18 February 2008

An Attention Deficit Disorder Story

The following is an excerpt from the transcript of Thom Hartmann's radio show from Dec 7, 2004 (Thom is speaking):

I remember when one of our children was not doing well in school and he was 12, 13 years old, something like it. First year of middle school as I recall. And the teachers were all freaking out, and all, you know, all, you know how it goes. And it was that ADD thing, right? Put him on medication! And we actually tried that for a short while. Didn't seem to do much good.

And so we decided to go looking for a school for him, a better school, you know, a better educational environment. Let's find a place where he can flourish, and there were all, we lived in Atlanta at the time, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Roswell. And there are a bunch of schools in Atlanta in the phone book, twenty, thirty of them, something like that, that, you know, private schools, many of whom advertise that they specialize in kids with Attention Deficit Disorder or learning disabilities, and so Louise and I went shopping. And what we found was that most people were of the opinion that because these kids were impulsive and distractible and not particularly well structured and organized, they "needed lots of discipline and structure. Let's just slap it into 'em."

There was one school we went to where they wanted us to sign a waiver that they could use corporal punishment. The principal had a cane fishing pole, you know, one of those bamboo canes, in his office, in the corner of his office. He said, "See that stick over there?" "Well, yeah." He says, "Kids know it's there you get my meaning, hah hah!" And, you know, I wouldn't be able to succeed in this school. I'm not, you know, I'm not going to inflict this on my child.

And what we found was that the schools that were purporting to be good places for ADHD kids ran the gamut from, on the one hand, the school from hell, to, on the other end of the spectrum, the nazi school from hell. I mean they were, you know, they were like variations on military academies and all this kind of stuff. And some of them were just outrageously expensive as well.

So we ended up putting our son in a, we were looking around at different schools, we finally had given up on all the ADD specialty schools, and we found this school in downtown Atlanta called the Horizon School which was a leftover remnant of the Summerhill experiment in some ways. Part of the alternative school movement. "Summerhill" was a book by A. S. Neill published back in the 1960s as I recall in which they created a school where the kids ran the school. And this school was actually run by the student council in everything except academics. The teachers had final say in academics but the kids had a student council and they ran the school, and they made all kinds of rules for themselves, it was quite remarkable.

And I remember walking into this school. First of all we sat down with the woman who ran the school and I said, "Our son has ADD." And she said, "I will thank", and I was, at that point in time I was in the middle of writing a book, my first book on Attention Deficit Disorder which came out that year, it's called "Attention Deficit Disorder: a Different Perception", it came out in 1992 or 1993. And that book is now, you know, Time Magazine wrote it up, it's sold a quarter of a million copies or something and it's still out there. I still think it's probably one of the best books on ADD that I've written and that I think is out there, actually. And so I was in the middle of doing that, I was real into it, and I said, you know, "Our son has ADD" and she got all bristly. She said, "I will thank you not to use that phrase in my presence again." I said, "Why?" She said, "Because we don't have labels in this school, we have individuals. I will not tolerate any individual child being slapped with a label." You know, I was thinking, "She just doesn't get it." And she said, "And furthermore, we don't want our kids coming to school medicated." And I'm thinking, "He's going to eat them alive".

So then I went out and walked around the school and I remember walking into a classroom. This was seventh graders as I recall, seventh or eighth graders. And it looked like absolute chaos. Kids were not sitting at their desk. They were standing up, they were walking around, one kid was sitting on his desk. There was a kid sitting on the teacher's desk. Kids were running up and marking things on the blackboard. The teacher was having a knock down drag out argument with the kids. And I'm standing at the back of the room and you know, keep in mind, a decade earlier, I'd been the executive director of a program for abused kids that had a school! I was the executive director of a program that contained a school. I suppose you could say I was the principal of the school. And I'm standing in the back of the room, you know, with my arms folded across my chest, thinking, "This is a classroom out of control." This would never happen in a school I ran.

And you know how sometimes when you just listen for a few minutes more, all of a sudden you hear something that completely turns your world upside down, that completely changes the way that you view things. And as I stood there, in this very kind of critical, judging posture, I started listening to what the kids and the teacher were arguing about.

What these kids were arguing with this teacher about was that Einstein had suggested in his theory of relativity e=mc2 that you can't exceed the speed of light. That if you exceed the speed of light, you can get to .999% of the speed of light, but if the value of the speed of light becomes one or one point anything, once you hit or exceed the speed of light, then time becomes infinite and mass collapses to zero. Or is it the other way around? Time collapses to zero and mass becomes infinite. I forget which it was. I used to have memorized the time and mass dilation theories but that was when I was a teenager. Anyway, and therefore it's impossible in the physical universe to exceed the speed of light. You can approach it but you can't exceed it. And if that's the case, these kids were saying, then why is it that Einstein in his own theory of relativity, his oh most famous theory, said e (energy) equals mass times the speed of light squared? e=mc2 (c is the speed of light). How can you square something that can't even have as a value of one? How is that possible? How can you square something you can't exceed? That's, you know, and they are pulling out Einstein's General and Specific theory of relativity and they're talking about his story about being in the train going away from the clock tower in downtown Austria and as the train approaches the speed of light the hands start to slow down and all this stuff.

And all of a sudden, I got it. That all my life, I had thought that education was about pouring things into kids. Yeats's quote. The filling of a bucket. And that what they understood at that school was that education was about lighting a fire. And so we put our son in that school and not only did he do well, but he was doing work two grade levels above his grade level. He was getting As in senior physics as a freshman or a sophomore. He all of a sudden just caught on fire, he fell in love with learning, and all of this with no drugs, which leads us to the question.

You got a person who has a psychiatric illness in a public school that requires medication from a multibillion-dollar industry, but when you put him into an alternative school environment, not only does he not require the medication, but the disease seems to vanish and he does very well. The question is, then, where is the disease? And I have firmly, solidly come to the conclusion that the disease is in our schools. It's not in our kids.

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