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“The Boy Who Got Off Track”

ADHD-PI kids fall through the cracks…even more sometimes if they’re black.

My neighbor, Apple, has had her ups and downs. But the thing that was always, always up was her sweet son, Durant. As a toddler he was a kind, cuddly soul, and that never changed. He became the sweetest child and the most agreeable teen — quick to laugh, easy to be around, welcome any time there was a game on, ready to dish out the tough talk with the big guys when sports came up.

So, of course, when he knocked on the door at 2 a.m., we let him come in and get some sleep. His mom was out of town, and he didn’t have a house key. But when it happened again the next week, we wanted to know what was going on. Durant had stayed away from home at first because he and his mom had been fighting. Now he was afraid to go home because his mom had called the police because she thought he was missing. Being a black kid in these trigger-happy times, he was paranoid and terrified. I called Apple to get her side of the story. She was angry and frantic.

Durant hadn’t been going to school. It was driving her and her family nuts with worry. He wasn’t keeping his agreements, and they were getting into conflict every time they were together. Somewhere in there she mentioned he had an ADHD diagnosis, and a light bulb went on for me.

She was still in the dark, in that void where your kid’s doctor prescribes a medicine that doesn’t work and you’re at a dead end because you’re on food stamps and Medicare and just trying not to fall behind. And you’re a person of color and your kid is easily dismissed as a “troubled youth.”

After talking to her, I was baffled that, having moved her son from a public school where he “got caught up with the wrong crowd” into a charter school where they turn dropouts and expelled students into success stories, no one was taking his ADHD head-on. You’d think they could see it a mile away.

After talking things through with the very depressed Durant, I could see that the root of his problem was transportation. He has to take public transit, and when he misses the bus and is late, he is locked out because that’s the rule in this last-chance, shape-up, you’re-in-or-you’re-out school. But guess what? He can’t keep track of his bus pass.

Durant is having trouble keeping his agreements to be home on time because he loses track of time. He’s unable to stay in touch because he accidentally left his cell phone at his grandma’s house and she’s out of the country. He is falling behind at school because he forgets his homework. He’s not staying on schedule because he has a hard time following directions. And he’s having outbursts of anger because he is an emotional teenager who also has ADHD.

Suddenly, I remembered the hard time I had with Enzo when he was Durant’s age. My son is now well on his way to being a high-functioning, happy, nerdy adult, but when he was in 9th and 10th grade, it seemed like the world was ending — the failing, the lying, the denial, the confusion, the chaos, the worries. There was also the absolute sweetness of primarily-inattentive ADHD (ADHD-PI) — the dreaming, the laughter, the brilliant ideas. The getting lost in the shuffle because you’re not the squeaky wheel. The heartbreak of seeing your good child get lost in a system that just can’t see his invisible difference. Even the “experts.”

I was scared for Durant. When he was younger, I saw half a dozen sweet black, brown, and sometimes white neighborhood boys fall through the cracks as they reached this age, then disappear into difficult lives—sometimes violent, usually in a cloud of smoke, and always into a world of pain and confusion. At least I knew this one’s mother.

I took Apple under my wing and helped her step back from the pain and blame. I let her know I had her back, so she could find that place of calm listening that is a mother’s strength. I got her a book on ADHD and explained how to make a 504 Plan. And then I gave her my “secret test” because, you know, these things run in the family. This week, the storm has passed. She’s getting Durant’s medicine changed, and she has an appointment with her own therapist. It is always a relief to find the blessed resilience that comes with the ADHD territory.

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