Every class had those boys—the ones who didn’t do their work and always climbed out of their seats. They never finished a worksheet, threw pencils, and talked too loud. They never raised their hand. Mostly, we didn’t like those boys, the ones who were always sent to the office, the ones always fighting. We didn’t have a name for those boys. Today, teachers and administrators call them ADHD. Today, they have IEPs, fidget toys, Ritalin. This generation of “those boys” has it much, much better.
But another group lurked in the classroom. We were mostly smart, but turned in worksheets littered with careless mistakes. A teacher might talk to us about it, or show her annoyance through some red pen. Nothing else. We sometimes shouted out answers without raising our hands, or spaced out and didn’t bother to raise our hands at all. At times we talked loudly. But most of all, we forgot things. We forgot dates, names, permission slips, homework assignments, and books. We didn’t remember. We were quieter than “those boys.” But in the eyes of the school, we suffered from no less of a moral failing: How could we be so smart and so damn stupid?
A moral failure—this is what inattentive ADHD meant to me as a child.
It started early. In nursery school, we had a regular show-and-tell. I was always forgetting a suitable show-and-tell item, and after the why-can’t-you-remember lecture, my grandmother would foist off whatever came to hand, usually my mother’s old purple cat. One morning, I’d brought the cat, and another kid actually stopped me from talking. “We’ve all seen your cat before,” he said, somewhat nastily. He insinuated that other people can remember to bring new things to show-and-tell. Why can’t you?
I had it drilled into me. I had no common sense. I couldn’t remember anything. My stomach dropped whenever I was asked to fetch something, because I knew that, no matter how specific the description, I’d never find it. I remember standing in my babysitter’s basement, staring at a wall of blue plastic shelving while she screamed upstairs for me to hurry the hell up. I knew how the scene would go: I’d return upstairs, empty-handed. “Where is it?” she would roar. “I couldn’t find it,” I’d say, staring at the floor, hunching myself as small as possible, as if the words themselves would smack me down. “You really have no common sense, do you?” she’d say. “Why did I even bother?”
In kindergarten, I lost my Sesame Street bag when it was slung over the wrong shoulder. I did my work “too fast,” which made it “too messy.” I was told I could do better, so I would have to write the numbers from 1-100 again, please. I started my streak of forgetting permission slips. They got stuffed in my backpack, and why would I look in my backpack at home, or even think about school if I didn’t have to? In fourth grade, I once forgot a permission slip for two weeks running. I was shamed. I was berated. The teacher read out the names of everyone who hadn’t brought in the paper and let our classmates know we were disorganized moral failures.
I also talked loudly. Many ADHD kids speak loudly, especially when we’re excited. This particularly bothered my mother, a stickler for social normalcy. My voice would creep into the upper registers, and she would snap, “Be quiet! Stop talking so loud!” When this happened over and over, I started to assume I shouldn’t talk at all, that I didn’t have anything worthy to say, that there was something wrong with me. Unlike my sister, of course, who hardly ever raised her voice.
One day, in fifth grade, I was spacing in math class when the teacher caught me. She confiscated the unicorn erasers I’d been playing with, and handed them over to my homeroom teacher to return. “I hear you weren’t paying attention in math,” she said. I shrugged. “I hear you were making your erasers talk to each other.” She raised her voice to a falsetto. “Hi, Mr. Unicorn! How are your rainbows today? We should go eat some more clouds!” My face grew red. I wanted to disappear. “I was not,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster, “making them talk to each other.” She laughed at me.
The next year, Catholic school saved me. We had certain pens for writing, other pens for underlining (with a ruler!), certain copybooks for one subject, and other copybooks for another. We wrote all our homework assignments in a neat little flipbook. By this time, the terror of my parents had overridden forgetfulness. I had my homework. I had my permission slips—because I had a nun who would call my mother if I didn’t. In seventh and eighth grades, we colored in, day by day, little squares indicating that we had completed homework—a cool turquoise or a glaring red. Homework reports were sent home. I couldn’t get a bad report. I was too afraid. I still made careless mistakes. I still forgot books. I still talked loudly, when I didn’t feel too scared to talk. But at least some things improved, if just through terror.
I had a certifiable anxiety disorder by then. I also had clinical depression, and probably had both since about age seven. Certainly, my brain chemistry predisposed me to that. But so did the responses to my ADHD. I heard, almost daily, that I had no common sense. I heard people ask, “What is wrong with you?” and roll their eyes. A lifetime of this can demoralize a kid. The small aggressions wear a child down.
We recognize ADHD in “those boys.” They get IEPs, allowances, counseling. Help. We don´t often recognize the girl in the corner, the one who makes careless mistakes and plays with her erasers. Those girls are getting left behind, sometimes with dire mental health consequences. We need to find these girls. We need to tell them they aren’t lazy, screw-ups, or moral failures. They need to know. Then they can start to heal—and thrive.