I walked away from the one-story brick building with a heavy heart. Sobs and screams followed me to the parking lot where I climbed into the car and cried. My son's preschool teachers assured me he would settle down, but it didn't make it any easier. I only enrolled him to help prepare him for kindergarten because his birthday fell near the cutoff and he'd start school as a 4-year-old.
I placed my hope in the Montessori preschool. My son, Chris, didn't show interest in puzzles, coloring or many of the sit-still-and-play activities his older sister enjoyed at his age. Hopefully they'd help get him ready to start school.
When I attended the open house a few months later, Chris towed me by the hand to show me around. I scanned the walls plastered with coloring book pages exhibited like artwork.
"Show me your picture," I said. His bright blue eyes looked up at me from beneath tow-head bangs as he tugged me to the corner and pointed. I stared at the few green slashes of crayon on the smiling snow man. At the top of the page Chris had scrawled his trademark signature. His name mirror-backwards marked with a filled in circle to dot the "i". A sigh escaped my lips as I glanced at the colorful pictures to the right and left. Chris beamed and I crouched beside him.
"Why didn't you finish it?" I asked.
His brow knit into a frown and he looked from me to his artwork.
Should I send him to kindergarten or not? I decided to have him tested.
The evaluator both confirmed my fears and encouraged me./>
“He’s a little immature but it won’t hurt to repeat kindergarten if it doesn’t work out.”
Chris looked forwarded to starting school. He wanted to ride the bus.
His kindergarten teacher loved his charismatic charm and winning smile, but she said, "He isn't really ready for school." We talked about the possibility of repeating Kindergarten the following year. However, mid-year his teacher changed her recommendation. "He's matured," she said. "He is the youngest child in the class, but he's made progress. I think he'll be ready for first grade." And so he graduated to the first grade and I breathed a sigh of relief.
But the first parent teacher conference brought an odd sense of déjà vu. Chris' teacher smiled, but her words stung. "He isn't ready for first grade." She shook her head. Inside I wanted to scream. "Why did they promote him then?" She shrugged. "I don't really know. He's a good boy, but he doesn't complete his work." We discussed strategies to help him, and again his teacher's mid-year report told me he'd made big improvements. He would be ready for second grade. Little did I realize this was the beginning of a cycle; like on a hamster wheel I'd be running and running, but getting nowhere.
By the end of second grade a special parent teacher conference threw me a new hurdle. Chris' teacher sat behind her desk with her hands folded. I readied myself for the same ol' same ol' and feared he wasn't being promoted. The thought scared me. How would I tell Chris? His teacher pressed her lips into a semi-smile. “Chris’ personality and verbal skills helped him slip under the radar.” She glanced down at her hands and back at me. “He has learning problems…disabilities.” My heart sunk. Learning…disabilities? What exactly does that mean? Stunned I sat trying to absorb the shock. "Next year, Chris will be moved to the “LD” classroom." The term “Learning Disabled” sounded chronically bleak.
My mind reeled while the teacher continued to talk. I forced myself back to her words. “…perhaps if you change his diet.” Diet? My face heated. Silent anger erupted within me and simmered. I wanted to lash out. Is she blaming me for Chris’ learning problems? I admit, my words were curt, pleasant enough but I made it clear I wasn't happy. In my opinion, it wasn't Chris who was failing, but the school.
On the way home my anger gave way to self-doubt. Could Chris' learning problems be my fault? The drive home gave me enough time to calm down. I didn't see what his diet had to do with his problems in school, but if making changes would help, why not? Taking away his favorite cereals proved to be an unpopular adjustment, but gradually we learned to restrict foods high in sugar. Chris entered his life as an LD student where he joined children with a host of not only learning difficulties but behavioral problems.
His "normal" friends drifted away, and the kids on the bus taunted him by calling him names. One night at the dinner table Chris stirred his mashed potatoes with his fork. He stopped. "Does LD mean I'm retarded?" Silence settled across the table as I tried to clear the emotion choking me. I assured him it didn't mean any such thing, but his father saved the day.
"We're all unique," he said. "Each of us learns differently. You're special. Your brain learns differently than mine. I'm different from your mom and we're both different than your sister."
Little did I know how right he was. Chris continued to struggle through school and when it came time to enter high school, his counselor announced that Chris would be mainstreamed. As much as I wanted to welcome the news, it left me confused. "Mainstreamed?" What had changed? "We'd like to have him tested," she said. For the first time in years, I dared to hope.
When the doctor confirmed Chris’ above average intelligence, I wanted to stand up and shout. Tears stung my eyes as I fought to control my emotions. "Chris isn't stupid," I blurted. The doctor offered a kind smile. "No, Chris is anything but stupid. His problem is mental hyperactivity."
"Mental hyperactivity? What does that mean?"
I braced myself for more bad news.
“Let me put it this way," he said. "If the person next to him drops a pencil, Chris’ attention enters the world of the pencil and may never return to the classroom. He’s a classic example of Attention Deficit Disorder. He's on task maybe 10 percent of the time.”
I’d never heard of ADD, but his explanation fit. If he was only on task 10 percent of the time it was a miracle he'd made it this far.
The doctor recommended medication. I didn't want to draw attention to Chris' problem by requiring him to leave class each day to visit the nurse's office to take a pill. He'd had enough of being different, so we chose a timed-released variety of Ritalin. After all these years, I couldn’t believe the answer could be so simple—and expensive.
Chris’ grades improved for the first quarter. But grades aren't everything. His playful personality grew sullen. He'd lost his spontaneity.
"Can I skip the pill on the weekends?" he asked. "It makes my mouth so dry."
His father and I talked it over and agreed it would be okay, and the “real Chris” joined us for the weekends.
One night I stopped by his bedroom to say good night. Chris sat on the edge of his bed. We chit-chatted a little and I eased onto the bed beside him. “I don’t like taking that pill,” he said staring at the floor. “It makes me jittery inside.” His blue eyes left the floor and silently pled with me in the dim lamplight. “I don’t feel like myself.”
His father and I decided to take him off the medication for one quarter and see how it went. We put in a lot of extra hours helping him stay on task with his homework, but his grades still dropped. But he was passing. I had to ask myself what I really wanted.
The school contacted us with concern over his dropping grades and I let them know we'd taken Chris off the Ritalin. They strongly objected, but we decided as long as he was passing, he could stay drug free.
He graduated by the skin of his teeth, but he finished. When he walked up onto the stage and accepted his diploma I cheered louder than anyone. He waved the diploma over his head. Ready or not, he stood poised on the threshold of change.
Today he lives with his wife and family and has settled into the construction trade where he enjoys working with his hands and seeing his completed projects. It gives him a feeling of accomplishment. But it hasn't been an easy road. My son was born before Attention problems were so well publicized. And now it's his turn on that hamster wheel. That's right. His step-son has been diagnosed with ADHD.