Among Students and Teachers Once More

LAST WEEK I VISITED A SCHOOL. It was good to be back among students and teachers once more. As always, I sang a song or two, told some stories, shared books and talked about caring for the Earth. As I often do, I also talked about my hard times in school–about being an ADHD child and adult.

After speaking about my difficulties in learning to read, and my special teacher, Miss Little (see my book, Miss Little’s Gift) I also took time for a little aside. I said, as I often do to school audiences, that I have some trouble with one of the words that ADHD–Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder–stands for. I asked the kids to guess which one. They successfully guessed ‘disorder.’ I asked them if I have brown hair and someone else has blonde hair, does one of us have a disorder? Shaking heads and murmurs of, “No.” What about brown eyes or blue eyes, or short or tall or white skin or brown skin or black skin? …More shaking heads. A few louder “No’s”.

“So bodies can be different, and that’s OK. Right? Well, maybe brains can be different, too?” I noticed a little girl in the 5th row of the gym bleachers, about a 5th grader, with her face in her hands. “There are many things,” I said, “that ADHD people seem to actually be BETTER at than ‘regular’ people. “We may have trouble sitting still for long, we may have trouble concentrating or focusing one just one thing. Instead we focus on lots of things–we notice EVERYTHING! We may have a bit of a problem following directions or ‘behaving ourselves’–my wife Kathy says I STILL don’t know how to behave myself!–(The little girl looked up from her hands, tears on her face, a slight smile) But we can be very creative. And energetic. We can see the big picture instead of the small one. We can put things together in new ways that there might not be any directions for. We can be very successful!”

“Do you know,” I said,”that I have written 38 books? That I play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and violin and piano? That I travel and give talks all over the country? And that I draw illustrations and do artwork and lead wilderness trips and paddle canoes and ride a motorcycle and have an island and… well, do you know WHY I do all of this stuff?”

Wide eyes, shaking heads.

“It’s BECAUSE I have ADHD–that’s why!” Laughter. “I can’t just sit still in one place and do just one thing!”

“Now I have a little story for you, OK? About a ‘disorder.’ I’ve thought about this ADHD stuff a lot. And sometimes I wonder–what if I had been born in a different time and place. What if I had been born in the time of the cavemen–which seems like a long time ago, but really wasn’t. And do you know one of the things that cavemen–and women–didn’t have to do? Sit still indoors in a desk for 8 hours–that’s what! But anyway…we are back in the time of the cavemen, and our little group–our clan–is sitting around the campfire one night. And there is a very important member of our group–someone who IS good at sitting still and concentrating on just one thing. Is that me? (More shaking heads. Laughter.) Of course not! But it can be important and a good way to be–and there is someone in our group who is so good at it–sitting still and concentrating–that we have put that person in charge of a very important job–making arrowheads. Because we are a hunting clan, and if we don’t have arrowheads that fly straight and hit their mark, we might starve.

“So one night we are sitting around the campfire, and the arrowhead maker is making arrowheads–chipping away–concentrating very hard. And meanwhile, sneaking around the camp, in the brush, is… a sabertooth tiger! And it is VERY hungry–because they always are. And it is sneaking around, closer and closer… Now, think–is the arrowhead maker–concentrating so hard–going to NOTICE the sabertooth tiger?”

Many shaking heads. Concerned looks.

“But AM I GOING TO NOTICE the sabertooth tiger?”

Vigorous nodding heads.

“Of course! Because I notice everything–right!? Now think real hard again–which of us is going to get EATEN by the sabertooth tiger? Me? Or (pointing to my left) THAT guy–the arrowhead maker???”

Laughter. Many shouts. “THAT guy!”

“RIGHT!” I say. “So NOW who has the DISORDER?”

Crazy laughter.

“I’d say getting eaten by a tiger is a pretty BAD disorder, wouldn’t you???”

And the little girl in the 5th row looked up, tears streaming, a broad smile, shoulders shaking, the girl next to her hugging her.

And I thought… that moment, that little girl, is worth every stupid little thing I might screw up at, or forget to do, or get backwards or upside down or misread the directions for… for a good, long time. And that she, and maybe some others, just might remember this.

And I thought maybe there’s a reason we ADHD people have survived and are still around, contributing to school classrooms. And communities. And the gene pool. And still dodging sabertooth tigers.

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