In my day, we didn’t have “ADHD.” We had “Shut the hell up and do your homework!” and “WHAT is your PROBLEM?”  They were both a valid educational diagnoses entered into the DSM Negative 5, the book of guidelines on such things. They were reinforced and treated by a backhand, in the case of some families, or eternal isolation in solitary confinement by others–being confined to The Room to miss out on all the three-channel major networks had to offer.

I think I have ADHD.  Nobody’s ever really diagnosed it except for my family and all my friends, but I know I think differently.  I consider this a blessing, but being around linear thinkers is often a challenge.  I am not permitted to rake leaves or mow the lawn, for instance. I go from pile to pile raking or mow in pretty designs, when my husband, the approved mower goes straight in rows as if a scout from Yankee Stadium is about to come by our yard.  I clean like a waitress, always having my hands full, bringing things to their place and picking up something else for my return trip back. I say this is efficiency. He says it’s chaos.  “Can’t you just finish cleaning in one damned area?”  No, because who would put back this glass?

There are many other things I do differently–my mom tried to alphabetize my spice cabinet.  Even though each jar was uniformly labeled in Martha Stewart blue, something bothered her and she started to move jars around. I had to stop her. “Mom, the amchoor does not go by the adobo. It goes by the garam masala, hind, and kalonji.  The adobo goes by the guajillo and chipotle. Cinnamon and cloves go in the middle, because they’re for curries AND baking. Understood?  No, they don’t understand. Nobody does; it’s my cross to bear.  Thoughts are not linear–they are a spider web, reaching out in many directions.

I say perfectly logical things that connect all parts of the universe.  One thing reminds me of a thousand different things–strings connected to frequencies that all join together.  “What do you mean you don’t understand the link between that cappuccino and coffee farming in general which led me to think about fair trade and a project I can do with my class? It makes perfect sense to me.” Admittedly, few close people in my life have been able to follow these connections, and they probably have ADHD worse than me.  One is now finishing up a Ph.D in something to do with the brain that I sometimes understand. I’m want her to switch gears just a little bit and study me so I can go to my husband and say, “SEE!  I told you I was awesome. And now it’s been proven by medical science!”

Thinking differently is not a curse–I get a flash of an idea, and I stop, write it down and make connections. The fact that no one sees those connections immediately only makes them more valuable to me.  Eventually, I’ll convert them to something, but even if I don’t, they didn’t hurt anything but a small section of a rainforest by taking up a page in a notebook. This makes me wonder why schools–and life–always seek to put thinkers in a box, make them conform, and make them bow to The System.

In school, I always carried one notebook–a marble composition book. I could not have a separate notebook for each class.  If I did, would have had the wrong notebook constantly.  Instead (this worked for high school, college, and 1.5 grad schools) I dated each entry by class and subject, creating a time capsule of sorts.  I dreamed, doodled, thought, and connected away never taking “the notes,” only making connections with the world around me–books on the topic, comments the instructor made, independent thoughts that filtered through.

The notes weren’t in English per se–they were a combination of symboled shorthand and the shortest word for the concept in any language I happened to know, all floating through in lines and patterns on the page. No one dared to ask to borrow my notes so they were perfectly safe with me.  The notebook had to be a black marble composition notebook, because otherwise I’d rip out pages for other things, leaving me with an anorexic tattered notebook full of holes.

Years later, I have a row of these things on my shelves, and I can pick up every single one and use the contents inside–I’ve used them to teach even 10 or 15 years after the notes were taken.

That’s effective!  Again, why do we, as educators, shove every kid in The Box? Why won’t ed reform break us out of The Box instead of building new ones?

I show these notebooks to my students to tell them individuality is a beautiful thing–a gift–and when combined with dedication, motivation, and passion, it does breed success.   My failure has been predicted by no fewer than the following:  An elementary teacher.  I’m told I  was a “gifted underachiever” as early as second grade.  My physics teacher. I liked him, but apparently I didn’t take notes using “the system.”   One of my undergraduate advisors.  He assessed that I didn’t “have what it takes” rather than finding out I worked full time (and often overtime) off campus during college to eat all while taking a double-overload. “You’ll never make it in grad school.”  Finally, my student teaching supervisor who told me I couldn’t teach on crutches, must come back to the program later, and shouldn’t expect to get a job like that.

People just think differently than me. And I’m glad.  I spent enough time listening to the voices of failure and reason in my own head, as do we all.  Writer Neil Gaiman gave a commencement address this past year, advising the graduates that he was grateful he never knew what was impossible, because then he never would have done it.  How many things have I failed to do or not done to the best of my ability because of the voices of “reason”, or because I “think differently?” How many times has that affected us all?

I’m not sure–but when I see a ninth grader with books barfing out of his backpack pull out a little marble composition book for my class with papers filed in a system only he can understand, I always smile.

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