I find it hard to automatically accept this same knowledge. I’ve met with staff at Niko’s new school; I attended the Kindergarten Roundup with its overwhelming onslaught of information; I met his new teacher at the Open House this past week. All of these encounters were completely positive. I’ve heard rave reviews of the school from adults who have fond memories of attending there as children. Of course, I’ve also seen the excellent ratings available online. Objectively, I know that there’s every reason to trust the teachers and other staff to care for Niko and provide a good atmosphere for his education.

Still, there’s that quiet terror striking into my soul. I’m about to send my son to school. Not for three hours, three or four days a week, as we’ve been doing the past two years of preschool — no, this is the real deal. From 8:00 am to 2:30 pm, five days a week, he’ll be launching into his educational career. For six and a half hours a day, he’ll be out of my reach. He’ll be learning from someone else, subject to another person’s disciplinary methods, and influenced by another person’s opinions and beliefs.  I feel that I’m on the brink of an entry to a new world: the world of parenthood of a school-aged child, that until now I’ve only seen from the outside.

Suddenly, I’m both terrified and humbled. Finally, I know what those parents of my second-graders were feeling. I’m on the other side of the parent-teacher interaction now. It’s my turn to send my little one off into the big world of elementary school, trusting his teachers to support and guide him in ways I can’t do. I only hope I can be as brave as the parents of my second-grade students were each year, as they gave their children encouraging smiles and backed out of the classroom to leave them in my hands. Now it’s my turn to remember: Just go. He’ll be fine. It’s my turn to put on a brave face and an encouraging smile, to walk away, to let him take his first steps to growing up. It’s time to let go.

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The One Reason I Quit Teaching

I read this piece (attached below), written by blogger Elona Schreiner, and I’ll admit it made me sniffle. I was overwhelmed because it reminded me so strongly of my own experience. While I paused my teaching career to care for my small children rather than because of the chafing of the current demands of teaching, I completely understand this teacher’s concern for the politicization of education, and the frustration it causes. Like her, I’ve had students whose greatest growth could never be recorded in a spreadsheet or charted on a graph.

I remember a second-grade student who improved from a pre-kindergarten reading level — not even able to identify a single letter in her own name — to an end-of-first-grade level… and despite my personal joy in her progress, I felt the sting of the knowledge that on paper, she and I appeared to be failures, because she still wasn’t reading at the appropriate level. It hurts, knowledge like that.

It’s been painful to see the vibrant, growing, life-loving children I’ve learned to love each year being reduced to numbers on a chart, being analyzed as if they’re products in a warehouse. It hurts to realize that a child who really needs the boost of summer school, doesn’t qualify because — oh terrible irony! — he and I worked so hard that year that his score was too high by one percentile to fit into the program, because of reduced funding.

I know teachers who teach with energy and inspiration, who rise above the politics and the tests and assessments and charts and Excel worksheets, who lead their students to a love of learning with passion and fire. But maintaining that kind of energy is exhausting, when over half the time spent working is recording, analyzing, moving numbers from one spreadsheet to another — while less than half the time is spent with the children. I spent easily 60-80 hours working each week; only about 30 of those hours were spent with my students.

I’m not trying to gain sympathy, really. It’s just that what teachers love is, well, teaching; and maintaining passion for teaching as we watch it shift away from a focus on children, toward a focus on numbers, is disheartening — and that won’t change until it’s a widely recognized issue.

I look forward to returning to teaching. But I dread it, too, for all the reasons outlined in Ms. Schreiner’s piece that’s attached here. Maybe someday those things will change; in the meantime, our students still need us, and I’m grateful for my colleagues in the trenches even as I’m reveling in my opportunity to take a step back and breathe. I’m grateful to those who set an example of grace and strength, who maximize every moment they have with their students, who refuse to be worn down by politics and by our nation’s appetite for numbers on graphs.

Ellie R. Schreiner

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September means apples, bulletin boards, foliage, name tags, a new class and everything else about going back-to-school! After over thirty years of starting the fall in a classroom, as a student or teacher, I decided to take a break this year. I taught for thirteen years all over Oregon, and it was not an easy decision to take a year off from teaching. We moved from Oregon to Texas and I knew that now was the time to step back. It’s now been two months since school started for the rest of my world, and I have had time reflect upon the decision to change careers. I can now articulate the many things I miss about teaching and the one thing that I do not.

Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. There were moments when I saw myself as a lawyer, a rodeo cowgirl, a photojournalist, a…

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Worried About the Avocado

Glancing down at a questionnaire Niko’s doctor had handed me on the way out of the office today, one item stood out: Frequently worried or afraid. I was supposed to select the degree to which the description might be true: Not at all; Somewhat; A lot, or some similar scale. I sighed as I checked off A lot.

Worried or fearful aren’t words the average observer might immediately think of as descriptors for my ebullient son. He is curious about absolutely everything, full of questions about life, death, dinosaurs, the solar system, you name it. His questions are thoughtfully designed to extract every possible drop of knowledge from the mind of his conversational partner. Nothing makes him happier than learning that Deinonychus’s teeth were sharp as steak knives, or North American porcupines have barbed quills.

But give him two minutes of silence in the car, or the peaceful quiet of his bed at night, and his mind begins roiling with the ramifications of all these facts. Will a porcupine’s quills HURT us? But why? It’s not nice to hurt people. Why did that bird die? Will I die? When? Will you still love me if I die… or if you die?

Tonight, nearly two hours had passed after putting Niko to bed…after hugs, kisses, cuddles, reassurances, tucking in yet again, soothing the panic of the realization Stuffy had been left in the car, rescuing Stuffy, more hugs, more kisses, ditto for Stuffy too… After all that, I was thinking yearningly of my own bed when I heard a small, anxious
voice. “Moommmmmmyyyyyy!”

I opened his door. “What’s wrong?”

“I need you. I really really neeeeeeed you.”

Usually I can withstand even the most heartfelt neeeeeed, but this one sounded more urgent than usual. I climbed onto his bed and cuddled beside him, any hope for an early night vanishing. “Why do you need me?”

We talked about loneliness, about how far away Mom seemed at night. I reminded him that really I was very close, just a few steps away, and showed him how close his sister was, too — just right next to him, on the other side of the wall. He seemed to relax for a moment, and then in a rush the real problem came out.

“When I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom” — and here his voice wobbled, grew thick with tears — “I almost started to cry.”

“Why did you almost cry?”

“I didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. I was just nervous.”

“What part of school made you feel nervous?”

“Dramatic play. I was worried about dramatic play.”

Dramatic play is not typically a concern for Niko. He loves costumes, always has, and this winter, after a huge amount of effort from his preschool teacher, he had a breakthrough: he discovered his imagination and the joy of pretending. His excessively literalist tendencies make those ventures into make-believe all the more delight-filled. And he often mentions the dramatic play center as one of his favorites. So it was with growing puzzlement that I dutifully asked, “Why were you worried about dramatic play?”

“It’s the wooden food. I’m worried about the avocado.”

Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh… “The…the avocado
is worrying you?”

“I just don’t want to eat it. I really don’t like avocados.”

Avocados. This child was lying awake for two hours worrying about the possibility that he might have to pretend to eat a wooden avocado. TWO HOURS. It turns out that it was a social dilemma: he wanted to participate and be a server, but what if — oh, the horror! — what if someone asked for the avocado? “If someone else asks for the avocado, you don’t have to eat it, do you?” I pointed out. Not that simple, of course: what if they offered him a bite? “It’s pretend. So you just pretend to eat it, and pretend you like it. Or you say no thank you. Or you take a pretend bite and say it’s not your favorite and you’d rather try a, a, a tomato.” Problem solved. Whew! After two…well, now almost three…hours of obsessing over a toy avocado, his mind was finally peaceful enough to sleep.

Yes, if a toy avocado can cause such havoc, I think it’s safe for me to check off “A lot” beside Frequently worried. Lying awake for three hours, pondering the social implications of pretend serving a toy food he himself does not care for…
What a boy.
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Classroom Nightmare

So unfair. Nearly three-quarters of the way through my second year away from the classroom, what comes knocking in my brain? That’s right. A school nightmare. One of those horrible, chaos-filled, downward-spiral dreams, so hauntingly realistic that you have to test yourself upon waking, searching the dream for clues, to determine whether it may have actually happened. As a teacher, I had these every year, starting a few weeks before the first day of school, and recurring periodically throughout the year before major events. But having one mid-year when I’m not even teaching? The universe has it in for me.

I was writing the morning message on the chalkboard [clue #1: I’ve never taught in a classroom with a chalkboard — my classrooms have always had whiteboards] when a dour-faced woman with faded hair walked in and flicked on my lights — MY lights! — which I keep dimmed in the morning to preserve my serenity. “I’ve come to take over for an hour,” she said. “You’re wanted in a meeting.”

I gawked at her. Meeting? “Where is it?” I asked. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just told to come to your classroom so you could go.”

“I see. Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have any notes for you, but of course the first ten minutes will just be –”

She interrupted with an impatient wave of her hand. “I know, I know, you start with the Dawnzer song.” She flipped the math workbook open to the last lesson on fractions. “Page 234? Is it on the smartboard?”

I was getting annoyed. “No,” I said. “We don’t sing the Dawnzer song. [That’s clue #2. I’ve been reading Ramona the Pest to Niko, and the Dawnzer song turns out to be “The Star-Spangled Banner.”] We just say the pledge. Then announcements. Then they can do this page independently. It’s review. And no, I don’t use that awful board.” [Clue #3: I LOVED having a smartboard. Loved it.] I flipped backward to the first lesson on fractions.

She lifted an incredulous eyebrow. “Are you sure? Shouldn’t you be doing Lesson 12?”

“I’m sure. Now, when they’re finished –”

The woman lifted her left wrist and looked pointedly at her watch.

I swallowed. “All right, I’d better go. Thanks for coming in.” As I turned to go, I realized that my students had all arrived without my seeing them. They all sat motionless, gazing solemnly at me. I hadn’t even had a chance to high-five or fist-bump each one at the door or tell them each good morning, yet there they were, waiting for me to leave. And instead of the cozy groups of five desks that they were supposed to have, all the desks were arranged in a grid, perfectly spaced. As I surveyed them, their faces all morphed into the sweet, round face of the Kid President. [Clue 4. I love Kid President, but 25 of him? A trifle creepy.] In unison, each one raised a hand and waggled his fingers. Buh-bye, now. As I turned away, I heard the substitute say, “Take out your math books and turn to page 274, lesson 12,” as she stood smugly in front of the lesson displayed on the smartboard. MY smartboard.

It occurs to me some sadly deprived people might not know who Kid President is. Below is a picture of him looking inspirational, along with an inspirational quote. He’s on Facebook. And YouTube. He’s really pretty amazing.

Anyway, to continue: I hurried down the hallway, clutching a pen and cradling a hungrily nursing Sofia in my arms. Wait — how did she get there? She hadn’t been there a minute ago. Bad enough that I hadn’t checked my emails one single time this year, now I arrive at a meeting, probably late (no one had bothered to say when it was supposed to start), with a nursing baby? Worse and worse. This was probably a meeting to fire me.

I turned a corner, descended the steep stairs, and beheld an alcove where the utility closet had been. [I’m sure you can guess that that is yet another clue. I’m going to stop counting now.] At a table sat a man that my dream self recognized as our special ed teacher, someone I’d never seen before in real life, but I knew immediately that I disliked him. Next to him was a couple that I recognized as the parents of the only fifth-grader in my second-grade class [huh???], and next to them was my principal, Heidi. They surveyed me coolly as I settled into an uncomfortably large chair, still nursing Sofia. I slid backward, my feet leaving the ground, feeling like I was disappearing into the chair.

The special ed teacher passed around a heavy stack of the IEP (individualized education plan) drafts. “Here we go,” he said. “It’s all digital, so I was going to make a slideshow of crucial changes, but then I realized that would make the meeting go too fast, so instead I printed it out so we can read the entire thing word for word.” And so the meeting began, with Sofia weighing me down so that I slid further and further into the chair until I couldn’t stretch forward enough to reach the paperwork being handed to me. No one seemed to notice or care that I was becoming invisible, and they didn’t hear my objections to the terms the special ed teacher used to describe the child: “weird,” “stupid,” “retarded,” “dumb,” “problem kid.” No one seemed fazed by his words, not even the parents. I felt rage bubbling up at the way this student — MY student — was being discussed, but the chair had nearly swallowed me, and I couldn’t even reach the edge to pull myself out.

Suddenly, there was a minor commotion at a nearby conference table surrounded by sleek black leather chairs. The table was in a separate room with tall windows looking out onto a city view. The meeting there was breaking up, and chatter and laughter poured out of the room as everyone left. “Quick!” our principal said. “The good table is free! Let’s move!” The members of our team scuttled across the hall and claimed office chairs, and I was left to wallow in the giant chair. With an enormous final effort involving a lot of leg-waving and flopping around, I levered myself up and set Sofia on the ground, where she morphed unexpectedly into a curly-pigtailed kindergartener. She stared at me for a long moment before turning and going down the hallway to her classroom. “Oh,” I said. “That was easy.”

I seated myself in a comfortable chair, flipped open the IEP packet, and opened my mouth to dazzle everyone with my insights about my student. And then the bell rang for the end of the day, and everyone jumped up and deserted the meeting. And then Sofia — the real Sofia — elbowed me in the throat, and it was time to get up.

I guess a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. You can spend two years at home with your own children, and you still care about your students from however many years ago. Still worry that somewhere, some student, maybe one of your own, is being treated unfairly. Still sometimes feel that the education process has more to do with being told what to do by invisible commanders than with what your students themselves need. And then there’s always the worry that your personal life is destroying your career, or vice versa.

Or, you, know, maybe I just had a miserable cold and was sleeping on too many pillows, with an equally miserable Sofia lying on my chest nursing at will all night, after spending far too long scanning Kid President’s Facebook page. Who knows?

Hugging a Butterfly

Today a friend shared a link to an article on the Scary Mommy website, on my Facebook page. I read it with tears in my eyes. The author writes about the slow process of realizing their son had needs that weren’t being met; diagnosing him with ADHD; and, finally, reluctantly, starting medication for him. His reaction after his first day of medication was what made me tear up. This is what his mom wrote:

For the first time in … well, maybe his entire life, Colin seemed truly relaxed. But not in a stoned, disconnected way; more like a relieved way. Like someone who has finally been unburdened from the baggage that has unfairly saddled them for so long.

“I feel so much better, Mom,” he told me. “Why couldn’t we have done this from the start?”

His reaction was very much what my own feeling was, when I started ADHD medication. Relieved. Unburdened. And so much better. Why did I wait so long to admit I needed help? Pride, fear, and inability to see clearly and objectively from the haze of my condition. Medication isn’t for everyone with ADHD, but this story struck home to me. Beautiful.

– See more at: http://www.scarymommy.com/hugging-a-butterfly/#sthash.ZCAANp23.dpuf

Symptom of Childhood

It was supposed to be funny. A T-chart, headed with “Symptoms of ADHD” on one side and “Symptoms of Childhood” on the other, with identical items listed in each column. “So true!” was my friend’s comment with the post. The point, of course, was that all children have short attention spans and are wiggly, and putting a label on these things is silly. In other words: ADHD doesn’t really exist. She didn’t mean any harm, maybe even felt she was championing a child’s right to be a child.

But as I stared at it, I felt like I’d be kicked in the stomach. Looking at it, I couldn’t breathe. I felt the old guilt and shame rushing back, the accusing voices that had tormented me for years from my own mind. If you cared enough, you’d be able to be on time…remember what you’re supposed to be doing…finish your work on time. If you really wanted to, you’d hear when you’re being called…pay attention in class… stop staring off into space…keep your room tidy. If you had enough faith, you’d be able to pray and conquer these issues. Just like everyone else must be doing.

The first time I met a child with an ADHD diagnosis was my first year teaching. He was the sweetest fifth-grader in the world. Kindhearted, generous, well-mannered, and so very anxious to please. He was friendly, full of goodwill toward even the marginal kids, and well liked. But spacey, so spacey. Twitchy. Impulsive. Words would fly out of his mouth at the most inappropriate times, and he’d drop his shaggy blond head onto his desk in embarrassment as classmates turned to look. Small sounds like pages rustling or pencils scratching distracted and irritated him. Writing topics eluded him. To get started on work, he needed me to crouch next to his desk, softly talking him through the process: “Look, here’s a list of topic ideas. Do any look interesting? Okay, now jot down three big details. Do you think you’re ready to fill in small details?…” Mind you, I’d already walked the entire class through the concept, working through an example together, giving time to choose topics. He just…hadn’t heard. Or the task was too overwhelming. Or he couldn’t focus through the sounds of others working.

When he did get started, as long as nothing distracted him, he was singleminded and incredibly creative. Reading his stories, I’d laugh out loud, and look up to see a pleased grin on his face. He didn’t lack intelligence or skill; he simply couldn’t focus without help.

When I first met him, I didn’t know he had ADHD. Our records weren’t computerized at the time, and student files were all kept in the school office. You had to check them out, and you couldn’t keep them in your classroom overnight, so they had to be returned by 4 – giving little time for a newbie like me to sift through the thick stacks of data, assuming I’d even known what to look for. Having been hired the day before school started that year, I didn’t even know at first where to look for these files or what to expect to find in them — and while I wanted to learn about my students, I had other priorities, like developing my first lesson plans, organizing my classroom, and completing beginning-of-year paperwork, schedules, discipline plans — things the other teachers had already finished before school started. So I didn’t know about his diagnosis, but soon I started to wonder.

Then one day soon after school started, he arrived with hair uncombed, jacket disordered, his normally cheerful demeanor anxious and scattered. He couldn’t sit still. He hopped up to get tissue he didn’t need or to get yet another drink from the water container I kept in our relocatable classroom, interrupted, acted uncharacteristically hurt and then borderline belligerent when another student disagreed with him. By mid-morning he hadn’t completed a single task and was distracting other students, causing disruptions. I called him over to me. Head hanging, ashamed, he didn’t even wait for me to ask. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Malapanis, I’m really sorry, I’m trying but I forgot my medicine this morning and it’s just really hard.”

I took a deep breath. “I know what it’s like not to be able to focus,” I told him gently. “And doing it without medicine must be so hard. But when you don’t have your medicine, it doesn’t mean you can give up. It means you need to find other ways to focus.” I helped him with a few tricks that often helped me: I moved him to a desk away from other students, where the light was dimmer. I asked him to close his eyes and breathe slowly as he thought about the task he needed to complete. And he tried hard, really hard, and by lunch time had nearly finished one task.

The episode jarred me deeply. I felt the tiny seed of disquiet that had been disturbing me lately begin to grow. Why did I identify so strongly with this child? Why did I feel that I did, indeed, know exactly how he’d felt that day?

I didn’t know much about ADHD. The university’s education program focused more on compliance with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) than on recognizing or managing specific disorders, and in the triad of Christian communes where I’d grown up and attended school, if anyone spoke of it at all, it was with scorn. “Those kids just aren’t disciplined enough. They need a better routine. Their parents aren’t doing their job. Public school teachers are too permissive, too lazy to take the time to understand their students. ADHD is a fake disorder. It’s a sign of degenerate times. You don’t see OUR kids running around a classroom like that.”

Actually, that last part was more or less true. Classes were very small in our school — when I was in 6th grade, our 6-student class was the biggest in the history of the school. Students got a lot of individual attention. Even during a group interaction, being one of three or even six students is very different than being one of thirty. So a lot of the issues that a child with ADHD could display in a large, busy classroom might look different in a school like the one I attended. (There’s a good reason that teachers work with students they have concerns about in small groups.)

I’d been taught to believe that ADHD was a fake disorder, a way to pretend a child wasn’t simply badly brought up. The diagnosis was an easy way out for teachers too: medicate a child instead of connecting and managing differences creatively. And supposing a child did have a Real Problem, it was nothing a little prayer, faith, and love — and a bit of effort on the child’s and parents’ part — couldn’t fix.

But poor discipline or laziness were not what I saw here. This boy had loving, dedicated, hardworking parents. His good manners and old-school courtesy were clear signs his parents were doing their job well. And his forgetfulness, his habit of blurting at inappropriate times, his difficulties controlling his body — these things caused him significant distress. He worked harder to overcome them than any other student ever did. There was no laziness here, no lack of caring.

Meanwhile, my own performance in the classroom was suffering. My desk was piled high with unfinished paperwork. I was weeks behind with grading assignments. Some weeks I didn’t even have formally written lesson plans — I just taught the lessons I knew were supposed to be taught each day, with little preparation. I was working 60-80 hours each week, staying at the school late each night, returning after supper many nights or working at home until well after midnight, and working through the weekends — but with little to show for it. I would lose whole hours of time, drifting, getting nothing done. While class was in session, the noise in my classroom was intolerable to me. Visitors commented on how quiet and calm my room was, yet the pencil-borrowing, page-number-reminding murmurs and the rustle of pages, clicking of pens, squeak of shoes on chair legs, and even noisy breathing were enough to constantly disrupt my chain of thought. When students were in gym or art, the hum of the lights and the voices on the playground took their turn distracting me.

[I’d like to add here that despite my personal struggles, my students thrived. I was distracted, yes, but I’m also fairly creative and extremely dedicated. And teaching — getting concepts across — is a knack that I have, not to mention a deep and sincere love for my students. I can’t say that my issues didn’t affect them, because obviously they did. But my students were learning and progressing despite those issues, because I worked my ass off to make sure they did.]

For my third year, I was reassigned to second grade. We had a new principal that year who took a different approach to managing her teachers, including frequent informal observations.  Not long after I returned from maternity leave (Niko was born in October, and I returned after the Christmas break), she called me to her office and told me that my performance was inadequate. She helped me lay out a plan for improvement, including observing in my neighbor’s classroom and having my neighbor observe me and give feedback.

I was stunned and humiliated. But I knew she was right. I needed help, and the worst part of it was that I had known it for some time. I just wished I’d taken the initiative to ask for support instead of having it mandated. That meeting was a turning point for me. It forced me to confront the fact I’d pushed to the back of my mind: I had a problem. A real problem.

The teacher next door is one of my favorite people in the world. She has a heart big enough to engulf every single needy person she encounters. She could embrace the world if somebody could suspend time to allow her to meet every individual in it. This woman spearheads reading committees and student needs meetings. She was passionate about advocating for children with special needs, going so far as to fill out complex paperwork for other teachers if it meant their students would get help. On top of all that, she has a wicked sense of humor and can deliver a pointed one-liner that will keep you giggling all day. She’s the teacher I want to be when I grow up.

So, going to her and pouring my heart out wasn’t hard. She listened sympathetically. “Are you okay?” she asked. I shook my head. “No,” I said honestly. “But I will be. I want to figure this out.” She gave me a fierce hug. “We’ll get you through this,” she promised.

I kept mulling over what had happened. That day back at the beginning, when I told my student that I knew what he was experiencing, had stayed with me, a constant thought buzzing in the back of my head. Now, I pulled it out and took a good hard look at it, along with all the other things I had been pushing aside. It was time to confront the truth.

As usual, I managed this with my typical lack of grace. I was sitting in the deserted library, chatting with my newly-appointed mentor. We’d talked of this and that, until the conversation turned to family. She told me her mother was very ill and had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was listening, truly, but here’s the thing with my brain: there are ALWAYS at least two (usually more) things happening in there. Part of me was reacting with sympathy and concern to her life changing, heartbreaking news. But the quiet place in the back of my mind was roiling with my newfound truth, and it chose that very moment to send  it blurting out through my mouth. It went like this —

She: “My mom was just diagnosed with cancer. I’m having a really hard time dealing with it.” Me: “I think I have ADHD.”

She didn’t even blink. Didn’t pause to shake off the discomfort of having the topic changed from her heartbreak to my needs. Didn’t grimace in irritation. She reached out, put her hand on my knee, and said, “Oh, honey, yes, you do. You sure do.” I writhe in shame every time I think of it, but I think I’ve never loved her more than I did in that moment.

Later, I took an online questionnaire posted by a doctor — not mine — to help his patients determine if they need help. I took the completed pages to my doctor and told him my story, including the confirming opinion of the experienced teacher next door. He glanced over the pages and raised his eyebrows. “If even half of this is accurate,” he told me, “I have no problem prescribing medication.” He went over my options: I could go the traditional route, with highly controlled stimulants. They’re typically very effective, but they also require an appointment with a psychologist and follow-up appointments each time the prescription needs renewed, and they run the risk of being addictive. We chose a medication called Strattera, which was developed to help people experiencing depression, but was instead more successful at dispelling symptoms of ADHD that many of the test patients were also experiencing.

The procedure was simple, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It meant abandoning a lifelong conviction that my problems were solvable if I just cared enough; prayed hard enough; tried a little bit harder. I’d been taught that depending on medication for behavioral issues, or for mental health, was a failure  of faith. I felt that I was giving up, that I was succumbing to weakness of character. I wallowed in waves of shame, disappointment, sadness.

And then I started taking the medication. It’s supposed to take 4-6 weeks to see effects, but within a week my desk was clean and organized. I had figured out a more effective way to manage discipline. I had designed half a dozen new, adaptable worksheets for my students to use when analyzing books. The clutter in the corners of my classroom was disappearing. I found, as more weeks passed, that I could distinguish between mischievous noise and working noise. When I was giving one-on-one assessments, I could focus on the student in front of me and still know what the rest of the class was doing. The sound of pencils scratching no longer sent me into shutdown mode.

There were other changes, too. When I folded laundry, I was no longer compelled to line up the stripes in kitchen towels perfectly. I no longer needed to design complex color patterns as I stacked folded socks and underwear. If clothes were hung on hangers of a different color, I didn’t grind to a standstill. I hadn’t actually realized these were issues; I still don’t know why I did them, or why the medication affected these odd behaviors. All I know is that I was more clear-minded, more focused, less anxious, than ever before. And something else happened: the cycles of depression that circled back through my brain once or twice a year simply…didn’t. I have not had a single episode since starting Strattera.

I still have ADHD. I still forget things, still get distracted. Time doesn’t make sense to me — it doesn’t progress for me the way it seems to for other people. Sometimes I blurt out things that only make sense to my hundred-thoughts-a-second brain. My desk is never truly clean; neither is my house. Even now, I function best when I have at least three projects and two books going at once, so I can abandon one for the next when my attention runs out and still get something accomplished. But the medication has done something that no effort on my part has ever done — it’s given me the ability to cope. I can manage my symptoms now, even use some of them to my advantage. I’ll always have ADHD, but I’m okay with that.

And I want other people to be okay with it too. Suggesting that it’s a fake diagnosis doesn’t do anyone any favors. Facing its existence, facing that a person with ADHD might need the extra help of medication to deal with otherwise insurmountable difficulties, is the kinder approach. I struggled for thirty years. Thirty years of secret shame, self-hate, and a growing conviction of my own inferiority, before I discovered that I actually could be organized and focused — I just needed more help than I was getting. Children with ADHD greatly benefit from the awareness of the disorder, as do adults.

Speaking personally, my realization that I have ADHD has been like a key to a previously unknown library of management strategies. I’ve been able to find ways of coping that I didn’t know about before. I now recognize, for example,  that trying to power through a work session after my mind has started to drift isn’t a useful approach. Instead, I take breaks when I start to lose focus. I go do a different project, stand up and walk around, do the dishes — and instead of giving these behaviors a negative label (Procrastination! Laziness! Lack of staying power!), I recognize them for what they are: my own way of getting things done. I keep a to-do list, both mental and physical, if there’s something I’m worried I’ll forget to finish, and I try to make things on the list a priority when I move on to something new. I make sure I have another project started so I don’t spin my wheels when I need to stop my current project. And it works, more or less. Am I as efficient as someone without ADHD? Almost certainly not. Am I more efficient than I was before the medication and the new approaches? You bet your boots I am.

I have ADHD. I’ve come to terms with that fact. And even though I cringe when people deride the disorder as a simple lack of discipline or low level of commitment or just not caring, I’m not going to wither in shame whenever I see one of these references. My ADHD isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I. For better or worse, here we are, inextricably entwined. Get used to it.

A note: I couldn’t find the original T-chart I mentioned in the first paragraph. The one pictured as the “featured image” sends a similar, though broader, message. I found it over at Grounded Parents, in an excellent post called “Internet Meme Demolition Derby: Childhood is not a Disease!” It’s well worth a read.

Operation: Dessert Storm

Haha!

The Byronic Man

It will be a great day when schools have all the funding they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a new bomber. – bumper sticker.

Excuse me, sir?  Sir?  Would you be interested in some shortbread?  Lemon bar?  The lemon bars are fresh, sir; why, private Williams here got them out of the oven and sprinkled the sugar not 30 minutes ago.  It’s for a good cause.  Sir?

Thank you anyway, sir.  Maybe next time.

Corporal Jackson!  Front and center! What in the hell, I mean what in the holy living hell did you do to this apple pie!?  For God’s sake, son, it’s the all-American dessert!  The Belgians are pounding Twin Falls, Idaho, and you’re giving me apple pie with no crust on top?!  No cross-hatching?!  This is not how to win a war, damn it!  Son, you better get your head in this…

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Abracadabra MOMMY!

His small face was filled with confident hope — no, with absolute faith. He KNEW this was going to work. He held a shiny black straw that the uninitiated might not recognize as a wand. One hand was lifted dramatically; the other held the wand at the ready. He took a deep breath, smile of anticipation growing, as he shouted, “Abracadabra MOMMY!” and tapped my thigh gently.

I’d had no warning. I was lying on the floor as Sofie crawled back and forth over my stomach, occasionally standing to take a hesitant step and then toppling back onto me. Niko had been running around the living room tapping toys. “Abracadabra!” Whatever magic he’d seen with his toys had satisfied him — but only temporarily. Now, he was trying it on a living being.

I saw the glow dim, just a little. “It didn’t work,” he said, genuinely puzzled. I knew that look. Not betrayal, not disillusionment. Not quite. Because he didn’t really believe it. Clearly, something was amiss, but he wasn’t certain what was wrong.

And I wasn’t quite sure how to help him. I’ve read my fair share of parenting books and texts on child development: compulsive reader + Barnes & Noble children’s department employee + a degree in education provides ample opportunity to read all about raising small people. But not a single one gave a tutorial on helping your child succeed in casting magical spells.

“Maybe,” I suggested carefully, “maybe you need more words.”

“More words?”

“Well, for a magical spell, you need to say exactly what you want to happen.” His face cleared. This made perfect sense to him.

“Abracadabra make Mommy disappear!” Again, the gentle tap with the little wand.

Well, now I knew what was supposed to happen. But once again, it hadn’t. He gazed at me hopefully, not ready to give up.

“I think maybe you need some more magical tools,” I told him. “Like…maybe…that blanket?”

His face showed his internal conflict. He considered this for several seconds, expression unchanging as he mulled over the implications of the need for the blanket. Then the 10000000-watt smile returned. “Okay!” Off he went, back he came with his beautiful cars-and-trucks quilt made by a talented friend. He draped it tenderly over my body, folding it back so my face still showed. Then: “Abracadabra make Mommy disappear!” Tap.

I pulled the blanket over my face as quickly as I could. “Did it work?” I called to him.

“Yes! It worked, Mommy! You disappeared!”

Not long ago, this story would have ended differently. Until recently, Niko has had no concept of pretending. He would be sitting on his rocking horse, galloping for all he was worth, and I’d say to him, “Where are you going on Rocking Horsie?” (Another area in which he is lacking in talent is the naming of toys.) And he would skewer me with his scornful gaze: “I’m not going anywhere. Rocking Horsie isn’t a real horse.”

Or he’d climb into a box in the middle of the living room. “This is a rocket ship!” he’d tell me. “Oh, where is that rocket ship going to take you?” I’d ask. Again, that gaze of incredulous scorn: “We’re in the living room, Mommy. It’s not a real rocket ship.”

Last night, Niko was able to transition nearly seamlessly from a deep conviction that Mommy was going to literally disappear with his magic words, to a joyful game of pretend. Watching him enter wholeheartedly into the imaginative play without missing a beat, without collapsing into an anxious and brokenhearted mess because his spell didn’t work, filled me with delight.

I think I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life. That moment when I realized that my son DOES know how to play. And I know who to thank for it. Not me. Not his dad. It’s his preschool teacher. His kind, accepting-of-all-comers (even that boy who was always hitting), generous-hearted teacher, who makes time in the day for imaginative and dramatic play.

Unlike me, she doesn’t lose patience with his reluctance to pretend, walking off to do something more fulfilling than playing with a highly literal child. Instead, she shows him examples of what imaginative play looks like, calling out the names of children who are succeeding: “Look, Daisy is pretending to be a lion. She’s purring because she’s a happy lion. Doesn’t that look like fun?”  I haven’t seen this exact scenario happen, but I know from my interactions with her at drop-off and pickup time that this is what she’s doing, all day long. Looking for the goodness in each child and announcing it. “Look at George! He’s walking in line without waving his arms!” “Oh my, look what a good job Dakota is doing cleaning up the blocks.” Each child glows with the observations. And all of them improve with her positive words — the successful ones strive to do even better, while the ones who aren’t there yet work hard to arrive. [Side note: of course, I used made-up names.]

Yes, I know who to thank for the changes I’ve been seeing in Niko. I’m so happy he has a teacher who is gifted with the ability to recognize the best in each person who comes her way. I’m so very happy to see my son playing imaginatively, with abandon and joy. Thank you, Teacher Mary, for giving Niko and me such a precious gift.

Niko loves riding the scooter at preschool.