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I was in the pool, waiting to be assigned my new class of kids. It was the first day of the session, and I was ready to go, sagging ponytail reeking of chlorine, nails unpleasantly bendy already. We opened the change-room doors and the kids, ages four to 12, came stampeding in, the warnings of No Running falling on deaf little ears.
As our supervisor greeted the parents and kids, there was one six-year-old who would not put a lid on it. He was tugging on his mom’s shirt, pinching the kid beside him, kicking his flip flops around. I could see other parents muttering, and his mother rolling her eyes, and knew instantly that this kid was mine.
I’d been working at the swim school long enough for my boss to know my strengths, and which kids would learn well under my tutelage. The thing is, much like the kid with ants in his pants, I have ADHD. I was diagnosed recently, but every teacher I’ve ever had knew long before the doctors confirmed it.
Everyone grew up with a kid like me in their class. I was the kid who would yell “HEY LOOK, IT’S SNOWING!” in the middle of a lesson; the kid who never knew what page we were on; the one who’d charm you into letting her copy your homework. And I was the kid who leaned back in her chair until it tipped over.
Now I’m learning how to cope with and even use my ADHD in everyday life. I’ve taken the tests, I’ve been given the drugs; but I don’t use them. I like my ticking brain, I like my whirring thoughts. I like that I don’t think straight; I think wide, I think tall, I think in three dimensions. I’ve got a big mouth, and still find it difficult to use common sense (it’s not like I don’t have it, but who has the time?), but it’s me.
Still, the fact that I have now embraced my cozily crowded skull does not change what I went through in my early schooling career. So when I looked at this kid who looked like he was being given little electric shocks every few seconds, a lot of feelings welled up in me.
I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that school was gruelling, soul crushing and humiliating. And I mean on a daily basis. My teachers might as well have been speaking Greek, the only exception being in art and English; everyone else seemed to pick things up freakishly quickly; and what was with the tests all being written in hieroglyphs?
I now know there are three types of ADHD: hyperactive, inattentive and combined type. I have the combined type. My hyperactivity comes out when I have to sit. I could be waiting for a bus or reading a book I love: my knee can bounce for hours on end. My inattentive qualities come into play when I’m doing any activity I don’t 110 per cent want to be doing. The only way I can describe it is that my mind slips out of focus. One second I’m engaged and present, the next, poof, I’m gone.
So now place me in a math class, or with a frustrated teacher trying to get me to sound out words. I was stubborn because I just DIDN’T GET IT. Addition to algebra, the moon to mitosis: it was all a constant, staggeringly exhausting battle.
Mainly, everyone in my life – including me – just thought I was, well, dumb. I averaged a 65 per cent in high school and was proud of it. I never did my homework because I couldn’t look at it without feeling sick and twitchy. I acted out in class to cover that I never knew the answer. I talked back to teachers, skipped detentions.
At some point, I learned to nurture my abilities. I learned to talk my way out of detention and into a passing mark. I sat on my hands to stop fidgeting, and nodded with a thoughtfully furrowed brow whenever the teacher looked my way.
It was in Grade 12 that I at last started to fold myself into the box called the education system. I studied French with my friends, went in early to talk science, and dropped math. I wiggled and wiggled until the box became comfier. My best feat in high school was Grade 12 English. The teacher and I developed a bond when I shared my fiction with her. In return, she accepted random movie reviews and book reports for extra credit. And so began my acceptance of myself. It was slow, but I found what I love and I found how to cope. Now that I have been diagnosed, it really makes no difference.
But when I saw the little guy squirming in his seat, I knew what he was in for. I marched over to introduce myself. “Hey, little man, you must be Jeffrey. I’m Sam, we’ll be swimming together.”
He bounded straight for the edge of the pool. “Jeff,” I said, “you crazy monkey, what about rules?” I took him to a quiet corner to go over pool safety. He jumped from rule to rule in no particular order. When we got into the water, we whizzed through the skills: floats, glides, jumping in from the side, surface support. He was very good, except on his back. He tended to kick too hard and sink himself. He got frustrated quickly.
That was the first day. Now, we do “missions.” Some days we’re in space, jumping from planet to planet in our space suits (life jackets). Sometimes we’re cowboys on our noodle horses or deep-sea divers fighting off giant squids and sharks. I sneak his skills into the stories, create a kind of swimming-pool obstacle course.
When we try new things, he is in his element. When he gets what we’re doing, he excels faster than most kids his age. My hope for him? That he learns quicker than I did that, just because he’s a different colour of shark in the pool, his teeth aren’t any less sharp.
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