I do believe… I do. I do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“The word ‘believe’ is rooted in an old English word meaning to hold dear, esteem, trust; it has the same origins as the word ‘love.’ To ‘believe’ is not to agree with particular ideas or concepts, but it is make a commitment of the heart.” – Rev. Bryant Oskvig

Last year, I overheard a colleague complain that “everyone” has autism these days. My first reaction was disgust – how could they!? – but my second was compassion. After all, haven’t we all had times when we didn’t believe?

I was teaching 7th grade math. Math! Of all things. And middle school. I had wanted to teach either 3rd grade or high school English – middle school was on my “never will I ever” list. But here I was, in an oddly-shaped room with creaky wooden floors in an old house in downtown Washington, D.C. The school had as much personality as its location and the students, well, they matched their surroundings.

To be fair, the teachers were equally unconventional. I was one of the few teachers with any formal education credentials, and all of us were impossibly young and unmistakably dedicated to teaching well. We used to joke that we should just put beds in our offices and move in: it would save us the charade of having a life. I was trying to learn the craft of teaching, but 7th grade math in a quirky little school was a far cry from anything I had studied or practiced in grad school. So I was reading a lot about teaching and doing a whole lot of thinking on my feet.

My classroom was full of squirrelly 12-year-olds, and I was full of unusual ideas. We kept math journals, created math skits, and learned statistics with M&Ms. My fellow teachers and I shared successes and failures daily. We dissected education trends and talked about various ideas for hands-on learning. And we complained. Not a lot, but plenty. Often we complained about how “all the kids” had “some diagnosis” that prevented us from using our fancy, researched techniques.

One of our favorite targets was ADHD (though it was ADD at the time). We were virtually all single 20-somethings, but that didn’t stop us from harrumphing about “kids these days” and speaking knowledgeably about parenting trends and over-medication. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I firmly believed that ADHD was a fad and that most medication was just to settle down normally active children.

In my classroom, students sat in a semicircle. That is, when they sat. Memory tells me that “a bunch” of them were boys, but I can’t vouch for that. I can say that they lacked a certain focus every day after lunch. They were sweaty, talking, moving, tapping, chaotic creatures who occasionally learned some math almost as if by accident. And then there was Alex.

Alex was in constant motion. He talked a mile a minute and had incredible eyelashes that framed big hazel eyes. He could make me laugh in about half a second, and I was pretty sure that he actually wanted to learn math. That said, he had physically fallen out of his desk more than once… Oh, and he “supposedly” had ADHD. He was pretty much always in some sort of trouble.

For a while, I had tried putting students who misbehaved into the center of the semicircle. Only belatedly did I realize that a) I was shaming them, and b) many of the boys took complete advantage of having all eyes on them. I needed a new plan. One of my books suggested a “three-strikes and you’re out” policy. I went with it.

I’ve forgotten the lesson that day, but I know it was a fun one. I know this for sure because Alex really wanted to take part. He was leaning forward in his desk, straining and stretching, tilting the whole thing at alarming angles. He had mentioned that he hadn’t taken his meds that morning, but since I didn’t really believe he had ADHD, I didn’t take much notice. I gave him his first warning about 5 minutes into class.

He looked chagrined. “Sorry. I just can’t focus.”

I gave my best stern look, “Well, give it a little more effort.”

He did. I could see he was trying to watch only me. But he just couldn’t. He was trying to watch everyone in the whole class at exactly the same time. Sure enough, minutes later I gave him his second warning and sent him to cool down in the hallway.

He came back in quickly. He was so excited to be in the room. He sat on his hands. He held his beautiful eyes wide open. He squirmed and he wiggled. And he fell out of his desk. Somehow, this time, I knew it had been an accident. But the whole class was laughing, and I had this three strikes policy.

“Alex,” I said, “you have to go to the office.”

“I know,” he replied, and his little head hung low. His whole skinny little body was the picture of despair. “But I was trying to be good.”

My heart broke as I asked the question: “But were you good?”

“No,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him. He looked up through his long lashes as tears started to fall. And he went to the office.

Because, you see, he had ADHD. And he hadn’t taken his medication. So he couldn’t focus, and the whole exciting classroom was one giant distraction for him. I knew it in that moment as surely as I knew anything.

I wanted to shout after him, “Wait! No! I was wrong! I believe!” But I didn’t. And since I wasn’t the only non-believing teacher, that wasn’t his only trip to the office. Happily, we had an incredibly kind principal and a deeply connected community. I taught Alex again, and I was privileged to watch him grow up. Today, I see him on Facebook and I marvel at the compassion he has for his own students. He was an outdoor education instructor and now he teaches science. He seems to be a fantastic teacher, but I could be a little biased.

And I believe. I believe in ADHD and autism and so much more. I worry sometimes about labels, and I know that these things are complicated. But mostly, I look at the children who come into my room and I think, “I believe you. I believe in you.” And I wish for my non-believing colleagues a moment that helps them believe, too.

17 thoughts on “I do believe… I do. I do.

  1. “I knew it in that moment as surely as I knew anything.“ This is the truth of both teaching and learning – those lightning bolt moments of insight and understanding!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So many students have changed my beliefs and my paradigms because their lives are so much different than my own. It is amazing that we have influence over so many little ones – but we have to be kind to ourselves along the way too. When we know better, we do better – so says Maya Angelou. The other benefit is that we are able to influence all the children after the event with new lens. Thank you for sharing and reminding us that not only are mistakes ok for our students to learn from, but also our own.


  3. I feel you on this. How many times have I alienated a student in my attempt to be “consistent” in my classroom management and to demonstrate “firmness” as a virtue, for their own good of course? Thank you for this gentle reminder that we can grow and change and free ourselves from past beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Change is growth is change is growth. May I always be changing and growing. May my students forgive me when I am not yet where they need me to be. (I think they mostly do.)


  4. This is fantastic. It made me want to cry. My son was recently diagnosed with adhd. And it’s real. It’s so real. I wish when I was teaching, I wish I knew more about it. I wish I had the understanding and compassion I have now that I live with it every day. These kiddos need so much kindness. And super amazing teaching. Sounds like you gave all of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Today I can only barely remember not thinking ADHD was real – in fact, I can hardly imagine how I taught before I had my ah-ha moment. Now I teach Special Education and work with kids who just haven’t bought into school and I love it. This is part of why this memory, this moment, this epiphany seems so important to share.


  5. This is fantastic! It made me want to cry. My son recently got diagnosed with adhd and it is real. It is so real. I’m so grateful we’ve gotten him help and he’s had understanding teachers. It takes compassion and kindess to deal with kids like this. I wish I would have dealt with them better when I was teacher. Sounds like you so a great job with it now.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love loved this post that I could visualize the whole way through. My favorite lines: We kept math journals, created math skits, and learned statistics with M&Ms. My fellow teachers and I shared successes and failures daily

    Please pass an M&M xo

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Believing in my students and believing we can all change and grow (and we can also have the occasional day that sets us back temporarily) proves to be a dizzying combination. Just as your trajectory describes with literal, lasting insight.


  8. Aside from capturing an important teaching (career) moment, this is also just great writing. The heartbreaking moment, where you did what you had to do (as a character at that age who was determined to be consistent or firm) and Alex left the room, having “tried to be good,” and you knew the story was not playing out the way it should, was just so real. Sometimes, when I’m feeling so drained at the end of a day, I have to remind myself that we lead very dramatic lives at work. I rarely convey it as well as this, though.


    1. What kind words. Thank you. If I can’t fix the moment, I guess I can at least honor the child by telling the story well. And yes, we do lead very dramatic lives at work. Today, for example, was one – which is why I still haven’t commented on your blog 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m late getting to your post, but I love it. I love how you took me through this experience and taught me a hard lesson. I have a student who keeps getting in trouble for “disrespect.” The thing is no one has ever taken the time to talk to her about what disrespect means and what it looks like. I have and we are talking about it daily and checking in. Did you try counting? Breathing slowly? I’m giving her tools to do better. Be better. And they are working. So far.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s