As a child with dyslexia, I was scolded for fidgeting. Now my restless streak is the secret of my success.
I was one of those kids, since the first grade. Teachers knew it and my classmates did, too: Jonathan Mooney was kind of crazy. As one of those kids, I made friends with the janitor, the only visitor at my desk in the hallway. And I was on a first-name basis with Shirley, the receptionist in the principal’s office.
It wasn’t that I was totally crazy or out of control. But I felt that I was bad, almost morally defective. That feeling ate away at my sense of self like battery acid. In fact, it ruined it. As I grew up, and put my early schooling into perspective, the narrow definition of how schoolchildren are supposed to behave came to infuriate me.
What do good kids do at a school desk? Have compassion for other children? No. Be kind to other children? No. They sit still! It’s unbelievable that, at seven years old, we learn that “good” does not mean being kind, but being compliant. That’s socialization, not education.
I Couldn’t Sit Still
The idea that good kids sit still didn’t go over well with me. When I sat at a school desk — in the first grade and at Brown University — my hands started to sweat and my face turned red. After five seconds, my foot started to tap; after 15 seconds, I busted out the drums. And after five minutes, it was all over. I was the kid who would try to put his leg behind his neck. Even now, when I sit at a dinner “desk” in a New York City restaurant, I’m that kid all over again.
Some of my worst memories were at the dinner table, when my father would shout, “Jon, stop it, stop it. Jon, what’s wrong with you?” He taught me that movement was somehow shameful. The same thing happened in the classroom. My second-grade teacher, named Mrs. C., would stop the class, point at me, and say, “Jon, what is wrong with you?” In that moment, the myth that good kids sit still — and bad kids don’t — labeled me as a kid with a problem.
Research suggests that many kids move because it helps them focus — not because they’re bad or want to make teachers and parents angry. To put the jargon aside: If I don’t move, my brain shuts off. I spent some of third grade up in a tree watching squirrels build a nest. For me, movement was a learning aid.
Another myth says that eye contact means you’re paying attention. We all know that’s a bold-faced lie. How many times have you been at a meeting staring at your boss, and not hearing a thing he’s saying? Why do I have to look at someone to understand what he or she says? If Mrs. C. had ever paused to ask me what she had just said, I could have repeated it verbatim — plus the five things she had said before, plus what Bobby and Janie were doing to my left, plus describe the stain on the carpet to the right, plus voice my opinion about the ugly yellow dress a girl in the back of the room was wearing.
ADHD isn’t a deficit. I pay attention to too much. Outside the confines of a classroom, my “restlessness” and my attention to detail are gifts. I have traveled across the country, published two books, and started a family. Those who have been diagnosed with ADHD should celebrate it. The gift has its challenges — and we have to work around those challenges — but it isn’t a pathology. That’s a powerful thought for a kid who feels that ADHD makes him second-rate, or worse.
In my elementary school, the entire class got a clear message: Stop being yourself or get out of the classroom. Many kids take that lesson and get out of school for good. You can’t change who you are, and you shouldn’t be asked to.
My Advocates Found Me
My advocates saved me. I didn’t know where to look for them, or even that I needed them. Luckily, they came to me. First, my mom fought daily to build my confidence and celebrate my successes — and, believe me, these victories had nothing to do with spelling tests or sitting still. She encouraged hands — on learning at home and at school, and she stuck up for me when teachers and school administrators implied that I was that bad kid.
Also, my teachers weren’t all Mrs. Cs. A number of teachers recognized my strengths and created environments in which I could excel. That made all the difference. One third-grade teacher, Mr. R., validated my real dislike for my previous school experiences. His honest approach to what really mattered — my education — allowed both of us to focus on my learning rather than the mastery of the institution’s idea of “good.”
Most important, my mom and Mr. R. taught me that I could have a say in my education. They approached me as a person, and taught me the fundamental skills and confidence I needed to begin advocating for myself. They helped me to understand the benefits of academic accommodations and to know that I could play a key role in my own success.
It’s been a long, hard road to get to where I am today, but I’m here — a twice-published, dyslexic author, an energetic public speaker, a father — because of my enthusiasm, my awareness of others, and responsibility to make the world a better place for that kid.