Earth Angel

Maybe he has ADD and maybe he doesn’t. Is dreaminess a disorder?

Andy forgets where he’s going before he gets there. His misplaced sweatshirts, lunch boxes, and mittens stock the school’s lost and found. Doors shut on him because he can’t remember to hold them open. In class teachers say he “has attention issues” — their polite code for space cadet.

His head isn’t empty; perhaps it’s too full. Mornings he sits at the kitchen table forgetting to eat breakfast (he has also forgotten to put on socks and comb his hair) because he is reading about parquet floors at Versailles, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political future, or gas mileage statistics for Hummers. Worry eats up space in Andy’s head. Last summer, on Iowa nights so sticky even mosquitoes were sluggish in the heat, he quietly turned off his window fan each evening after I said goodnight. It wasted electricity, he’d tell me later. It heated up the atmosphere. About the same time, his father and I started flicking off the radio at the lead-in to any story about Europe’s deadly heat wave. If we forgot, Andy was soon teary over global warming.

School is about the only place where Andy’s head is not bursting with factoids, tidbits, schemes, and ideas. He has never thrived in the classroom, despite mostly great teachers and an interesting and challenging curriculum. Because tests have identified him as intellectually “gifted,” he even attends a special enrichment course designed to fend off boredom. Yet each year, Andy dislikes school more. And each year, his teachers grow less gentle with this boy who knows so much and does so little with it.

Here is the problem: Ask Andy to tell you about the Byzantine civilization or the decisive battles of the Civil War, and he will do so effortlessly. But ask him to bring home his social studies book, write out a spelling assignment, or neatly and correctly number and answer 15 basic math problems, and he’ll likely botch all three tasks. Is it laziness? Stubbornness? A learning disability?

Teachers see a kid who knows more than they do about Franklin Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright, who tells them all about China’s Forbidden City and the Tower of London. He’s the de facto help desk for computer-gaming fifth and sixth graders at his elementary school. So why can’t he remember a little homework? And if by some miracle work makes it home, completing a few assignments inevitably stretches out over two, three, sometimes four painful hours. By the end of those sessions, Andy’s head invariably sags limply on the table, and I am left wondering if he knows anything at all.

This selective incompetence seems deliberate; it tries even those of us who love him. Increasingly, impatient teachers have tried punishing him into shape. But nothing in their arsenal — denying recess (his favorite subject), sending him to the principal’s office, ridiculing his inattention — has worked. Instead, I’ve watched my beautiful boy — noticeably stronger, taller, happier after each summer away from school — fade back into his academic self. The circles under his eyes come back, as do frequent tears. He starts saying “I know, I’m stupid” again several times a day. A different tack seems in order.

Could school itself, which slices each day into more than a half-dozen slivers — social studies, science, oral literature, music, art, PE — be his problem? Kids like Andy learn by immersion, by reading for hours at a stretch, obsessing on a single topic (the Isle of Man, say, or hydrogen power) for weeks at a time. Throw in the requirement that students physically move around the school — one class in the media room, the next across the building — plus the necessity of hauling books and paper from room to room, and you have his personal recipe for a nervous breakdown.

Interestingly, the most intelligent kids in Andy’s grade are often the most disorganized students. As a group they are talented. Some function fluently in two languages; others chose Shakespeare as summer reading before fifth grade. One boy was Odin for Halloween, and another named his tropical fish after figures from Greek mythology. These kids spend recess (when they manage to earn it) sketching alternate universes complete with languages, currencies, and climates. But they cannot always remember their math book, and their desks are impossible messes. They do not switch gears easily in a system that, if it doesn’t induce attention deficit disorder, certainly seems to mimic it.

Attention is a problem for lots of smart kids in this environment, so is it the school or the children who are deficient? Andy’s teacher, a kind and talented classroom veteran, places the blame squarely on Andy’s narrow shoulders. He is, she says, a delightful boy suffering with the worst ADD she has ever encountered. Her assessment echoes the diagnosis of an experienced (and highly recommended) child psychologist who evaluated Andy using a variety of tests and measures. However, Andy’s pediatrician, also kindly and experienced, disagrees. A child who consistently scores in the top half percent on skills and aptitude tests — as he does — does not have a defective mind.

“So he hates math,” she says. “Do you really want to drug him for that?”

Call off the demanding teachers, she tells me. Call in a tutor. Calm down and enjoy this unique child.

And I do. Really.

But still I can’t help scrambling to explain his scatteredness. As I search, one name — Thomas Edison — keeps popping up. The great inventor, who dropped out of school thanks to his own distracted ways, has become the poster boy for all sorts of opinions in the controversy over what to do with kids like Andy. Educators, psychologists, and advocates of alternative education all agree that the great inventor would be diagnosed with ADD if he lived today. They disagree, however, about the significance of his story. One side (the educators and psychologists) say Edison shows the potential buried in some children, whose talents are thwarted or hidden by their ADD; today, they argue, proper medical treatment can unleash those talents. Others say Edison’s experience perfectly illustrates their point: His brain was not defective — he was simply too inventive for conventional schools of his time and he would be at least as out of sync today.

Edison wasn’t alone, either. Biographies of great artists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs from da Vinci to Einstein to Disney tell surprisingly similar tales: childhood distractibility, disengagement, academic struggle. None of these great figures was drugged into studiousness, though. Somehow they survived, imaginations and obsessions intact, to change the world.

But what about the others, those kids who didn’t come through unscathed? I think about my father, a junior high dropout. Or my grandfather, a man universally described as brilliant — when he was sober. How might their lives have been different, I wonder, if they could have focused those formidable but flighty minds?

In the past year I’ve also waded through a whole subgenre of books about today’s disorganized, unmotivated children. Nearly all of the authors blame poor schools and insensitive teachers for the academic failure of these kids. According to these writers, some kids — as many as one-fifth of them, according to one popular book — are, like Edison, too smart for school. Rather than changing the children, they advocate changing schools or removing some kids from them altogether.

But I’m not ready to abandon a great public school where nearly everyone is dedicated helping my child succeed. I wonder whether excessive accommodation is even good for kids. Andy’s expansive mind will do him no good, after all, if he cannot focus or apply his knowledge, if he’s never forced to organize himself, if he never learns to change gears. Education necessarily includes learning even the boring stuff. Home schooling, often suggested as a perfect solution, could only worsen our situation. I can’t motivate him to put on socks or eat breakfast regularly. How could I stir him to learn math, grammar, or science?

And so I struggle, wondering when to pay attention, when to worry. Is chronic forgetfulness in a 10-year-old boy a disorder? Is hating school a disease? Is Andy’s brain dysfunctional, or is it simply different?

As I pore over the arguments, the term twice exceptional keeps popping up for kids like mine. Like most examples of educator-speak, this phrase is both unilluminating and vaguely creepy. It applies to “gifted” children who suffer from a learning disability such as dyslexia, ADD, Asperger’s syndrome, or hyperactivity. I trip over other terms, too, the worst of which — learned helplessness — stops me cold. Children with untreated attention-deficit problems, experts say, may be so helped along by well-meaning parents and teachers that eventually they embrace their own ineptitude, never taking responsibility for themselves.

I won’t be a coddler, a parent whose protective cocoon immobilizes her child. And yet, I have to look out for him. What mother could countenance a child who cries nearly every day at school? What child could love school when every day is a lesson in his own shortcomings? How — short of medicating him into either contentment or compliance — do we get him to pay attention? And if the source of his problem is indeed chemical, as psychologists and educators argue, why not treat it like any other chemical disorder? I’m not a Christian Scientist. Why isn’t Ritalin the answer?

And this is the hardest part: Everyone in the world, except me, seems certain what’s wrong with — and best for — my kid. Library and bookstore shelves groan under the weighty opinions. He was driven to distraction by too much television in toddlerhood. He’s been poisoned by processed food. He’s deficient in a key vitamin. He’s the victim of modern life, lead poisoning, indulgent parents, heartless teachers. We’re obligated to treat him. We’re committing abuse if we treat him.

Something’s wrong. Nothing’s wrong.

He’s defective. He’s a genius.

Reluctantly, we had Andy try medication and it worked miraculously. A single pill did what tutors, reviews, and months of nightly struggle never accomplished: It made sense of math. When he was dosed, those indecipherable characters rearranged themselves into English. He got organized, stayed engaged, evaded the crippling boredom. But he also grew sad and even more anxious, couldn’t eat, and lost 10 percent of his already dangerously low body weight before we threw the pills away. And so we struggle on, still wondering when — and how — to pay attention.

Try as I might to sort it all out, I know only this: I can’t run ahead of Andy his whole life, opening doors, retrieving lost lunches, throwing myself between him and every inflexible teacher, coach, peer, or boss. How will he learn to handle himself if I never allow it? Kindness or tough love — which is the better teacher? How does any parent know?

“Andy is all air,” a friend said, watching his goofy pratfalls one day. She exactly caught my wispy boy, the way he moves like a marionette — or an enchanted skeleton — ready to collapse if an unseen hand cuts a string or taps a wand. In Eastern thought, my friend explained, people need to be part earth and part air. “That’s how we keep our feet on the ground,” she said.

Looking at him, I knew exactly what she meant. Some days it seems as though Andy might simply float away, only a backpack, overstuffed with his hated textbooks and homework, tethering him here. On those days I know I have to pay attention, I have to keep his feet on earth without grounding him entirely.

Reprinted from the parenting magazine Brain, Child (Fall 2004). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 714, Lexington, VA 24450;

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