Learning to Embrace My Unique Learning Abilities
Dealing With The Inflexible Nature of Public School
“He’s a bright boy, but he’s not living up to his potential.”
That phrase, or some variation of it, came to define my life. I was never a traditional student. In one way, I was more interested in the concept of learning than most young children, but in another, I seemed incapable of completing daily tasks in class.
In second grade my teacher would drag me by the wrist back to my seat. I can’t quite recall what I was doing out of my seat in the first place, and I was no doubt wandering the classroom while I was supposed to be completing worksheets. What I remember clearly is the teacher’s angry impatient facial expression as she dragged me back to my desk and the feeling of her fingers clasping my wrist uncomfortably tight.
On one occasion this particular teacher caught me drawing with a crayon on the inside of my desk. I am sure I was aware this wasn’t allowed, however, during the dreadfully boring classes, there was little else I could do. Her justice was swift and involved shaming me in front of the class as if I was too simple to understand where to use my crayon. Another instance had me “accidentally” rub my dirty paint brush against a wall in the bathroom where I was meant to clean it. Again, I was called out in front of a strongly disapproving class of my peers.
At some point, knowing my teacher viewed me as a troublemaker, and my classmates as an imbecile really started to stress me out. I dreaded class and decided to tell my parents what was happening, emphasizing the fact that the teacher often dragged me back to my chair. As a child, I thought it was fair of her because I was not following the rules. However, I knew my parents wouldn’t approve.
The truth was, I really wasn’t trying to cause trouble. Rather, I was so bored, so unstimulated by the material and my classmates that any possible stimulation was appealing. To be clear, I was not looking for the negative attention of the teacher, my mind simply wandered to fill the void and I often found myself doing things quite mindlessly. Running the paintbrush, still dirty with watercolor, across the blue tile was not meant as an act of defacement. Even my younger self knew how easily the watercolor would wash away. Rather, I wanted to witness for a moment what the paint would look like on the wall.
A variety of events transpired, eventually leading me to sit in front of a neurologist who diagnosed me with ADHD and elements of Autism. I was sent back to school with a letter for the teacher, and medication to keep me in my seat.
The medication helped until high school, where I became aware of its detrimental effects on my personality.
Unmedicated, high school was difficult at times. I would enter classes with the full desire to pay attention, but I would find myself essentially dissociating within 15 minutes into class. When I say dissociate, I mean that at a certain point, I would simply become unaware of the passage of time until the class ended. Mindfulness techniques eventually made it possible to remain aware, however, I truly could not maintain a decent level of attention over the course of a school day.
The rigid structure of high school caused me to chronically underperform, and I quickly became known as a student who was squandering greater potential. It was known I had an IEP (individualized education plan), a prerequisite to special considerations in a public school setting, and some teachers even knew my diagnosis, but most viewed it as an excuse.
When I spoke to them, one on one, they heard an intelligent student who was capable of the work they were asking. On this count, they were correct. I was always able to complete the work. In a different context, I might have thrived learning the same material, however, when forced to function in the specific modalities high school required, I inevitably struggled.
One example that comes to mind is in a particular history class where students were expected to keep a very specific binder. I simply don’t learn like most people, and even in high school carried a laptop with a single text document for each class’ notes. I’m not an organized person, it’s not part of my nature, and my handwriting is simply terrible. To compensate for this, I learned to type at an early age and keep notes together in digital form, making them hard to lose. This teacher felt his method was best, and I struggled to pass as I was never able to organize his handouts and notes in the manner he desired. All the while, I never scored lower than 90% on any test, paper or other class assignments.
College, and now Grad school have been revelations. In both instances, the ability to mold my own schedule and the focus on results over process has allowed me to thrive. I spent most of my life blaming myself for my failure to live up to my potential. Looking back, I realize that the highly inflexible nature of primary education has not caught up to the demands placed upon it by students with cognitive differences.
Teachers and administrators need to accept that often what they see can better be characterized as learning difference, not learning disability. If those with ADHD (and other so-called learning “disabilities”) were truly less able to learn, it would be astounding how many of us reach the graduate level, in reality, many of us are quite gifted in one way or another, struggling only in a system that fails to allow us to capitalize on our unique skills and individual learning styles.