College

“I Was Carrying a 400-Pound Bag of Bricks On My Back”

After graduating at the bottom of her class in high school, Syndney Sauber adopted a “do-whatever-it-takes” attitude that has helped her earn two advanced degrees and launch a successful teaching career.

Woman with ADHD standing on mountain top and looking at view
Woman with ADHD standing on mountain top and looking at view

My mother ruined many a good manicure by wrestling with childproof medicine bottles. “Peanut,” she would say to me, “you’re so good at these things. Open this for mommy.” At age 5, I could figure out instructional diagrams, assemble furniture, and hook up stereo equipment.

I was fairly sure that I was smart. And then I entered the first grade, where struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) became a problem and started inhibiting my success.

I remember Mrs. Roth holding up a flash card with the letters a and s on it. “Ass,” I pronounced logically. “No,” she corrected me, “I told you this last week. We pronounce it az not ass.” I had only a garbled recollection of her explanation that there was a difference between the sounds of z and s. What I needed, and didn’t know at the time, was a card with a donkey on it that read ass = donkey. As = az.

The next year, I was in the two-thirds of my class that silently pored over the SRA Reading Kit stories. We answered comprehension questions on the back of the card and checked our own answers, working independently, while the teacher taught the other third of the class. I had to read passages again and again, glossing over essential vocabulary because I couldn’t decode it. I needed the emotional and intellectual stimulation that came from problem-solving with peers. Yet the class was decidedly non-interactive, and my ADHD only exacerbated my frustration.

Mrs. Fisher, my third-grade teacher, said “The only way to learn your multiplication facts is by rote.” The hum of 25 students droning Three times three equals nine obscured all meaning. If I had recited the tables while looking at flash cards illustrated with pictures and numerals, I would have fared better.

By the time I reached the fourth grade, I could copy most printed words and read some. Just as I was beginning to master this skill, they pulled a switcheroo by introducing cursive writing. Printing is for little kids, my teacher announced. To help improve our cursive reading skills, she wrote these directions on the blackboard: “Do workbook pages 15 through 17 and take quiz.” “What does that mean?” I asked my neighbor. “It’s right in front of your nose,” she answered arrogantly.

Another roadblock was having to remain silent during tests, even if I had questions about the instructions. During a spelling test, I turned to a friend and asked, “Are we supposed to write the whole sentence or…” My ear burned as Mrs. Anderson twisted it. She sat me in a corner, where I would no longer be a nuisance. The message was clear: If you ask for help, you’ll get in trouble.

High school was a struggle, but junior year held an epiphany. I went to Israel for several months to study Jewish history. In King Herod’s palace, overlooking the Dead Sea, I learned about the Zealots from a teacher who sat in front of the 2,000-year-old frescoes. I absorbed the details of the tragedy with all of my senses and remembered everything. Others disliked hiking in the searing heat, but ADHD was, for once, my friend. My boundless energy kept me going for hours without complaint. I asked probing questions, and the teachers thought I was smart.

By the time I graduated from high school — 936th in a class of 1,000 — I felt that, if my teachers didn’t care whether I learned, why should I? What I hadn’t taken into account was what my future would look like if I matriculated in the School of Hard Knocks instead of college. I didn’t realize that I was the one who had to care, because no one else would straighten out my life.

My stepfather, a literature professor at Saint Thomas University, did help me. He got me into Saint Thomas on the condition that I maintain a B average. Since I had graduated from high school with a D average, such a prospect seemed as likely as asking me to vault across the Grand Canyon with a broomstick. Yet somehow I was game. Secretly, I knew I was smart.

With my father’s help, I made the transformation. He summoned me to the dining room table for tutoring, forced me to stay on top of the workload, gave me the structure I needed. His teaching methods counteracted all the ADHD tendencies that might have shattered my college career. When I graduated with a 3.0 GPA and a B.A. in education, I knew I was moving up in the world.

My first teaching job would have made most novice teachers run for the hills. I worked in the Miami-Dade public school district. My principal regularly announced Code Hornet over the P.A. system. This meant, Lock the kids in the classroom and drop to the floor to avoid gunfire. It was a sink-or-swim initiation, but I thrived because I was allowed to bring a hands-on, experiential learning approach to the school.

My do-whatever-it-takes attitude helped me to establish a strong rapport with parents and kids. I devised individual lesson plans, and even coped with severe behavior problems. During that time I attended an evening master’s program at Florida International University. It was designed to help inner-city teachers develop the skills to survive in “the trenches.” I eventually earned a master’s degree in Urban Education and graduated with a 3.6 GPA.

In the classroom I was able to practice what I’d learned at night school. I implemented and refined techniques for learning-style-based instruction. I synthesized, adapted, and added to these theories to suit individual students’ learning styles. I allowed introverted children to think quietly or write about their ideas before they responded verbally during class discussions. Students who were rhythmic could present a song that summarized a history lesson.

Many of my students achieved academic success, so I shared my techniques with other teachers through professional development presentations — and went on to earn a third degree, Education Specialist in Supervision and Administration, at Gallaudet University for the Deaf. Gallaudet was the best match for my brain. I had always loved American Sign Language (ASL). It’s dramatic, emotional, and expressive, and it fits my visual, kinesthetic, global learning style. I earned straight A’s in class.

In deaf culture, asking questions is a sign of respect. When you want a point clarified, it shows that you’re paying attention. Finally, in a classroom, I was able to say, “I don’t know, can you explain it?” without feeling stupid.

That was only one of many firsts I experienced at Gallaudet. I also discovered that I had severe learning disabilities, but had a superior IQ.

In the public school system, I was carrying a 400-pound bag of bricks on my back, struggling with information presented in ways that my brain couldn’t process. Nothing I did helped me pass tests or please my teachers. Student comments like, “I don’t want her to be my reading partner,” made me feel inferior. My academic failures weren’t a reflection of my intelligence, but of a mismatch with my learning style.

No one should have to wait 33 years, or until she completes her third degree, with honors, to find out that she’s smart.

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