Undiagnosed: It’s Elementary

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I didn’t come to despise school until middle and high school; my feelings about elementary school were just kind of… meh. It’s a shame, because I remember how over-the-moon excited I was to start going to school. At the time, I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that I was excited about learning, but there it is. Since before kindergarten, I loved to read, and I was always digging into things, wanting to know how everything worked, and asking questions about topics that seemed “too big” for a preschooler. When I went back to college a few years ago, I was eager to just be “an academic.” I wanted to be in an atmosphere of learning, I wanted in-class discussions, and stimulating conversations. I just… well, I wanted to learn again.

That is how I remember feeling in the days before my first day of kindergarten, imagining all the new things I would learn. Yes. At five years old, that was how I felt. I have always felt this way about the very idea of learning something new; I could never know enough—even as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on (my parents couldn’t get me new books fast enough), which meant I read the newspaper, my parent’s magazines, every sign on the street… I was always being “shushed” for not just talking too much but also for asking too many questions. I was shy, but a few people realized they could get me to open up by offering to teach me something. (“Intellectual overexcitability, yeah?”)

My mom took me to the bus stop for my first day of kindergarten. She said that I leapt on board and didn’t look back once. I was ready for what I thought would be an adventure. I thought kindergarten would give me all the answers. I thought school would be an exciting place where I’d learn everything there was to know about the world.

Yeah. I was so wrong.

A few weeks into kindergarten, my teacher, Mrs K, asked me to come sit next to her at the piano (Pianos! In classrooms! This was a thing once!). Then she handed me a book and asked me to read a few pages to her. It was “free time,” and the other kids were playing quietly; I resented being pulled aside and missing play time, but I was also scared because I immediately assumed there was something wrong with me or that I didn’t read well enough. Au contraire, she noticed that I seemed to have mad reading skills. Just like my son does now, I was reading books that were years beyond my age group, and I was plowing through piles and piles of books every week. Also just like my son, as early as kindergarten and first grade, I was drawn to books written for young adults, because the emotional inner lives of teenagers resonated deeply (and books for kids my age did not).

But at every turn, I felt like I got screwed for being an advanced and avid reader. For the kindergarten class play, I was automatically assigned as narrator. Oh yes, I remember pouting about this; I didn’t want to be the lame narrator. I wanted to be one of the fun characters, and I wasn’t even given a chance to try. My mom also told me that, after the play, all the other parents raved at her and my Dad about my reading… I just pouted some more.

A few years later, around third grade, I was put in the “Great Books” special reading group. It was a reading discussion group for advanced readers that consisted of me and three or four of my classmates. It sucked. Thanks to this super special group, we were assigned more homework than everyone else (reading and discussion questions), and twice a week, we got to stay inside to discuss what we’d read instead of going out for afternoon recess.

Did I mention it sucked?

Aside from the obvious reasons for the suckage, I didn’t feel like I fit in with those girls. It was all girls, but the other girls were the academic, go-getter type of girls. They were the girls that were on their way to becoming the popular girls in middle and high school. (I was on my way to becoming a high school dropout.) They did all the assigned reading and stuck little post-it notes in between the pages to mark their thoughts and overachiever-ness. They highlighted sentences.

This was actually a pivotal moment. This was exactly when and where I learned to fake it. I never did all the reading (because I read what I wanted to read, not assigned reading), but I was really, really, really good at skimming for ideas ten minutes before discussion started, and I am full of opinions and thoughts. So I’d skim, wait for them to start talking, and then dive in. I sometimes dog-eared pages or highlighted random sentences to make it look like my book had been opened. I was busted for not doing the reading a couple of times, but I mostly stayed under the radar. I continued my methods of skimming, reading headers, and talking a lot to get through jobs and college. It worked like a charm. I may not have done the reading, but I process ideas quickly, am a natural “critical thinker,” and I loooooooooove intellectual discussions. Whenever there was discussion or essay-writing involved, I shined. I consistently got As on fifteen-page papers that I wrote four hours before they were due, on subjects for which the only reading I had done was the headings and the first couple sentences of the first paragraph of every chapter.

(My therapist likes to remind me that I was able to do this because I’m smart and can articulate my ideas well… I’m trying to absorb that, but I usually think of myself as a fraud who only got As because I was either at a crappy community college or because there was intense grade-padding going on.)

I also started playing violin that year, and I did the exact same thing with violin as I did with the reading group. I never practiced the way I was supposed to. I sat in my room playing songs by heart or teaching myself to play something of my own choosing. I didn’t read the music or practice “scales.” Now this, I actually get angry about today. I know the basic notes, but I can’t read sheet music. At the time, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t really faking my way through it; I was just learning pieces of music differently and the way that worked best for me. I was acutely aware of not reading the music or doing things “right”—my teacher often suspected that I wasn’t reading the music or practicing, though he’d scold me vaguely, mostly for spacing out during music class or rehearsals, because I was still playing the music. Here’s the thing: my maternal family is quite musical. My mom played drums in elementary school (at a time where girls playing drums were unheard of) and piano. My aunt is a phenomenal, trained singer. My grandmother also played piano. My mother and aunt could have gone on to prestigious music colleges, but their stage fright stopped them. I grew up playing piano side-by-side with my grandmother and my mom. I learned everything by ear and, to this day, I could sit down at a piano and easily play any song I wanted, note for note. That was my first experience with music. (I’ve got some weird little quirks and sensory things with sound and music, which probably has something to do with it. I “feel” music as much as I hear it.) So when I signed up for violin lessons then, I didn’t need to read the music. Not even “didn’t need” but couldn’t. I just needed to hear it once or twice, and then I could go along my merry way. But, ya know… I was still punished for not doing it “the right way,” even though I played the exact same songs, equally well, as the other two kids taking violin lessons with me. No one in the audience of our school concerts could have picked out that I was doing anything differently. I learn easily by ear, but I can’t read music to save my life.

Anyway. I didn’t do the reading or homework or the music because I either forgot, couldn’t focus, couldn’t get organized, lost the paper that had the assigned pages written on, or just couldn’t do it because it was too boring for my brain to process.

(Ding! Ding! Ding! That was my ADHD at work. And there’s my “giftedness” coming up with ways to mask it.)

As I moved up through elementary school, the symptoms of ADHD grew brighter and brighter. But I was a girl (and I was smart). Plus, it was the eighties, when so much less was known about giftedness and ADHD. So I plugged along, and the chorus kept getting louder. “She talks too much.” “She’s a motor mouth.” “She never has her homework done on time.” “She’s disorganized.” “She lacks motivation and self-discipline.” “She’s always staring out the window.” “She’s always off in her own little world.” “She’s not trying.” “She’s always losing things.” “She’s not working to her potential.”

Around the same grade as that damn reading group, there was the infamous black notebook in the back of the classroom. If you didn’t have the homework that was due that day, you wrote your name and the name of the assignment in the book. If you handed it in late, you could cross your name off. On Fridays, the class got to watch a short movie in the afternoon. If your name was in the notebook and still not crossed off, you had to sit in another room to finish the homework while the class watched the movie.

I was always in the other room on Fridays. I was never alone, though I was probably only one of a couple kids that were in there regularly. And the teacher who watched over us always spewed the usual comments about motivation and discipline and blah blah blah. I remember hearing a gazillion lectures (that all sounded pretty much the same). I got the exact same shit at home. I was always losing out or being grounded for not doing what I was supposed to do, such as clean my room. Instead of hounding me about my lack of motivation, however, my parents lines involved things about me being stubborn, defiant, lazy, obstinate, rebellious, willful, messy, and oversensitive. According to them, I caused problems on purpose and simply refused to do as I was told.

Well, no. I had ADHD. And I learned to start talking back and being “willful” because it was easier to pretend I didn’t want to do something than it was to admit that I couldn’t but didn’t know why. I felt stupid for not being able to remember to do something five minutes after being told. I felt stupid for not being able to “just get organized.” Not being able to “just do” what other people did in order to succeed made me feel like shit.

It was less painful to play up the idea that I didn’t give a fuck than it was to ask for help and be told that I shouldn’t need help or that I was just making excuses. So I sharpened my tongue, stole a coat of armour, and cultivated my infamously bad attutide.

The last acknowledgment of me being “smart” in some way came when I was invited to the “gifted” program around fourth grade and a summer program at John Hopkins University.

This is kind of amusing to me now, because my son takes online classes at CTY (John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth). I had to take him to do a SCAT (school and college aptitude test), and he had to score above a certain range in order to be accepted into and take classes at CTY. (He did, and he does.) I understand all this now. But I had no clue what it all meant back then, and no one explained it to me. I remember sitting in a room with other kids who were invited and a CTY representative. I didn’t pay much attention. And afterward, I said no.

When my parents told me that the school wanted to put me in the gifted program, I also said no.

I said no because what I knew so far about “special programs,” was that it meant extra work and losing out on things like recess. I didn’t want to lose recess, I didn’t want to be part of the “nerd” group, and given that I couldn’t even manage the reading and homework I already had, I didn’t want to be in a position for yet more people to tell me how lazy and unmotivated I was. I was also scared, because every time I looked around at the other kids who were part of these programs… they were popular, and they always had their homework done on time, and the teachers loved them, and they did sports. I was none of that. I was painfully conscious of this fact, and I noticed the frequent mocking and scornful looks I got from a couple of the other girls.

I was weird, in the worst kind of way. And I only got weirder as middle school came around.

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