The Class Clown Grows Up

Why did it take so long? A former class clown on his delayed diagnosis.

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My mother, a former special education teacher, is trained to recognize attention-deficit disorder in children. But she never knew that her own son had ADHD until my disastrous freshman year at college. That’s when, among other things, I failed an introductory sociology class. This was doubly ironic because my father happens to be a sociology professor.

Why didn’t my mother recognize the telltale signs of ADHD? Why did I have to spend all those years feeling confused and out of control, wondering exactly what was wrong with me? Well, it’s because I wasn’t “the kid with ADHD.” I was the class clown.

When my sixth-grade teacher asked our class to visualize the week’s spelling words on the ceiling, I announced that they were, in fact, running across the floor. Throughout seventh grade, I leapt up in each day’s English class to shout “Surprise!” or “Meat!” or another non sequitur. By my senior year of high school, my act had grown a bit more elaborate. For 10 weeks straight, I wore a “self-imposed school uniform,” consisting of a shirt emblazoned with the appropriate day of the week and black jean-shorts, both of which had to be visible at all times, regardless of the fall weather.

Of course, my ADHD also had its dark side. As my mother recalls, I was utterly incapable of keeping my things in order — as evidenced by the 10-inch stack of papers that I lugged around every day of high school. It was the only way I could be sure not to forget an important paper for one of my classes.

My dad remembers my ADHD-related social difficulties. One low point came when I was 13, and I joined my scout troop for a two-week wilderness hike in New Mexico. I had high hopes for the adventure but wound up being ruthlessly teased and bullied by a few of the other boys. At one point I found an obscene name carved on the cover of my journal, bringing me to tears.

I always knew I had problems in certain areas, but it never occurred to me that I had a biological condition like ADHD. When I had trouble, I thought it was because I was “weird” or “dumb.”

When I was finally diagnosed with ADHD (a few weeks after failing that sociology class), I began to see that the distracted/divergent aspect of my mind was a source not only of weakness but also of great strength. Since then, the challenge has been to nourish all the good aspects of ADHD while doing my best to rein in the bad.

I had plenty of help in my efforts. For a month following my diagnosis, I was on Ritalin. In some ways I found the drug stifling, but it certainly made me feel calmer and more focused. Ritalin gave me the presence of mind to learn some organizational techniques that proved extremely helpful during my college career and beyond. These included the creation and maintenance of a daily schedule and a workable filing system for my classwork and personal writings. I haven’t been on medication since that time, but I am still benefiting from its positive aspects.

Another tremendous source of help came in the form of Project Eye-to-Eye, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that pairs college students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD with elementary schoolchildren with the same condition. Tutoring 10-year-old Phillip gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride in my capabilities as an adult with ADHD. And I learned a lot from my contact with the other college students who participated in the program.

As my self-confidence grew, so did my ability to get things done. I took my social ineptitude (essentially an inability to listen well) and my overly developed self-criticism and turned them into humor about self-absorption. In 1999, I launched Kent, a newsletter “by and about Kent Roberts and for the world.” Therein I wrote about my laundry situation (often dire) and my recurrent skin rashes (one near my navel being especially newsworthy). In 2004, I co-wrote a book, A Portrait of Yo Mama as a Young Man. And I’m a performing solo comedian.

ADHD has certainly brought challenges to my life. But it has also given me humor and even empowerment. My tall, but orderly, pile of writing drafts is a poignant reminder: I’m still the kid with the 10-inch stack of papers. Now the papers, and I, are a bit more organized.

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