His eyes search for roof tops the way my soul craves sand and sun. He seeks adventure, I seek safety. He darts from thought to action. I take my time, mull my options, weigh my thoughts. He eats horse radish from a spoon and loves flaming hot Cheetos. I think ketchup is spicy. Want to hear a Russian accent? He can do it. Irish? Absolutely. English? Scottish? Aussie? Yep, yep and yep. He is even fluent in chipmunk. Puns roll off his tongue as easily as sarcastic remarks, he craves knowledge with his body and shirks reading or writing. His eyes sparkle with mischief – no really, they actually sparkle. He doesn’t just think out of his box, he dances on it. Daily. Loudly. He craves risk, excitement, speed, danger. He is bold. He is fearless.
My son. My magical, beautiful, noisy, exasperating ADHD boy. He is all those things. But he is also the boy that feels like a square peg trying to slide into a round hole. Every day he sits in a classroom, vibrating, hardly able to sit in a chair –let alone sit still, and be quiet? Nearly, and some days totally, physically impossible. He spends more hours in his day in a classroom that straps him, haunts him, tortures him than in a space where he feels good about himself, where he feels strong, smart, capable. He hears the same words over and over: Sit down, Jackson. Be quiet, Jackson. No, Jackson. Jackson, stop. Jackson, stop talking. I know he’s difficult. I know he doesn’t sit still and I know his attitude totally sucks at times. But can you imagine what it feels like to never feel right, rarely feel successful, to not feel comfortable most the hours of your day?
It took me awhile understand. It’s not very easy to see when you live in a house full of rambunctious boys. Not a one sits still, nobody can focus, they are all loud and they all bounce from room to room. His ADHD was hidden in a house full of chaotic, multi-tasking, loud and time consuming brothers. He gave me clues, he even asked for help, I didn’t get it.
Jack didn’t hate school until sixth grade, actually. In sixth grade recess died, and the classes transitioned into middle school format, there was less time for movement, for him to feel engaged. He took a 14 question story problem math test, he didn’t answer a single question. When I asked him what the problem was he answered: “I couldn’t read the questions, momma. I couldn’t remember what they said. The words jumped around and got lost.” I didn’t understand. His teachers didn’t either. He is so bright, so witty, so smart. They said he was being lazy. They said he wasn’t trying hard enough. He heard those words. He began reading at 4, and was in advanced math … until 6th grade. No one could understand the abrupt (or was it?) change. No one would understand for five more years. Five more years of my boy feeling unprepared, inadequate, unsettled and never, ever good enough in a classroom.
After years of not understanding, of letting him down, I am beginning to get it. His ADHD body craves excitement. He is literally allergic to boredom. He has fewer reward centers in his amazing brain, so the ones he has need to be fired at for him to feel good, to feel alive. He drives too fast, eats hot food, the scarier the movies the better, climbs the highest tree and sings/talks/makes sounds to himself nearly constantly. Sitting in school almost kills him. The quiet is louder than a heavy metal band blaring in his ears. And no, he can’t just learn to sit still. He can’t just try harder to remember his assignments. He can’t remember what you said 10 seconds ago. He can be better, but he will never excel at those things. And I wish he knew that was ok. I wish he really knew how much I adore his fast moving, agile, twisting turning, creative, original, totally unique brain. I wish he didn’t hear adults say “ADHD doesn’t exist.” I wish he didn’t have a teacher in sixth grade (obviously not our best year) respond to an email I sent asking for details about what she thought might be going on in class with one sentence, “he doesn’t try hard enough”. Fuck you.
I wish a lot of things, but I never, ever wish he was different. I wish I had not spent years saying, Jackson, stop. I wish he had never felt he had to say to me, “I wish I could just go one day without you saying, Jackson, stop.” I wish I had not asked him to sit still so often, or begged him to be quiet. I wish I wouldn’t have lost my temper when he just. wouldn’t. quit. I wish I would have understood him, so that my words didn’t also sting. So that he could look back on growing up and feel that somebody got him. I mean really, truly got him. As much as someone can get another.
I can’t grant my wishes. But I can continue to learn, and appreciate — oh how I appreciate — his brain and the magic it works. You know what the thing is – he can focus. He can actually focus better than anyone I know. Over spring break we walked around the WWII museum in New Orleans for nearly four hours. He was engrossed, literally absorbed by the sounds, the sights, the feelings, the words. He watched every clip, listened to dozens of recorded veterans tell their stories. He sat and chatted with a 93 year old veteran who helped to restore the U Boat that was at the museum entrance. He looked him in the eye, asked him questions about his time in the war, never lost interest, never turned his eyes from the kind, old soul who was so thrilled to have a young buck to tell his stories to. Hyper focused. It didn’t take much, walking, talking, things to touch and hear and feel.
There are many places my boy excels. The lacrosse field. Where the ball comes zinging at 80+ miles an hour, where defenders are breathing down his neck hacking at him trying to steal the ball, where he shoots with the game on the line, where they yell out commands to each other and he can see the plays before they even begin to develop. The CI room at school, where students who are cognitively impaired gather to learn and where he is a companion to the kids, a peer mentor. He loves the chaos, the noises and the bouncing balls, the moving bodies and the different ways the students think. He excels there, he’s comfortable there. He’s comfortable because the atmosphere of the room excites and engages him. He’s comfortable because he’s always felt as if he doesn’t quite fit in a classroom, but this one, this classroom he is comfortable with. He is wired differently, and so are they. He gets them.
In fact, he wants to be a special ed teacher. Well, on most days he does. There are days he isn’t sure. And his answer to me when I asked him why he has any doubts when he has a natural affinity and talent with these kids breaks my heart. “As long as I can remember I have hated going to school. I just get scared sometimes to go into a field where I will be going to school every day for the rest of my life.” What a travesty it will be if this boy chooses not to be a teacher, because some of the teachers he has had have made him feel inferior. Have made him feel inadequate. Because a traditional classroom makes him feel small, insignficant and not capable. Thank God for the teachers who understood him before I did. Who engaged his body to plug in his mind. Who loved him at school and tried, boy have they tried, to keep him there, to help him feel included. We have had some angels dressed as teachers, that’s for certain.
Don’t get me wrong. The kid has a ton of friends. He is social and he holds a high grade point. He is a three year starter for the lacrosse team, he loves his CI kids and visits them frequently. The problem lies within the chairs, the desks, the work and the silence. The problem is in the inability for him to move and to fidget, for him to embrace learning, to love education, to want to read. He is too busy thinking about how he could scale the building he sees out the window across the street or how he could scale the structure that holds the football stadium seats. He’s too busy believing the static, that he’s lazy, that he doesn’t try hard enough. Turning that off is difficult when you’ve felt it for years.
I have always really enjoyed the space he takes, the noises he makes and the ideas that spring from his ever turning wheels. I am learning to understand why, to learn what makes him tick and what his beautiful brain brings to the table. I am learning to bite my tongue when I feel myself saying, “Jackson, stop.” That, is the biggest blessing of all. Because when I stop telling my beautiful boy to stop, I hear his true heart. You feel his energy, you can bask in his heat and light. And, I may even pick up an accent or two of my own. Wow, do I love that boy.