“I Felt Confident For the First Time Ever.”
I struggled with ADHD in school, but found success — and confidence — on the track, and later at college. Today, I am a high school principal and I help other kids find inspiration in the face of academic struggles.
As a child, I felt like I was in Charlie Brown’s classroom. The other kids heard what was going on, and all I heard was “waa, waaa waaa, wa wa.” Words were spoken, and I knew them, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was I was supposed to be learning.
I Was Different
By the second grade, I was identified as learning disabled and hyperactive — today they would call my condition attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I had no idea what any of it meant. I only knew that, three times a week, my teacher told me it was time to go to my “other” classroom. Once I returned, my classmates inevitably asked, “Why do you go there?” I knew I was different, and by my late elementary years, I was convinced I was stupid.
My junior-high years found me being driven across town to a special school. When I got off, kids asked me why I rode the “short bus.” I remember being so tired of hearing it that I grabbed one kid gruffly by his coat, pulled him eye to eye, and said, “Because I’m retarded! OK! That’s why.”
Everything changed in the seventh grade, when I decided to join the track team. School had so far been one failure after another and a constant reminder that I was inferior to the other kids. But when I stepped on the track, it was different. I could keep up.
For my first race, I lined up with 15 other seventh- and eighth-graders to run the half-mile. After two laps, my chest burned and my arms felt like rubber, but I came in seventh place. I was elated. Not only was I as good as everyone else, I was better than half of the team. I felt confident – for the first time ever.
My coach suggested that I run the mile. After lacing up my Converse basketball shoes, I started running. Suddenly I found myself at the front of the pack. Was it possible that a dummy like me could win a race? The faster I ran, the more excited I got. No burning chest, no arms like rubber, I was winning a race! I came around the backstretch with the finish line in view. I gave it one last burst of speed and, sure enough, I came in first. I shot up my arms in victory and elation.
It took me about 30 seconds to figure out that I had only run three laps, not four. By that time, four or five guys had passed me by. I still managed to finish third, and, more important, I found out I was actually good at something. I began to set my alarm for 5 a.m. to go running before school.
Getting on Track
Running became my obsession. My mom bought me a subscription to Runner’s World magazine. I read it cover to cover. I don’t know if it was due to my time spent reading that magazine or my newfound confidence, but, after eighth grade, I was allowed to attend the regular school with the kids from my neighborhood.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my parents had been talking to my special education teacher. She informed them that I would never be able to get a high school diploma. I just didn’t have the skills needed to graduate. She suggested I might be able to get enough credits and attend a vocational school. Fortunately, my mom and dad did not listen to her, and I went on to ninth grade.
High school was hard. I sweated my eligibility before every track season. My mom, a special education teacher, helped me focus on homework. My math teacher, Mr. Caldwell, seemed to know when I was totally lost in his class. Discreetly, he would call me up to his desk and ask me to solve the problem. He made me stay at his desk until I figured it out, guiding me along the way. Some days, I was so lost that I wanted to go back to my desk, and would tell him, “I understand it, Mr. Caldwell, really.” Thankfully for me, he never fell for that.
I graduated with an uninspiring 2.1 grade point average (thank goodness for band and physical education). Several of my teachers told my parents that sending me to college was a waste of money. I didn’t know whether I could survive college either, but I wanted to run college track. I couldn’t let go of the only thing that made me feel good about myself.
I enrolled at Ohio University, in Athens. Four years later, I had set stadium records and won many races on the track. And I won a different kind of race, as well, graduating with a degree in education.
Leaving the Past Behind
Since that time, I’ve completed a master’s degree and have spent 17 years as a teacher. One of my fondest memories is that of returning to my old junior-high school to teach. When I got out of school, teaching certificate in hand, I couldn’t find a steady job, so I taught as a substitute. I walked straight to the classroom of my special education teacher, the one who said I should skip high school. Her door was partially open. I pulled it open a little more so she could see me. To her shock, there I stood. I didn’t say a word, nor did she. I nodded and walked on to my class. We never talked that day.
Sharing My Story — Finally
Now I’m a high school principal and a special education director, with a beautiful wife and three great kids. And I’m thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. Not long after I became a principal, a mother came to my office in tears, worried that, if her child was tested for a learning disability, he would be seen as disabled and never be successful. For the first time, I shared my story with her. I had never told anyone, not even my wife. Later, I decided to write it down, to encourage parents of children with learning disabilities.
I credit my mother, for helping me with homework, and my teacher, Mr. Caldwell, for having the patience to work with me. But I often wonder how my life might have been different if I hadn’t found my confidence on the track. I hope that every special education kid finds his own “track.”
Updated on February 20, 2020