Ted Mosby: Wow, you were just like the worst student in the world, weren’t you?
Barney Stinson: They said I had AD…something…can we have class outside???
—from How I Met Your Mother
Let me tell you about a student I met in first grade named Michael Spacht, whose high-pitched voice and petite ponytail will never leave me. Our entire class was instructed to complete math problems at our desks in groups of three or four. But my racing mind didn’t have the time nor the interest to conceive of how I would address the problems in front of me, let alone productively and dutifully fulfill my tasks as a student.
So my mouth athletically chattered at my classmates, spilling out whatever incoherent string of cartoon references and personal apparitions flew across my mind. Michael Spacht, exasperated and speaking for the rest of the table, looked at me and said, “Justin. Shut up.”
His tactfulness stunned me, far more than if he had let loose his honest indignation. When my face dropped its color and I began to turn inward, Michael said, “I’m sorry. You’re a nice guy but you need to be quiet.”
It was fully manifested to me how much more self-possessed my peers were than I was, though my understanding of this was limited to vague, emotional impressions. This sense of inferiority was a demon born to haunt me in each of my scholastic endeavors and encounters for the remainder of my public school life—futile attempts at reading, failing math scores, being chastised by parents and teachers for talking in class, playing alone at recess, and chronically forgetting my homework.
Reading felt like unnatural, excruciating, like forcing my head against a vertical table as I expended the limits of my self-flagellating will to hold still and follow the words laterally across the page. It would only be minutes before my mind would glaze over the text while my mind jumped from one universe to another. When it came time for the reading quizzes, I was as good as the apathetic hipsters whose refusal to read was a statement of civil disobedience. In me, there was an avid learner and thinker, a kid thrilled to acquire knew concepts and synthesize them with old ones, dwelling inside me, pining for air.
But he was trapped for the entirety of K-12, leaving me to conclude and wholly accept I was hopelessly degenerate, stupid, slower than all the other kids. When I started receiving medication, it was my sophomore year of college, spring semester. I took 30 mg of dexedrine before sitting down to read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for my Great American Writers Class, and for the first time in my life, I read.
The words seemed to jump off the page and effortlessly aggregate with meaning on their own. The weight lifted from me was so great I began to cry—no, I wept, shamelessly I wept in the middle of the library at 12:35 p.m.
With my newfound powers, I rushed to the public library and breezed through the classics like The Catcher in the Rye and The Sea Wolf, books vastly more beautiful and precious than the SparkNotes summaries I read frantically in high school just to pass the reading quizzes.
Maybe I feel hostile toward ADHD stereotypes featured in How I Met Your Mother and Up (recall the pooch stopping mid-sentence to admire a squirrel) because they gave me a cartoonish view of my learning disability and convinced me I did not have it. I figured that I must be well within the bell curve of student ability and any shortcomings must be because I was stupid.
I often look back to my younger self in middle and high school, yearning to comfort him and let him know that it really will get better. And sometimes I fantasize what my high school curriculum would have meant to me had I the privilege of being present.