NYC250 cover image See all stories from issue #250, January/February 2016

Misunderstood and Misdiagnosed
I finally got the help I need to succeed in school

I still remember my first day of kindergarten. After almost five years under my mother’s wing, my parents sent me to Catholic school hoping I’d be off to a good start. But from the moment I arrived there, I struggled.

I didn’t know how to behave. Being with a bunch of strangers was stressful. All kids get nervous on their first day, but my anxiety was on a whole other level from the usual first-day jitters.

I was so afraid that I escaped by hiding under a desk, then slipping out of the classroom and wandering the halls. Even though I was in an unfamiliar place, it made me feel more secure because it wasn’t full of people like the classroom. But eventually, the teachers found me and dragged me back to class.

Things didn’t get better. In fact, I spent a lot of the school year attempting to escape from class. I wasn’t trying to misbehave; I just needed a quiet place, so I could calm down and think and move. Wandering the halls made me feel more relaxed and in control.

I couldn’t focus when I had to sit still in a class full of people. I tried to pay attention, but everything would go blank. All those people made me nervous. When the teachers yelled at me, it was even worse. I felt that they thought of me as a lost cause. Instead of talking to me about my problems and letting me know they were trying to help, they usually just sent me to the office.

By contrast, everything at home was calm, still, safe, and familiar, even though my mom would tell me to get my head on straight.

Answers, Not All of Them Right

After about a year of conversations with teachers about my behavior, my mom decided to take me to a psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but that turned out to be incorrect. Later I found out that I had other problems, including an anxiety disorder and a learning disability that made me daydream.

I didn’t understand what a lot of that meant. But at least now I had an explanation. Before I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, I asked myself, “Why am I failing?” Now I knew it wasn’t all my fault.

My fault or not, I got kicked out of Catholic school during 1st grade for failing to cooperate and for using the curse words I’d started picking up from TV and around my neighborhood. I guess I was just curious about those taboo words, but the teachers were not amused. My mom tried to find a school that was better able to handle my needs.

One day, she called me into the kitchen.

“Hello, Mom,” I said smiling.

“There’s something I have to give you,” Mom said in a rough voice.

I sat down in my seat with a big smile on my face, waiting to see what she had for me.

“I need you to sit there and take this,” Mom said. She put two small blue tablets and a glass of water on the kitchen table.

My smile faded. Weren’t these drugs? My mom had told me they could ruin your life, but now she was giving them to me.

“What are these supposed to do?” I asked her.

“They’re supposed to help you pay attention in class,” she said.

I could see the regret on her face. I followed her instructions because I trusted her.

I started taking the pills just before I transitioned to my new school. Even though I wasn’t sad to leave the Catholic school, I regretted that the problems I was having there caused my mom so much stress. I’d see her lying exhausted on the bed after an argument with the Board of Education about getting me transferred into a “better” school.

New School, New Problems

At my new school, she told me I had to stop hiding from the teachers. So I did, but things didn’t get better. In fact, my behavior got worse. The pills made me feel like a zombie and I didn’t want to communicate with anyone.

Then, the psychiatrist prescribed me a different pill, but that one made me enraged. Sometimes I would throw tantrums at my classmates. Afterward, I’d apologize but the damage was done. I tried hard to make friends so school would be a more enjoyable place. But because of my unpredictable behavior, the other kids stopped talking to me.

image by YC-Art Dept

I felt that I should’ve had better self-control and somehow forced myself to stay in my seat instead of hiding or throwing punches. Doing things like that made me feel like my anxiety owned me. But I didn’t know how to stop.

I didn’t get much support from teachers at this school either. Just like at Catholic school, they frequently sent me straight to the principal’s office when I started acting out, even though the lessons I missed were crucial to my learning. I later found out from my mom that they weren’t supposed to do that without first trying everything they could to help me in the classroom.

The school did assign me a tutor, and that helped. She practiced basic math and science skills with me, and sample questions from the state test. I’m grateful to her for her encouragement and patience.

The school also arranged for me to see a therapist. I could tell she cared about me. She listened to me without criticizing. She smiled and encouraged me. Talking about my feelings was hard at first, though. Since she worked for the school I was afraid she wouldn’t understand, but I was able to muster the courage to say how much I hated school and she listened with an open mind. She was the closest thing to a friend I had.

“What’s Wrong With Me?”

In 4th grade, I had to take the dreaded state test, which would determine whether or not I’d get promoted to 5th grade. On the day of the test, I sat at my desk knowing that piece of paper was worth an entire year’s worth of hard work; no matter how good my grades were, I wouldn’t get to 5th grade if I didn’t pass.

I couldn’t focus. A cold mocking voice in my head said, “You’re getting left back anyway, so why fight it?”

The next thing I remember, I was the only student left in the room.

“What happened?” I asked the teacher administering the test.

“It’s over,” she replied.

One day, several months later, my mom picked me up from school. In the car, she told me, “I’m sorry, but you’re repeating 4th grade.” I felt broken; the entire world seemed broken. I knew it was hard on my mom, too. It was like a curse on our family. I wanted to hurt myself. I hated myself.

My mom started to cry. I’d never seen her cry before. I didn’t know what to think.

“I know it’s hard being you, but we’ll get through this, OK?” she said.

“OK,” I said, hiding my feelings behind a blank stare. But on the inside I was weeping. I looked out the window at the highway and thought, “What’s wrong with me?”

My mom had had it with the school making me repeat the same grade because of one test when I was doing decently in my classes. Even my therapist agreed I should transfer to another school. My social worker at the New York City Department of Education suggested I pursue a private special education school. She told my mom that sometimes the DOE pays some or all of the tuition.

So my mom began to explore private schools that knew how to help kids like me. I was jubilant, hoping that this was the ending of a terrible chapter.

My mom found Hallen, a private school for kids with special needs in New Rochelle. The DOE agreed to pay the tuition and I enrolled there. I was 11 and still in the 4th grade.

A School That Cared

The students at Hallen had similar behavioral and learning problems. Classes were smaller. It gave me breathing room so that I didn’t feel so overwhelmed, and I got more one-on-one attention from the teachers.

All of them cared a lot—it was like they were distant relatives. They acted differently than my other teachers had. Sometimes I would turn negative after a long test and think I’d failed even though I’d studied, but my teachers were there to encourage me. And when I failed, they frowned sympathetically like they felt truly bad for me and said, “You’ll get it next time.”

Gradually, my grades improved a lot. I started getting 80s and 90s. I didn’t need a tutor anymore. My mom also saw that I no longer needed medication. The teachers knew how to work with my issues, I was making friends, and starting to get high marks, which increased my self-esteem.

I can’t completely explain the change in me—how I went to the top of my class and made good friends. Getting off medication that hadn’t been right for me helped a lot. So did my new school, where people showed me they cared. But maybe another part of it was just growing up and learning to think things through before reacting.

I was one of the lucky students with special needs who got help because my mother was determined. Some kids don’t have that. Many get misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all, and then no one knows what’s holding them back. Other kids are stuck in schools with teachers who don’t understand their needs—or don’t try to work with them.

That needs to stop. Just because a student has special needs doesn’t mean he or she is not capable of becoming anything from a teacher to the president. He or she just requires the right support.