This has nothing to do with my music but everything to do with life and sometimes I like to write about life.
My son Ethan is eleven years old. We’re a quiet family, he and I. I’ve always been “the quiet one” at home, I think its because I was the baby for awhile and then the middle child. I didn’t “find my voice” until I left home and started teaching kung fu, which sort of forced me out of my shell. There was nothing wrong with me (Hah. At least not in THAT way). I was a quiet child who liked to day dream, draw, read, write music, and when I got to know you, I’d talk your ear off. Again—there was nothing wrong with me. Yet, I had so much trouble in school I began to think that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t want to be there. I thought the work was pointless and the teachers didn’t care about me. There were less than a handful of classes where I actually felt like I was supposed to be there and in those classes I did extremely well, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the classes that skipped or flunked out of. In the end, I just didn’t have enough credits, so I dropped out in my third year and started working full time. All the while my dream was to be a musician, which I really didn’t feel I needed school for.
School made me feel stupid. School made me feel like a number. Just another kid slipping through the cracks of the educational system. Eventually, I decided school just “wasn’t my thing” and that was okay with me. It’s still okay with me now. I still believe that school “isn’t my thing”. I can do it. I can sit in class, do the work, follow directions, and get good grades, but unless I absolutely need the class and/or enjoy it… I’m not feelin’ it. I figured I was just “too ADD” for it. Yet I went back and graduated college with a 3.93 GPA. Suck on that, HS!
Anyway, now I’m a mom with a child who’s in school and having the same problems that I had when I was a kid.
I didn’t want him to be off with a slow start in school so I took advantage of every helpful opportunity I could get. Every program that was offered I accepted. All the extra help he could get, I gave it to him. When we were at home, I helped him with his homework. When he was at school I communicated with his teachers to see how he was doing. It was a long, stressful, and anxious time. Every parent/teacher conference was the same. “Ethan’s a really sweet kid, he’s really kind and polite and he loves to help, but he just can’t keep up with the other kids.”
Even in first grade he struggled with his homework. He and I spent hours over simple problems; Ethan shutting down and me growing frustrated and angry at him for not being able to just follow the directions. I couldn’t figure why he was having such a hard time understanding the work. It made homework time excruciating for both of us. Eventually I talked to his teacher and she gave me great tips on how to make things less stressful. We’d set a timer to the appropriate time for one question then take a short break, we put his spelling words to music or turned it into a game. I’d even put chocolate chips on a plate in front of him and after each problem was done he could snack on a few (Yes, I reward with food. Don’t judge me!). The more fun we had, the better Ethan did with the work. Homework, over months of trial and error, became a much less stressful and much easier task, but that didn’t change the struggling in class.
Eventually came the testing and the psycho-educational evaluations. We did the Connor’s test in both households (his father and I are divorced) and both tests came back with different results because apparently his father and I see things differently… or we see different sides of our son. Anyway, it was frustrating and difficult and for three years it was suggested that because Ethan has ADD (not AD*H*D) we should try medication because it would help him focus in school and he would be able to keep up with the curriculum without struggling.
I understand that chemical imbalances do exist and that medication can be helpful to some, but on a personal level, knowing my son and what he was capable of, I do not believe that medication was ever the right choice for him. His teachers were trying to help him, the school was doing everything they really could to help him succeed and it was really apparent that they all loved him and wanted him to do better, but whenever medication was suggested I put my foot down and insisted that we find other ways to handle the situation. His father, thankfully, agreed. My worry about using medication is that if he relied on the medication he would never learn how to focus on his own. I learned on my own when I recognized what the problem was. Surely, he could do the same.
At first, I thought this would change quickly. I figured maybe he was too young and by second grade he’d be fine, but it only seemed to be getting worse. The report card was getting worse, the conferences were getting more frustrating, and he didn’t seem to understand why or how to be a better student in the classroom and I couldn’t figure out any other ways to help him from my end, especially with him having to live with two separate households.
I don’t think that Ethan has a chemical imbalance. I don’t think that he has a “disorder”. I do believe he has a short attention span because I know I do and I can see it in him. I also think that we are simply quiet people and that is not what the workforce or what the school system is designed for. It’s a go-getter world. We’re taught to talk a lot, “get your name out there”, “be more outgoing” (I’m quoting people who have said these things to me along the years), “speak up for yourself!”. And while I understand the importance of these things now and I’ve learned that in order to get ahead, putting yourself “out there” means speaking up and it also means that sometimes the people with the loudest voices, even if they don’t really have anything to say, are the ones that take center stage. I’ve also learned that if you stay quiet… people think there’s something wrong with you.
They thought I was dumb because I didn’t talk a lot in school and my brother wanted to help me do everything. They thought something was wrong with my little sister because she was quiet in pre-school. They thought Ethan had a learning disability because he was quiet when he’d just started kindergarten at age 5. Shyness is seen as social phobia. While social phobia is probably real, not all shy people are suffering from it. Some people are just… shy.
A few years ago I read this book called “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn. I think I’ve referenced it before, but I’ll certainly do it again. It brought to light something that really clicked in my brain and it made me feel so much better about my experience with schooling. The book is a narrative, Nerburn was asked by an Indian elder to write a book for him about his life. The elder, going by Dan, had this to say about his experience in boarding school:
“I remember as a little boy in school. When the teacher would call on me I would sometimes want to think about my answer. She would get nervous and tap her ruler on the desk. Then she’d get angry at me and ask me if maybe I didn’t hear her or if the cat got my tongue.
“How was I supposed to think up my answer when I could see her getting upset and nervous and knew that the longer I waited the worse it would be? I’d end up saying one word or, ‘I don’t know.’ I’d say anything to get her away from me. Pretty soon they said I was stupid.
“I remember one teacher telling me I needed to learn how to think. She really didn’t care about my thinking. She just wanted me to talk. She thought talking meant thinking. She was never going to be happy unless I started talking the second she called on me. And the longer I talked, the happier she would be. It didn’t even matter what I said. I was just supposed to talk.
“I wouldn’t do it. I thought it was disrespectful to talk when I didn’t have anything to say. They said I was a bad student and that I was dumb. (p. 66)
When I read that… I was so happy. I realized “Oh my God it’s not just me..” Ha! And it’s true! So true! Next time you’re in class, or at work in a meeting, or even just out and about… listen to people. Listen to the people who are talking and being animated and consider their words. Sometimes they really are saying something. Most of the time they just want to make noise. If you really want to test the theory–go quiet. If you don’t have anything important to say, if you don’t have anything *nice* to say, or if you just want to think about your answer instead of feeling like you need to blurt out anything just to appease someone else… Go quiet. See how long it takes for someone to get antsy and speak up just to fill the void in the air.
Anyway, that’s going a bit off topic. My point is… Nothing’s wrong with you if you’re quiet. Nothing’s wrong with you if you want to take extra time to think about your answer, to figure out a problem, or if it takes time to understand the work that’s set in front of you… It’s just that we are living in a fast paced world and if you’re not processing things as fast as everyone else, it’s going to frustrate the people that want you to move faster.
Now, going back to Ethan and the whole point of this post. Last year was a particularly rough year. I sat down with Ethan (who was 10 at the time) and explained to him why his classroom habits needed to change and that everyone was there to help him figure out how to focus, because when he was focused and on task, he did great. I also told him that we were going to try to change his diet, exercise, and sleep habits to see if that would help him focus better in school. I told him that we were doing this because his problems focusing in class were bringing his grades down and if he wanted to succeed he needed to get passing grades. I also told him that if he only continues to get worse, medication will eventually be an option to consider. At that time, I really wasn’t monitoring his nutrition intake, even if he was eating healthy. He’d go to bed when I felt like sending him to bed, but he was pretty active so we didn’t have to change that.
From that point on, bedtime was 10pm. Still a little late for most kids, but he didn’t get up until 7:30, and with my schedule sometimes we just didn’t get home until late. I started making him breakfast every morning. We’re vegan, so it was a whole grain bagel with peanut butter, tofu scramble, vegan sausage and sometimes kale, and a glass of fortified soymilk. At the very least if we were running late, he had the bagel with the peanut butter. Whatever he ate had to be packed with protein. For lunches I packed him a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread, again, packing on the protein, and his snack would be a cliff bar or some fruit. The cliff bars became his favorite. Sure, they’ve got sugar in them, but since he’s 11 and doesn’t eat many other sugars, it wasn’t gonna hurt. He also got tired of the peanut butter after awhile so I started packing him tofurkey sandwiches with greens, too. The important thing was to make sure he had high protein and some carbs all day to keep him alert. All of these changes were made in addition to talking about his educational goals and praying every morning for God to help him focus in school and learn as much as he could.
Well, it’s been about a year now and let me tell you. As of the last meeting I had with Ethan’s teacher and counselors… he is meeting or exceeding in all of his educational goals. ….!!!!! He’s doing so well that special education assistance is no longer necessary. I was so happy when they told me this that I requested his teacher pull him out of class so that I could give him a hug and tell him the news myself as well as how proud I was of him. His teacher said that he does have trouble focusing from time to time but he sees Ethan noticing his own distractions and pulling himself back to the task at hand and he’s not worried about Ethan falling behind the rest of the class.
When I told Ethan, he was very happy. He knows he’s on the right track now. He knows that he has the power to succeed and that he has everything he needs to do it. He can see the difference when he doesn’t eat right and when he doesn’t sleep well. He’s seen his own prayers answered. He says he wants to be a doctor when he grows up and I’m sure that if he continues on this path, he will be. And we did it all without the meds…