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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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.

Why Teach?

Right now I’m a stay-at-home mom. But I’m also a teacher, or was before we moved from Alaska to Oregon and saved so much money on housing that we only slightly miss the absence of my paycheck, and I plan to be again sometime in the next few years. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ll always be a teacher. That’s just who I am. Just ask my 4-year-old. He still wonders where Mommy’s school is, a year and a half after moving away from our home in Anchorage.

 Here is a piece I wrote back in 2010, before Niko was born. It’s an honest look at how it feels to be in the classroom each day with what often feels like very little return – until That Moment. This is why I teach.


Not long ago, a young friend who thinks she wants to teach asked me what it’s really like to be in the classroom. I was honest — maybe too honest. I told her about the long hours of work (50 to 80 per week, in my case), taking only a few short, begrudged, guilt-laden breaks on weekends between bouts of grading and planning. I told her of the frustrations of feeling that the required curriculums and government-mandated tests and paperwork and bureaucracy all combine to make it less likely, rather than more likely, that students will achieve. I added that while I love the teaching part of the day, I spend easily half my time filing paperwork and performing meaningless tasks that have nothing to do with helping my students learn.

“Is it actually worth it?” she wondered. I had just finished my first week back after a wonderful summer, and I hadn’t met my students yet, so my response reflected my own doubt as I assured her that yes, indeed, it is. Really. Truly. Pinkie swear.

And it is. Sure. There are wonderful, delightful, fulfilling moments in every day. There are the spontaneous hugs for no apparent reason – even in fifth grade, where I spent two years, but especially in second grade. There are priceless comments, questions, and observations from these young minds for which I can take no credit, but still gain enjoyment from. That look of wonder — “You really think that about me?” when I pleaded with a boy to take the test for our gifted program: a boy who suffered from ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and genius. The look of amazed joy on his face when he qualified, as I knew he would, and the change in his attitude afterward. The dawning light on a little face when for the first time they glimpse the myriad shifting patterns in a simple addition/subtraction grid. A class of students which, when I gave them half an hour of free art time at the end of the day because I Needed Some Time (I’m not ashamed to admit it) to finish entering some data before the deadline clubbed me over the head, spent their own gift of time making me adorable, crumpled, painstakingly scrawled cards and gifts. Yes, it is worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but it is.

More recently, another friend who is in the first stages of UAA’s education program appealed to me for a little help finishing a paper with a specific page requirement. The topic, naturally, was “Why Do I Want to Be a Teacher?” I gave her some worthwhile advice: Try adjusting the margins and the font just a teeny, itty-bitty bit – just not enough to attract notice and inspire your professor to check the paper’s settings. That could buy you a little space. Try plugging in a couple of stories in the intro and referring to them in the conclusion. That’ll give you at least another half-page, maybe a whole page… And as I gave her this highly valuable advice (and I hope she remembers it, because it’s gotten me A’s on many a paper), I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Of course, I couldn’t tell her why she wanted to be a teacher — only she could do that. But couldn’t I at least have shared with her some of my own triumphs and joys? Maybe given her a little glimpse of the inspiration that keeps me going? Because I do love teaching. And it is worth it. Really. Come on, it is.

By the way, I hope she keeps that essay. I hope she saves it on every computer she encounters, on flash drives, external hard drives, discs, the Cloud, and whatever method of saving data the future brings. I hope she prints it and frames it and hangs it where she has to see it every day. For two reasons. First, she will be submitting that same essay so many times she will feel like she is vomiting her words onto a screen repeatedly. I guarantee she will need that essay at least five times over the course of her college education and even more times throughout her career. Secondly, and more seriously, there are moments when you wonder: Why am I doing this? And the reminder that there was once a younger, more energetic, more eager you, whose ideals had not yet begun to tarnish, is invaluable. There will be days that she will absolutely need that reminder. Days at the end of an 80-hour work week when the weekend looms ahead of you menacingly, beckoning you to try to Do Everything I Didn’t Get Done This Week: go ahead, try it, I dare you…Mwahahaha. Moments when you read articles labeling teachers as lazy and greedy and you want to cry, knowing how much time and energy and love you give these children and how unlikely it is that these authors will ever have any comprehension of what you do. Meetings with parents who think you aren’t doing enough to keep their underachieving child challenged, who can’t understand that you can’t excuse a child from regular classroom work because it’s “too easy” when you have seen no actual evidence of his ease at completing the work, meetings that conclude with the assurance that you are indeed lazy and greedy. Yes, she should keep that essay. She’ll need it.

I’ve been thinking about these two friends and wishing I had expressed more sincerity in my promises that “it’s worth it.” Wondering if I’m getting burned out without realizing it. Longing for that old feeling of apprehensive self-assuredness I once had: “I’m going to change the face of teaching. I don’t know how, but I will. I’ll be different.”

And then, yesterday, I gave a spelling test to my second-graders. I reminded them of the importance of Being Silent During Tests. I assured them that if anyone was unable to remember this, I would help them by Taking Away Their Test. And then I gave the first word: fox. Papers rustled, pencils scratched, desks squeaked as the little fingers busily and proudly wrote the word. In the midst of this busy silence, a voice erupted: “Mrs. Malapanis! Mrs. Malapanis! I wrote the spelling word! I wrote fox!”

Heads turned, eyes looked accusingly at this child whose face was a beacon of hope, joy, and pride. Her smile glowed like a lighthouse’s flame. Faces turned back to me as they waited expectantly for me to Take Away Her Test. But all I could do was smile mistily back at her and say, “Oh, sweetie, I am so proud of you. Let me see.” And she had indeed written fox — a word that any second grader, most first graders, many kindergarteners, and I dare say a few preschoolers could have written. I hugged her as I once again assured her how happy I was at her accomplishment.  And I did not Take Her Test Away. Because this child had come to me six weeks previously unable to identify the letters in her own name. She had had no idea that groups of letters separated by spaces were words. She hadn’t known that we read and write words moving across the page from left to right. This little girl had barely been able to hold a book correctly. But today, she wrote fox. All on her own. She heard the word, recalled the letters that made the sounds, wrote them, and read the word she’d written. She had an epiphany. When you’re having an epiphany, the threat of Having Your Test Taken Away is as nothing. She wrote a word and she wanted the world to know.

And her teacher was having an epiphany at the same time.

Yes, it is worth it. Nothing will ever take away the joy of that moment.  It’s worth it. Thanks to that little girl, I finally remembered why I’m doing this.  She is the reason that I Want To Be a Teacher.