School & Learning

Mr. P’s Very Special Gift

One special teacher can turn a so-so student ADHD into a lifelong learner.

Parents often say to me, “I know my child can do better.” And kids often ask me, “What can I do if I’m not very good at anything?” Kids — and adults — with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) often underachieve. What is frustrating is that these kids — and these adults — invariably have more talent than their record reflects. They are told over and over that they’re not trying hard enough, even though it is not effort that is lacking — it’s inspiration. If an individual doesn’t believe that he can produce excellent results, he holds back, not from laziness, but from fear and defeatism.

It starts with a spark

Let me tell you how one student turned the pattern around. He was in the 11th grade at a competitive private school. He was doing all right, but not performing up to his ability, nor was he excited about school. Instead, he was going through the motions, trying to do enough to get into college, but working out of duty rather than from enthusiasm.

Enter an English teacher named Henry Ploegstra. Mr. Ploegstra saw more talent in this student than the student saw in himself. He began to call on this quiet boy sitting in the back of the class, not to embarrass him but to draw him out. Gradually the boy began to speak up on his own and to look forward to Mr. Ploegstra’s class. The student discovered he had more ideas than he had thought he did.

Still, when Mr. Ploegstra assigned Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the boy groaned. He had dyslexia and was a slow reader, so a 500-page novel seemed overwhelming. But to his surprise, he got into the book and lost himself for an entire weekend reading it. His mind lit up as never before. Mr. Ploegstra took note of this. One day, between classes, he gave this student a gift: the notebooks Dostoyevsky compiled while writing this novel. Honored to have been singled out by a teacher, the boy devoured the notebooks like a rich treat.

A part of the boy’s mind that had lain dormant came back to life. He was brimming with curiosity and confidence. The student who finished the year was entirely different from the student who had begun it. The student who finished 11th grade couldn’t wait for the 12th. He had a new, fervent ambition: He wanted to be a writer, and he was committed to realizing this goal.

Mr. Ploegstra made it happen. He changed that student’s life forever.

Find your Mr. Ploegstra

You may have guessed that the student was me. Although I didn’t know that I had ADHD at the time, I definitely had it. It was probably the ADHD that had led me to underachieve. I needed the spark of inspiration, the belief in my possibilities, that Mr. Ploegstra ignited.

Your student may need the same. While you can’t order up a Mr. Ploegstra, you can go looking for one. Most teachers want to be him — that’s why they became teachers. If you tell your child’s teachers that he needs a Mr. Ploegstra, you may conjure him. If you can match your child in need with a teacher who wants to give, you may see magic happen. Don’t be afraid to ask the school to place your child with a specific teacher next year. A mentor like my 11th-grade English teacher can make more difference than any intervention in the world. They’re out there. Some of them don’t know that they are one, but you can help them be who they want to be.