Saturday, April 21, 2012

Acknowledging Strengths and Weaknesses

When I was in grade school, I never did my homework. I'm not entirely sure why this was. Yes, it was boring, and yes, I had trouble concentrating... but, what kid likes doing homework anyway? I certainly wasn't the only one. I remember seeing my fellow classmates in middle school and high school hurriedly copying their friends' homework right before class started, or attempting to fill in all of the answers before the teacher could notice, if only to avoid an incomplete. Others would tell the teacher they had forgotten it at home, or some other excuse that was a bit more creative than 'my pet ate it'. I wasn't like that. I was far too proud. If I didn't do my homework, I simply said I didn't do my homework. My teacher would often shake his or her head and move on, showing their disapproval.

This perplexed my parents. They knew I wasn't dumb, and I wasn't incredibly rebellious. I was very polite to my teachers, and usually did well on tests; I knew the material, and proved it time and time again. Yet, if I didn't do my homework, I lost a percentage off my grade. An A would become a B (or even a C if the teacher was very strict). If I didn't receive perfect grades on the tests, my grades would be even lower. This would frighten other students into submission. "You won't get into college without a good GPA," they'd say. I simply didn't care about these threats. I was stubborn, and intent on proving that homework wasn't needed to excel.

Growing up, I had a sister that was (and still is...) four and a half years older than me. She was the mark of academic perfection in my household. She was incredibly studious, part of the school's 'quiz bowl' team, and known by many of my school's teachers. By the time I reached high school, I was unwillingly placed within her shadow by both my teachers and my parents. This is probably one of the reasons I cared even less about doing my homework. Now, this isn't a pity party. I certainly didn't feel less adequate because of this. It simply explains why I developed the attitude I did.

All throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school, my teachers described me as having 'a lot of potential'. One of my teachers aptly wrote, "She needs to learn what she's told to do instead of what she feels like doing." When I read this, almost twenty years later, I couldn't help but laugh.

In third grade, I was placed into what was then called an 'Enrichment Program'. In some schools, this is also known as a 'Gifted Program'. Basically, if you score incredibly well on standardized tests, or you have a high IQ, you are considered 'gifted' and placed in a special class that discusses elevated topics. As an example, I wrote a report on Czechoslovakia in 3rd grade. My teacher really didn't like me, and I wasn't the most focused student. I was kicked out of enrichment for misbehaving, a story I still tell people to this day. It's hilarious that I could be so misbehaved that I would get kicked out of a program for 'gifted' students. (I have been told by other friends that have been part of 'gifted' programs that there were rules against being kicked out in their school. I guess I wasn't that lucky.)

The pattern of not doing homework continued until, I believe, I was in 10th grade, when my mother had had enough and wanted to find out why I wasn't doing my homework. "Take her to a therapist," they said. "Maybe they'll be able to explain why." Now, I admit that I have my own fair share of ghosts from the past... and I have sat and reflected on these ghosts for a long time. Yet, I cannot connect these ghosts to my unwillingness to do homework, not even in the slightest bit... even now. So, when I went to this therapist, she couldn't figure it out either. Like many other professionals at the time, she decided to test me for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

What did this test entail? Well, she sat me in a room with an incredibly old computer (so old that I don't even think it had a proper OS...). On it was a computer program to test my attention span. The first test was visual. If I saw a little white box appear on the top of the screen, I pressed a hand-held button. If it appeared on the bottom of the screen, I didn't. She judged my response time as well as my accuracy. The next test was similar, except it was with sound only. If I heard a high pitch, I pressed the button. If I heard a low pitch, I did not. (I'm not sure if it was the other way around, but you get the idea). All in all, the tests took what seemed like an hour. In reality, it may have been thirty minutes. What was determined was that I was accurate (great!) but my response time slowed over time. It was determined that I had ADD. This still didn't explain my lack of desire to do homework, but at least it was a step in the right direction. (As far as this test is concerned... I'm still convinced that any normal person would get bored when asked to perform the same tedious task over and over again...)

When I was younger, and less controlled, teachers suggested I be put on Ritalin (the go-to ADD medication at the time), but I said no. I didn't want to be anything different from who I was. I didn't think I had a problem (who does)? So when I was officially diagnosed, it was brought up again. Should I be medicated? Over the years, I have had friends that were for this exact reason, but I still said no. I wanted to overcome it in my own way.

And so many years of me not doing my homework continued. Even up until I graduated high school, I didn't do my homework. My parents would protest, but I would always come up with a lie. I'd say I didn't have any, or I did it earlier, and they were none the wiser. (They weren't stupid or neglectful, either. I was just clever and persistent.) Because I was ambitious in other areas (there were years I had a 9 period day, with no lunch or breaks in between), they were okay with it. I studied multiple foreign languages, continued with music, art, and even dabbled in computer science and drama for a little while. When I was ready to apply to college, my mother advised me to submit a 'medical reason' for my poor grades. She told me to use my ADD diagnosis as an excuse for not having the type of grades that I should have. She also suggested that I specifically cite my standardized test scores as proof that I was capable. Noooooope. Wasn't gonna do that.

So how did I end up at Binghamton University? I'm not going to lie -- I didn't even graduate with a 2.5 GPA (In fact, another therapist I had -- not the same woman from before -- laughed at me and told me I would 'never get into any college' with the GPA I had). I knew people in my HS that had a much higher GPA and did not get into this particular school. Well, the trick here is... I wasn't a straight-from-HS applicant. I was a transfer student, and I transferred from a college that likely only accepted me because I was in the All-State Women's Choir (something I worked very hard for, thank you very much). I first attended SUNY Potsdam, a state school known for its music education programs. At one point, I wanted to be a music educator. I changed my mind and chose to transfer. Being away from home allowed me to excel in college. I received a 3.5 GPA in my first semester at Potsdam. The adviser for transfer applicants called me up and personally congratulated me on my acceptance. (Okay, perhaps it wasn't that glorious. It was the winter that Ford died and the post office was incredibly backed up as a result. Because I applied during the winter, they had to call me directly to notify me of my acceptance or I likely wouldn't have received my acceptance letter until after the semester began.)

So there I was, a student with ADD, at a university I didn't exactly earn acceptance into. I felt guilty, but my guilt was second to my desire to succeed and prove others wrong (especially that poor excuse for a therapist who told me I would never get into 'any' college). I wanted to succeed in my own way. While at SUNY Potsdam, I fell in love with Sociology. While at Binghamton, I picked up English as a second major. With enough credits to graduate as a junior, I stayed the full four years to graduate on time with two majors, a part-time job, and tons of extra-curricular activities. Yet, how did I get there? Certainly not by doing homework... that's for sure.

It was in college that I realized the 'advantage' to having ADD. It was no longer a 'disorder' or a 'disability' for me. It was simply a different way of functioning. Like how a person with Asperger's Syndrome is incredibly brilliant but not so keen on social cues, I found a way to recognize my own strengths and weaknesses in my 'condition' (that seems to be the most neutral term I can use, here). See, people with ADD are capable of hyperfocusing... that is, focusing on something to such an intent degree that they cannot be easily pulled away from it. My ADD made it hard for me to concentrate on my work, but it also made me capable of hyperfocusing, thus allowing me to sit down and write a 20-page paper in 5 hours. This is my personal record... I once woke up the morning a research paper was due, at 6am, wrote it until 11am (citation page and all), and printed it just in time to turn it in when it was due at noon. I received an A on that paper.

At another point in my college career, I took a class known as "Research Methods." It was required for all Sociology majors. Our final project was to write a research proposal, which was basically a proposal for some sort of experiment or social survey you would like to perform. You didn't actually have to follow through with the framework, but you did need to design it. I wrote mine the day it was due, as usual. Guess what mine was about? ...The social stigma of leaving things to the last minute. I argued that instead of working at the last minute being viewed as a negative trait, it could be viewed as an alternative one. Some people claim to 'work better under pressure'. My survey would gauge the academic success of students who both studied several days before an exam and students who studied only right before an exam, for instance. Ironically, this was written the morning it was due... a silent way for me to prove to myself (and only myself -- I wasn't going to admit this to my professor) that I had a point that needed to be proved. I received an A on that project, too. People wonder how I 'got away with it', but I didn't 'get away' with anything. I put just as much effort into my project as others... just simply in a different way.

This isn't to pat myself on the back. I promise you that I was not the model of perfection, and I certainly did not deserve to be where I was. Yet... it worked for me, and I was able to adapt to my surroundings once I learned to accept both my strengths and my weaknesses. I've been out of college for two years now, and I still see how these differences affect my life. I am distracted easily. My boyfriend (whom I've been with for quite some time) will become frustrated with me because he sometimes feels I don't think what he has to say is important if I lose my focus. I have a steady job that I love, and despite always loving what I do, I sometimes have difficulty focusing there too. Yet, there are other days that I am so pulled into my work that I forget the time and even forget to eat. I won't realize I haven't eaten until it is time to leave (or even well past that), and then I end up skipping a meal because of it (oops!). I suppose that's a real downside...

This is only one example of a condition that has become incredibly stigmatized in modern society (or at least it was for my generation; today, it may be something else). I like to think everything must have its advantages and disadvantages if only you can reflect enough to find them.

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