Janis Jaquith
3229 words

(what Attention Deficit Disorder Feels Like)

An excerpt from "Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir"

I'm lying on my back in the sunshine, holding my little pink elephant up against the clouds - pretending we're flying - when a shadow falls over me. It's my grandfather. He brings his face closer, right into my playpen, and he's smiling and saying something to me, something sing-songy.

I turn away from him, hoping he'll just go away. This playpen is mine. When I'm in here, nobody bothers me. I get to think and do anything I please. My grandfather goes away and now I can get back to flying with my elephant.

I hear my father's voice. He's home from work. I run to my hiding place, a new one. I try not to giggle and give myself away as my father looks for me, saying, "Where's my little girl? Where's my Janny?" This is my best hiding place yet. I'm in the bathroom, buried under laundry in the clothes hamper. My hiding place is too good, and after a while Daddy gives up.

I decide that I sort of like it in the laundry hamper. It smells funny, but I like the way it muffles the sound. My father's voice sounded far away, and now I should be able to hear my parents talking as they sit down at the kitchen table for their daily cocktail. But I hear nothing. And I like it.

I'm sitting at a desk in first grade. The teacher's standing up in front of us, and she's talking and talking about something or other. Her glasses are hanging from a chain around her neck. Like a necklace, but not really. She's wearing one of those big fake roses - it's pinned to her dress. I think my grandmother has one of those.

I look down at my desk: There are all these little squares of green paper. I don't know where they came from. Each square has a number on it. What am I supposed to do with those? I look around at the other kids and a hot stab of panic shoots through my chest.

All the other kids are doing something special with those numbers. They all know what to do. Now the teacher is moving up and down the aisles, licking little gold stars and pressing them to the foreheads of the kids who know what they're doing.

She goes right past me.

I don't belong here. I don't know how I got here. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I'd go home…but I don't know how to do that, either.

First grade is better now. I know where everything is. When I get here in the morning, I know where to hang up my coat, I know where Mrs. Prolman keeps the paper, and where to find a box of those terrific fat red pencils. I feel like I belong here. Best of all, I know right where my desk is.

Reading group is wonderful. I'm very good at it, it turns out. When it's my turn to read, everyone's quiet and I can read aloud perfectly, faster than anyone else.

But now, reading group is over and we're back at our seats. Now I have to take out my Think and Do Book. That's the workbook that goes with those Dick, Jane, and Sally stories. I try to tell people how much I hate this stupid Think and Do workbook, but nobody listens to me - nobody cares about how much I hate to do this workbook.

I know the story, okay? I read it. I got it. So why do I have to answer questions about it in this stupid workbook? I try to write the answers, but my letters come out all wrong and so I erase and it leaves a messy smudge, so I erase harder and make a hole in the page. It's like this for every answer, just about, and on every page.

Sometimes I tell Mrs. Prolman I can't find my workbook, or I hide it over on the bookshelves. But she always finds it. I stare at the page with its gray smudges and holes and I imagine lighting a match and burning it up right there on my desk.

Trying to do what I'm supposed to do in this workbook is like when my father sits down at the kitchen table to figure out his taxes, that's what it's like. Or when my mother sits in that same chair, doing stuff with her checkbook and bills and then she stops and buries her face in both her hands. It's like that. Only every day.

I'm in third grade, and do I ever love the setup in this classroom. It's a real old school and the desks and chairs are screwed into the floor. The rows stay straight all the time. I love this. And in the back of the classroom is a bookshelf with a collection of books that are, like, fifth- or sixth-grade reading level.

If I get my work done, I can go back there and read anything I want, and I don't have to answer any stupid questions about it. Pure joy.

I just got off the bus, came in and hung up my raincoat. I settle into my seat and look up at the side blackboard. Oh, no. There's before school work on the board. This is as unfair as anything I can think of. Before school work? Give me a break. Let me catch my breath, for heaven's sake.

I take a good look at it and feel the bottom drop out of my stomach: It's a word problem, with pints and quarts and gallons. Oh, my God. I don't know which way is up. I take out a piece of paper and at least write my name on it. Mrs. Donahue is going to call me a featherhead again, I just know it. I don't know where to start - I don't know how to think about this problem. And she has explained this stuff to us over and over.

What if I'm retarded? I hope they don't put me in special class. I will die if they put me in special class.

For the zillionth time, Mrs. Donahue is at the front of the class, explaining about pints and quarts and gallons. She's doing the problem that was on the side board this morning. I am trying so hard to pay attention, it practically hurts. But trying to pay attention feels like I'm trying to hold a beachball under water. The effort is too great, and it feels so unnatural.
I'm sorry, everybody, but I just can't do it.

I allow the beachball to pop up into its own realm, where it belongs. What a relief!

Mrs. Donahue's voice sounds far away now, a kind of honking music with its own rising and falling rhythm. When she moves her mouth, there are all these little wrinkles that radiate out from her lips, especially the top one.

All this talk about pints and gallons makes me think about chocolate milk. The way it's so thick and tastes so good. I wonder what it would taste like if I put chocolate milk on my Sugar Crisp in the morning.

From somewhere far away, I hear my name. Ah, jeez. How did she know I wasn't listening? I was looking right at her. So, what's the answer, she wants to know? Everyone's looking at me and smirking, including Mrs. Donahue. The answer must be ridiculously obvious to any normal person.

The boy behind me whispers "retard" and I will myself to die.

It's morning. I'm sitting on the floor of my room, feeling a little chilly in just my underwear. I'm stacking up my glossy encyclopedias, fanning them outward until they look like a sweeping, fancy staircase, the kind Cinderella ran down. I think it looks really good.

My mother comes to the door. She looks like she's crazy. Her face is all twisted and mad. She sounds like she's strangling when she says, "The bus comes in five minutes. You have been in here for half an hour. What have you been doing?" Hm. Half an hour? That sounds improbable to me. It feels like about three minutes.

I'm standing at the bottom of Vonnie Erickson's back porch. Vonnie's a year older than me, and I really want her to be my friend. I'm not sure how to go about this be-my-friend thing, so I figure persistence is my best bet. She's at her kitchen window, saying, "No! I don't want to come out and play with you!"

"Are you sure?" I say, for perhaps the twentieth time. Vonnie's face disappears from the window. Somehow, I can't seem to shut up. "Honest and truly?" I say.

From somewhere in the kitchen I hear her say, "Yes!"

"Bably and booley?" I cleverly reply.

Her face appears again, just long enough to shut the window. Oh, well. I had a pretty good idea that I was being obnoxious, but I didn't know how else to be. I couldn't stop myself. I would have used another script, if I'd had one. Persistence usually pays off with my parents and brother and sister. They'll do most anything to get me to shut the hell up, as my big brother says. He's in college.

I'm in fourth grade and the difference between my smart side and my dumb side is getting bigger all the time. I'm one of the best readers and we've been writing these stories lately and we're allowed to just make things up and write about them. Just make things up! This is great.

What's not so great is that I get marked down because my handwriting is so bad. It's not like Mr. Sweeney can't read it, because he can, and he really likes my stories, but he puts me down a whole grade because he says it looks like I wrote it with my foot instead of my hand.

I try, I really do, but my pencil just will not do what I tell it to. It's like everyone else is some kind of super-duper artist, capturing these letters and words on paper, and I can't even draw a straight line. All anyone says about my handwriting is: If you'd just be more careful. If you'd just slow down. If you'd just try. Like, if I was a better person, I'd have better penmanship.

I look at other kids' handwriting and I think: How do they do it?

Just the sight of math paper makes me sick to my stomach. It's small and beige and flecked with tiny woody bits. If you don't think about what it's for, you might actually like math paper. There are no lines so it would be great for drawing on, or folding into something neat. By the time I'm finished with it, though, you wouldn't even want to look at it.

We're supposed to be real whizzes at long division by fourth grade, but I can't even line up the numbers on top of each other to make a column, and I end up adding the wrong stuff together. Being stuck in the middle of one of those problems is like being lost in a department store when you're little. There's no way you're getting out of it by yourself. It's hopeless.

For years, or since first grade, anyway, I have enjoyed many happy hours sitting in boxes. You know, those big ones that TVs or whatever come in. Give me a box, a light, and a book and I'll be happy for hours. Now, does that sound weird to you? I don’t think so.

When we get a good box, I go down cellar where we keep the Christmas decorations, and I get the cord and bulb that go into our light-up snowman. You can just twist it right out and use that light any way you want to.

I make a hole in the top of the box and drop that light bulb down into it. I use one of those aluminum-foil, chicken-pot-pie plates for a shade. Just poke a hole in that, too. I crawl in the box through the flaps, which I have on one end, and I just pull the flaps up, and there I am! This is the best place to be. You can read, or draw, or just think straight - which is great.

Well, my mother thinks I'm nuts. She worries about me sitting in the box all the time. A few weeks ago, she took me to the doctor's office, she was so worried. It wasn't even time for a checkup or shots or anything.

So, Dr. MacDougall puts me on the scale and takes my blood pressure, looks in my ears and all that jazz. My mother's watching the whole thing, like Dr. MacDougall is gonna find something in my ear that will explain why I like to sit in the box. When he's done, my mother says, "Well?" And Dr. MacDougall shrugs his shoulders and says, "If she wants to sit in the box, let her sit in the box."

Anyway, the box mysteriously disappeared a few days later, so I had to move into the closet. My sister (she's in high school) is ready to kill me. She says it's her closet too and I ruin all her clothes by squishing them all to one side of the closet.

Like I care. I have a clubhouse in that closet.

The walls are this wonderful, smooth white plaster. It's great for writing on. I wrote up on the wall all the different jobs in the club-you know, president, treasurer, secretary, members…. And then I filled in my name under each one. I get along very well with everyone in the club.

My fifth-grade classroom is a nightmare. The desks are all over the place. Nothing is nailed to the floor, and I never know what the place is gonna look like from one day to the next. I hate this. It makes me feel like I'm mentally ill, or something. I just get so confused-it's hard to think about anything else.

Mr. Fratianni - he's my teacher - he likes to change the place around all the time, and it drives me crazy, I mean it. How would he like it if his wife rearranged the kitchen all the time? It would be hard to get anything done in there, wouldn't it? He'd never know where anything was.

Today, Mr. Fratianni had us in groups of four-four desks all pushed together and facing each other. Actually I kind of like this most of the time, because there's always someone to talk to or poke or make goofy drawings for when things get boring, which is most of the time. I don't get much done, but I'm having a good time.

As it happens, I'm in the principal's office right now. I have to stand with my back right next to, but not touching, the side of the file cabinet. I have to stay here until recess is over. This is humiliating.

Here's what happened: I was at my lunch table in the cafeteria, sitting next to Claire Fogg. Claire finishes her hard-boiled egg-which stunk, by the way-and she takes out a Hershey bar for dessert. It just so happens that I am crazy about Hershey bars. I watch her slide that long silver rectangle out from the brown paper sleeve and then she opens it up, and I can smell it.

It's the kind of Hershey bar that has the little lines pressed into it, so you can, like, share it easily. Claire breaks off about a third of it when she looks up at me watching her. She gets this squinty look in her eyes and just shakes her head, as if to say: Forget it - I'm not sharing this with anyone.

The next thing I know, the rest of that Hershey bar is in my mouth, all of it. And it tastes so good, you wouldn't believe it.

And then, Claire is yelling and fake-crying and it turns out that there was a teacher who saw the whole thing. All the teacher kept saying was, "What were you thinking? Why did you do that?"

I couldn't explain it to her, but the truth is, there was no "thinking" part. I went right from wanting that candy bar, to chewing it. Boom. I don't know what happened to the part where I was supposed to consider whether to do it or not.

This happens to me all the time. I call out answers and questions in class when it's not time to. I interrupt like crazy, even when I don't want to. Other people don't do this, and it makes me wonder how they know when it's the right time to speak up, because I know that if I don't say what's on my mind right away, I'll forget it.

And sometimes the ideas are jumping into my mind so fast, it's like popcorn popping. And I don't know which idea to say out loud first. They all seem important. So, I'll end up blurting out something that isn't really what I wanted to say at all.

Which drives me crazy. And while I'm on the subject of memory, I don't know how other kids always seem to bring the right books home for homework, and then they actually get it all done, and they can find it the next day. This amazes me. It's like the handwriting thing, I guess. Just another talent I don't have.

I'm pretty sure now that I'm not retarded, but I wonder if I'm going senile. I'm serious. Is that possible in fifth grade? I read about lots of weird diseases every month in Reader's Digest, and I wonder if I have some of those diseases, like being senile. I'm always forgetting things and nobody believes me. They say I do it for attention. Yeah, right. Like I need more attention. I'll forget my homework, I'll forget where I took off one of my shoes, I'll forget to come home….

And to show you how messed up I really am, I'll remember something one day, forget it the next, and then remember it the third day! Like, if you asked me right now what nine times eight is, I really couldn't tell you. But I knew it yesterday, and chances are it'll come back to me tomorrow. If that's not senile, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, one good thing about standing here all alone in the principal's office is I have all this free time to think straight.

Not such a bad deal, for a weirdo like me.

Copyright ©2023, Janis Jaquith. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited.