As a schoolgirl, I found it hard to stay focused in class. I would start out determined to be present in both mind and body until the bell rang for the next class, but invariably my mind would cut out and go somewhere a million unrelated miles away. I might hear my history teacher begin a lecture on “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” but the words would soon lose their meaning and morph into thoughts of the chocolate fondue I tasted at a cute little restaurant resembling a Swiss Chalet at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. From there I’d segue to thoughts of the unique patterns of snowflakes and how they could never be duplicated.
Then I’d think about Susie’s split ends and what they might look like 100 times magnified since after all they were right in front of my face, and from there I’d fantasize about the damp spot on the school ceiling caving in and what would be said at my memorial service.
Here, the teacher might notice my inattention and fold his arms across his chest, “Meyers,” he might say to me, “who was Henry Clay?”
“He was, um, he was a man who lived some time after the 1840 presidential election,” I might say with mock confidence, and my teacher would roll his eyes.
So it went through four years of high school in seven different schools; and no, I wasn’t an army brat.
Back then, they didn’t have ADD/ADHD. Or if they did, they didn’t call it that. In fact, ADD/ADHD was first named as such in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 1980. I graduated high school in 1978. Barely.
Fast forward to Israel, 21st century, my kids, the Israeli school system. My husband and I are sitting in the principal’s office at my son’s school. There are several people present: my son’s homeroom teacher, his principal, and the school psychologist.
My son’s teacher begins. “Your son is a smart boy, a nice boy,” he leans forward, “but he creates a disturbance,” pounds once on the table for emphasis. “I am unable to teach,” frowning. “We discussed this earlier when we advised you to have him seen by a neurologist.
We know the neurologist agreed to give him Ritalin. Does your son take his Ritalin?”
“He says it makes his stomach hurt,” I apologize. “He can’t eat. For hours. He can’t sleep until he eats, late at night, and he’s restless. Sometimes he’s up until past midnight. Then he can’t get up in the morning. “
“But he does take it,” Dov, my husband interjects.
“I don’t think so,” says his teacher, shaking his head, correcting us. “When he takes it, he’s quiet and doesn’t disturb the class. When he doesn’t take it, I can’t teach,” he reiterates. “Within the first five minutes of class, I know which kids have forgotten to take their Ritalin.”
I imagine a room full of somnambulant zombies spaced out on meds.
The principal interjects, “I’m afraid we have no choice here. Either you make sure your son takes the Ritalin, or he cannot stay in our school.”
The school psychologist, anxious to play a part in this unfolding professional drama, swipes her upper teeth with her tongue. Edging an errant piece of salami out from between her molars, she sighs in her heavy French manner, “Have you thought,” she says cunningly, with an intimacy reserved for already-captured prey, “about seeking some help?”
“Help?” I ask, puzzled.
“Pshh. Some family counseling. From social services. It’s nothing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my son or my family.” I say, narrowing my eyes.
“Well, if you don’t want help . . .”
And so it has gone with so many of my 12 children, mostly sons. The girls, some of them, have symptoms similar to my own, back when I was in school. They daydream. They’re a million miles away.
Meantime the boys are, by turns, rowdy and un-medicated—disruptive—or zombied out on the teacher’s pet: Ritalin.
I’ve researched ADD/ADHD endlessly throughout my writing career. Not because of my children, so much, but because my writing jobs demanded it. I am convinced that the drugs are for the teachers and not for the children. I am convinced that most children on Ritalin would do much better in smaller classrooms with more attentive teachers.
In addition to researching ADD/ADHD, I taught reading for eight years to 3-6 year-old boys in the Haredi system. I succeeded where many teachers before me had failed by dint of my teaching dynamic. Teachers need to have a knack for teaching. They need to rule over the classroom while keeping students interested and engaged. They need to keep things lively and stimulating enough for the smartest kid in the class as well as for the slowest kid in the class.
And that’s the trick. It’s a balancing act.
Back in the day, the teacher would say something slowly or repeat it, and that’s when he’d lose me. Or he’d go too fast and I couldn’t keep up so I’d cut out mentally.
But if it had been me up there as teacher, I would have seen it happening: would have seen the face of my student subtly changing and see it as a cue to engage the student, find out where s/he had cut out, and bring him or her back to the present.
I’m convinced that for most children, that’s all that’s needed. My mom agrees and will often remark, “Back then we didn’t have any of this ADD/ADHD. We just understood that sometimes kids have oats to sow.”