Wanna know a secret?
I barely made it out of high school. Nope, I’m not exaggerating for the sake of telling a story; I truly got down to about 48 hours before graduation hoping that a benevolent teacher (one who was not known for his benevolence) would accept my essay on politics and government. I had an hour to write the essay, by hand (because 1998) and turn it in.
I was so glad to sit in my chair at graduation. I had never received any academic awards my entire time in high-school. My robe was absent of any cords, or honor ribbons or pins. But I was there.
Wanna know another secret?
I barely made it out of college. I didn’t graduate on time. By the time I got to what I lovingly call my “first senior year,” I had failed multiple classes. I had skillfully managed to hide these failures from my parents because….I was a theatre major. My dad and I laugh about it now, but then, it was….less funny.
By my 2nd senior year, I had to finish because I was engaged and I promised my parents I’d get my degree before I got married. I finished that year with a 3.0….which did nothing for my overall GPA.
And I was so glad to sit in my seat at graduation. My robe was absent of any honor cords, pins or ribbons; just a $15 Kente stole I had purchased on the way to the ceremony. But I was there.
If you had asked me 10 or 20 years ago if I was a good student, I would’ve told you no.
If you had asked me if I thought I was smart, I would have laughed the question away and quip something about “the school of hard knocks.” And after successfully dodging your question with a hilarious story, I would have “sleight of handed” you into a different subject.
Wanna know another secret?
I thought I was a terrible student. And no one ever told me that. No one ever said, “Danita, you aren’t smart,” or “Danita, you are a terrible student.” But I thought it.
I couldn’t understand why I lacked the motivation to work. Like….I didn’t have it. It wasn’t in me. It was almost like this physical force kept me from completing my homework, or paying attention in class, or finishing tests.
When I went to college, I convinced myself that because I was older I would do better. It took less than three weeks into Freshman year before I found myself falling into the same patterns.
And I hated it. But I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
In 2013 I was cleaning out a box and found some old report cards and transcripts. I had a good cry in my closet. The grades from middle school through college were absolutely atrocious. I was amazed I even had a college degree…..and I felt like an imposter every time I looked at it.
But in April of 2015, I sat next to a new friend of mine after she helped me straighten my graduation cap over my natural hair. I adjusted my master’s hood with a new sense of pride. I had just finished an accelerated MFA program in Creative Writing; a three-year program squeezed into 14 months.
And that day, I graduated with honors. When I walked across the stage, and they announced that I was salutatorian of the program, it took everything in me to keep from sobbing. I had made it. I had the ribbons and the pins and certificates. I was, in fact, a phenomenal student. It took me 30 years to figure that out.
Wanna know a secret?
There’s actually a recurring theme–pattern, if you will, that stealthily settled in the back of your brain about my academic abilities.
I finished a brilliant political essay in an hour in order to graduate high school.
I finished two semesters with a 3.0 in order to graduate college
I finished number 2 in my class (and with additional honors) in 14 months in graduate school.
“Clearly you had it in you all along, Danita!” you’re probably thinking.
And you’d be right…I did. But you know what else was in there? .ADHD.
If you follow me on social media, you know I make jokes about it. Sometimes it can come across as a casual barb directed at me. In fact, most people don’t take me seriously when I say it. They assume it’s what most people do when they “can’t focus;” they claim to be having an “ADHD moment” and then go about their business.
But that’s not how it works.
At the end of the day, when the jokes are over, and the dust settles, this very serious condition plagues the mind.
It’s not just about ‘not being able to pay attention.’ It’s so much more than that:
It’s about the inability to free your mind of other thoughts even when you want to.
It’s about the inability to rest your brain when you absolutely need to.
It’s about being so overwhelmed with daily tasks that you literally shut off.
It’s about being so hyped up to do daily tasks that you start all of them all at once.
It’s about forgetting about the task you were just doing because someone interrupted your train of thought.
It’s about the classroom being too loud and the library being too quiet.
It’s about getting the urge to finish your homework at 3 am.
It’s about being frustrated to the point of tears because you can’t memorize a sequence of numbers.
It’s about having an entire conversation with a person and not hearing a thing they said.
It’s about losing things even though you can see in your mind that you put it…
It’s about being mentally exhausted after being forced to focus past your limit.
It’s about having to ‘go’ when nobody else wants to
It’s about hearing phrases like, “I didn’t know you talked this much,” and cringing in your head.
It’s about interrupting people when they’re talking
It’s about being physically uncomfortable if you’re not allowed to move around.
It’s about being called an “energizer bunny” because people can’t keep up with you.
Both my parents embraced the fact that I had it. My mother taught me how to wield my disorder like a superpower. And it worked…sometimes. Unfortunately, my parents couldn’t get inside the worse part of the disorder…my brain. My brain was my worst enemy 90% of the time.
The difference in college Danita and Graduate School Danita was my understanding of exactly how this mental disorder works. It wasn’t something I could “will” away or “pray” away. It was something I had to truly embrace, and then be OK with it. I had to realize that it didn’t make me a “terrible” student or a “lazy” person. My brain worked differently.
It’s ok that my brain works differently. Even now.
Wanna know a secret?
I know your secret.
Your kid has been home with you now for more than sixty days. And you see it. You know it. The teachers have been hinting at it because they didn’t want to offend you. The principal has been exasperated with you about ignoring it…but now, during this pandemic, you know. It’s been in front of your face all along. And a bunch of “you ok buddys” and “you feeling ok sweethearts” will never get you the answers you need.
And you can’t punish it away, or “they need structure” it away, or “they need to be challenged” it away.
Let this 39-year old adult tell you what your grade-schooler, middle-schooler, or high-schooler is thinking:
They think they’re a bad student
They think they’re not as smart as their peers
They don’t understand why they can’t finish their homework…or have no desire to
They don’t know how to describe to you that their brain is too loud at night and that’s why they’re “still up.”
They can’t explain to you why you almost stepped on their glasses because they were placed carefully on the staircase.
They have no idea how to communicate to you that you breathing while they’re trying to concentrate sounds like a cacophony of 88 grand pianos playing at once….or the silence of the class taking a test has the same amount of decibels.
They don’t know how to explain to you why they know the lyrics to the entire cast recording of “Hamilton,” or learned their school play script in less than two weeks, but can’t remember how to solve for X
They don’t know why they can remember something that happened to them when they were 14 months old as if it were being played on an HD plasma-screen TV, but can’t recall what you asked them to do 6 minutes ago.
They don’t know how to say that it’s easier to sit and play a video game for hours, but it’s physically painful to sit at the dinner table for three minutes.
They don’t know how to describe to you their frustration level when you interrupt their routine, or when you give additional directions in the midst of the ones they’re already trying to follow.
They don’t know why they don’t remember where their important documents are or how their license ended up the front lawn (sorry, Daddy. lol)
They don’t know how to articulate that they really want to be better.
And they can be better. They just need to understand how their brain works.
It works differently.
You see, I didn’t mention that after I wrote that brilliant essay on politics in an hour, I sat in my car for 30 minutes mentally spent because I had to focus for that long.
I forgot to add that when I made that 3.0 over the course of two semesters, my mother and sister planned my wedding because I didn’t have the mental capacity to dedicate to it.
I failed to give the detail that my MFA was online, and I would do all of my course work after midnight, Monday – Thursday because that’s when my brain was fully “on.”
Your kid has ADHD.
But that doesn’t make them a “bad” kid. It just makes them a kid that needs some more help, some more therapy, and maybe some medication.
And that doesn’t make you a bad parent. It just makes you a parent that needs to acknowledge it, embrace it, and then give your kid the necessary tools to succeed.
This summer, while the schools are trying to figure out what to do next, sit down with your kid. Talk to them about how it feels to think. You’re going to be shocked by what they say.
And once you have that conversation, let your kid know, like my mother let me know, that they are a superhero.
Realize that you are an amazing parent with a child that needs some extra help.
Let them know that it’s not a label of shame, but a badge of honor, because they’ve come pretty far on their own.
Then, get some support for everybody, so your kid can be the awesome being you know they are.
You know I’m right