How does it look like to be a young student with ADD?
Mrs. Flannigan, my first grade teacher, walks toward me and my classmate Tonya and asks, “What was your favorite part of the video?” Surely this is an unequivocal question with no right or wrong answer. Tonya voices her opinion right on, and when it was my turn to respond, I was simply stumped and I could not answer. “I liked the same thing as Tonya did,” I said plainly. Mrs. Flannigan was clearly not satisfied with my answer so she made me watch the short clip again, all the way from the very beginning. This time I was able to answer the answer the question; I watched the video with a goal in mind.
But this is just one benign example of just many more tell-tale signs that something is just not right. It can be forgiven because after all, all kids make mistakes sometimes, and many kids will have difficulty following directions at one point.
Oftentimes, Mrs. Flannigan set up timed activities where students had to complete one task and wait for the buzzer to ring before moving on to the next activity. One activity involved making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I was on track with preparing the ingredients, but apparently I was not listening too closely because I totally missed the part about how those sandwiches were to go to a charity for the less fortunate and not for my personal enjoyment. However, that activity turned out alright because the teaching assistant quickly helped me make another sandwich that did get packaged up for charity.
Well, I think we could just let the peanut butter and jelly sandwich activity slide because I could have been just hungry that day. It is not too often that first graders have to deal with the compelling combination of making a meal while resisting eating it in the face of hunger.
I recall another time when my first grade physical education teacher was explaining the rules of a team activity, let’s call it soccer. (Well, if I was not fully paying attention the first time around, it is very difficult to remember the exact details today, almost 20 years later.) The teacher asked anyone if they do not know how to play soccer, and I raised my hand. So far, so good. She then went over a series of instructions and rules, and I do clearly remember her tone and texture of voice as she was explaining, but the meanings of the words seemed to escape me as I drifted off into another land, and not just figuratively either. While my classmates played soccer, I languidly circled around the periphery of the field by myself. This is perhaps one the rare examples in first grade where my mental wanderings showed up in any sort of kinesthetic way.
Maybe that event should not count either against me because physical clumsiness and a disinterest in sports should not stack against anyone academically.
Maybe it would be more appropriate to gauge how I performed in school by normal routine tasks such as reading and writing. One of those tasks involved copying vocabulary words that were on the chalkboard. I remember in particular how it would take a seemingly ridiculous amount of time to transcribe words. It was as if I could only hold one letter in my mind at once and I had to constantly keep looking up at the board to get the next letter. It took so long, in fact, that when other kids finished up their work they were allowed to go outside for recess, I stayed inside to finish up my assignment. The teaching assistant stayed indoors to keep an eye on me, and I remember being the only one inside while I painstakingly finished.
A possibility on why it took me so long to complete assignments because I simply was too bored with the task at hand. Perhaps it was because I found copying down some vocabulary words the epitome of grueling and uninteresting. However, disinterest doesn’t fully explain why I tended to be working on projects while in my own personal time zone. As an example, one project involved something I enjoy very much which is arts and crafts. Mrs. Flannigan gave her students an activity prompt along with a large piece of construction paper and crayons. Most other students scribbled a few pictures down before leaving to recess, while I kept at my own pace and drew a very elaborate and colorful picture of a young girl wearing a pretty dress. This time, I was much focused and happily drawing away and the result was a project that was of a higher quality than most others.
It was these art projects that kept me engaged when it appeared I had no interest in socializing with other kids. If I hold the memories of first grade in mind and rewind the clock back just one year earlier, more tell-tale signs can be revealed on what I would later classify as classic signs of a disorder that was never really treated.
I attended both my first Kindergarten and first grade years in the sunny south. While some other U.S states have half-day Kindergarten classes that are broken down into A.M and P.M sections, the school I attended had full days. This means that the days are quite long for kids who have never attended any sort of public education before. (I write this relative to thinking about how both my younger brothers had half day Kindergarten classes because our family moved out of state by then.) Long days can be trouble for any student who has not gotten used to a structured learning environment, but it can be even more difficult for a student with ADD.
When I started Kindergarten, I had no mental construct of what school really was or how kids my age should behave. Unlike some other students who have had some past experiences, I had never attended preschool nor have I even attended daycare. I also was the first born child and did not have any siblings that are close enough in age to observe and learn from them. As a result, in many ways it seemed like I acted like a classic, ADHD (emphasis added on the H) case. I also want to make an even stronger emphasis that this behavior was extremely transient and lasted for no more than a few weeks. During these few weeks, I learned about what it was like to behave in school. But within that learning process, I would get out of my seat and do as I please. For instance, without warning, I would go into my cubby and grab a snack. I would also cut to the front of the line to use the drinking fountain. Even in retrospect, I think my early behavior was a little puzzling and does not match any of my later actions or mannerisms.
Without my parents there to guide me, I just let my own basic impulses guide me and I was out of sync with the rest of the students. My Kindergarten teacher found this behavior unacceptable and scheduled a parent-teacher conference. My teacher discussed my behavior with my parents, while also suggesting that I should attend special education away from the mainstream classroom. Specifically, she suggested that I attend classes with Spanish speaking kids who are learning English as a second language because it was obvious to her that my verbal abilities were not quite there. My mother, being the disagreeable person that she is, did not like the idea of me attending special education though and she assured my teacher that she would give me a talk about the said unacceptable behavior. Sure enough my mom gave me a big lecture, and it seemed (according to my current memory of these incidents) that I straightened up almost immediately, and my teacher had no further major complaints.
But even though the obvious disruptive behavior subsided, I was still a bit offbeat especially socially. That is, it wasn’t talking excessively that was a problem; it was the problem of not really communicating at all. Other kids would approach me to play a game, but I ignored them and went the other direction. I would rather draw alone on the pavement using chalk. One time in particular, a teacher took me inside the classroom and set up some art supplies for me to keep me occupied.
Another odd behavior of mine that happened on the playground was that I would frequently want to wander alone down on a hill because for some reason it intrigued me. Our elementary school was built on an elevated landscape so that there was a rocky hill one could go down that would eventually lead to residential backyards. One time during recess, this aimless wandering led me into the counseling office at the elementary school. The one thing I recall was a woman asking me to point to the face that represented how I felt while she held up a paper with pictures of different emotional faces. I don’t think this incident led to a phone call to my parents however, because I am usually quiet and compliant enough.
I did improve, however, with regards to the transition between Kindergarten and first grade and I did have a few close friends instead of wandering alone. Not to mention, the school authorities decided that it was a good idea to fence the playground so children could no longer play down the hill into the neighboring private residences. In general, I got used to the school routine and it was a welcoming change.
An unwelcomed family decision change did happen though. My mom, a Middle Eastern immigrant, had been voicing her disapproval about “living alone” for a while now. She did not like living in and wanted to relocate where her parents and siblings lived in a thriving close knit ethnic community. The sole reason why my family was living in the city that we did was because of a job offering my dad received after finishing his Masters in engineering. To make matters worse, I could not play with my good friend and neighbor Jamie the last weeks before the move was because I had gotten a case of the chicken pox.
When my family did arrive in our new home, I would spend second grade at single school before being shuffled around multiple times amid multiple family relocations. One time my second grade teacher saw me alone, and remarked, “Michelle, I have never heard your voice before.” It seemed that instead of being an activate participant, I just watched others act and converse from a distance. Another time, still thinking about my past neighbor, I asked my teacher “Where’s Jamie?” and she directed me toward another girl named Jamie, but not the Jamie I used to know and I was not impressed. I did not make one close friend in second grade, though I did talk to my neighbor in the duplex home I lived in.
Academically, I can say my performance was unremarkable — that is, neither brilliant nor particularly problematic. In a few instances, it appeared that I was slightly lagging in reading because during one group exercise, the teacher downgraded me to a lower level. I tended to use silent reading time as a time to meditate rather than read as if my brain wasn’t meditating enough the rest of the hours of the day. For assignments that involved summarizing a story, my idea of writing a summary was to decide on a few sentences that I could safely omit without losing any meaning and then copy the story the rest of the story as it is, word for word. In another instance, I remember the teacher telling her students that they can skip a problem if they do not know the answer. I gladly skipped the problems I didn’t know, but what I didn’t understand was that I was supposed to go back to those skipped problems before turning in the assignment.
After second grade, our landlord requested that we leave our duplex for reasons that my seven year old self didn’t understand at the time. Due to complications with the house we were building, my family didn’t have a permanent place to stay we moved again, and again, and finally again once more to what would then be the final home we would stay in for close to 15 years. In total I had attended five different elementary school, possibly six since it was hard to keep count, with most of the relocating happening in the third grade. Many times I think that I would have a different outcome if I didn’t have such a life of constant moving when I was young.