“You Have to be Normal to be Cool”
Sixth-grader Dana Olney-Bell shares her educational experience as a twice-exceptional student—she is both intellectually gifted and diagnosed with ADHD.
I’m 12 years old and for as long as I can remember, I’ve had opposite sides to myself. I’m told that I’m “gifted” — very smart and creative. But I also have to work really, really hard at things that seem much easier for other kids, like memorizing and paying attention.
Here’s an example: In math, science, and art, I’m quicker at figuring things out than other kids. Like when my teacher tells us a new way to subtract fractions, it seems obvious to me and not to other kids. But when I’m trying to listen to someone talking or lecturing, my mind starts to wander.
Once when we were talking about plants in science, it made me think about my garden and what I was going to plant next year. And that made me think about a new kind of chili pepper that I’m going to try to plant for my dad because he likes spicy things. And that made me think about the hot dishes he used to eat when we lived in Singapore.
It feels sort of like branches on a tree, and pretty soon I don’t know what the discussion is about any more. Sometimes this is good when I’m talking to someone, because it helps me branch out on our conversation. If I’m in class, it helps me bring up new ideas that no one else has thought of. But it also hurts me in class because I don’t always fully get what the teacher is saying.
Sometimes I have complicated ideas that I can’t explain to others. That really frustrates me, and I get upset with the person for not getting it! I guess you could say I cry pretty easily. This really bugs my mom. Sometimes I have the same sort of problem when I need to ask a question. I get stuck on a question because I can’t formulate it. And I have the same problems when I’m trying to write down my ideas for a paper.
When I’m doing something that’s hard for me, like writing, I drift off easily and end up doing a quick job so I can do something else that I’m better at. But then I don’t get a very good grade on my essay, and I feel bad. The problem is, there are so many interesting things to do in my house; things that I think are just as educational as writing. I’d rather do chemistry and cooking experiments in the kitchen, or try out new kinds of seeds or soil mixtures in my garden, or watch the History Channel or Popular Mechanics for Kids, or solve logic puzzles and games. I’d rather study bird behavior (with my birds, of course!), work on my Web site with my dad, and engineer new contraptions with wood or whatever else is lying around. I love my school, but I hate it that homework takes away time from doing these things. That’s what it’s like to be gifted and have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
I’ve tried some medicine to help me with attention. It’s so weird that they make medicine for that! One helped me concentrate and be more energetic about school. Now, another helps make me more optimistic, but when it wears off, I feel less cheerful and drift more. My medicine helps some, but it doesn’t completely solve the problem of attention. I still have to work at paying attention, and sometimes I still drift off even with the medicine.
Medicine doesn’t help the problems I have memorizing and studying for tests. My tutor suggested that I draw pictures when I’m memorizing facts for my history test. For example, when we were studying the Renaissance, I drew a picture of a harp for the rebirth of music and a cross for the rebirth of culture. That helped me remember those things for an exam. But it takes too long to study like that, so I wasn’t able to study everything and I got a bad grade because there were lots of parts that I didn’t get to. Sometimes it makes me want to give up when I realize how much harder I have to work at things that are not that hard for other kids.
Japanese has been easier for me to learn because when you write in Japanese, it’s art, and I love to draw. Japanese writing is full of precision, and I like taking a long, long time on something and making it exact. But slowness is another problem I have that frustrates other people. And my tutor says that I sometimes have a hard time deciding when getting into details makes my work better or when it actually hurts my work because “I can’t see the forest for the trees.” There is one part of Japanese that has been very hard for me. I’m way behind the rest of my class when it comes to memorizing Japanese characters and character blends.
In third grade I went to a special school for kids with learning disabilities, where we learned the Slingerland method for reading. That was really good for me. Now I read books that are really hard, like The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass.
Visualization-verbalization was really helpful, too, for figuring out spelling. I’m still a bad speller, but I’m better than I was! But the other parts of school were too easy for me, and I got bored because I already knew the science and stuff. When I returned to my public school, kids asked me, “Dana, did you go to a special-ed school in third grade?” Special education is not a popular thing. You have to be normal to be cool.
Some people idealize gifted students because they think they’re good in every subject, but that’s not true. We’re not super smart in everything, like a computer. I’m gifted in certain ways. My tutor told me that I’m a visual learner. For example, in history when my teacher was telling us about World War II, she showed us pictures of the ditches that they fought in. I’ve always remembered that scene.
Being gifted is a bad thing at some of the schools I’ve been to. In movies, “smart alecs” aren’t usually fit and good at sports. People think if you’re super smart, then you’re probably weak. It’s pretty cool to be a whiz at math, but it’s a lot cooler if you’re really athletic. That’s what I found at my old public school.
Now I go to a school for gifted kids, and we’re plenty athletic there. We do movement and dance and martial arts almost every day. I’m glad that the kids at my school aren’t as much into style and how cool your clothes are. It’s a lot more comfortable for me that way.
We’re in it Together
What’s the best way to help kids like me? We need lots of parent support and not to be yelled at for getting bad grades. The best thing parents can do is help their kids overcome their difficulties. It’s helped me when my mom shows me new ways to study for a test. It’s helped me to find friends who are honest and don’t talk behind my back. It’s helped to find a school where the teachers see that I have things I’m very good at. Once my mom told me a story about computer nerds who ended up taking over the world, and sometimes I think of that story and it makes me feel better too.
I hope other kids who are gifted and have ADHD know they’re not alone. I hope this helps kids to talk to their parents and teachers about things that bother them and makes them feel less weird and alone. Talking with them about what things you’re good at and what things are hard for you – and why they’re hard for you — can help kids figure out how to make school a little easier. Most of all, talking about things can also help kids feel better about themselves.