In the next few months, my 17-year-old son, Michael, will answer an important question: which college to attend?
It’s a wonderful twist on a question I asked more than ten years ago: will he ever be able to go to college?
At times, it was hard to imagine the answer could possibly be yes.
When he was 6, Michael was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a developmental reading disorder commonly known as dyslexia. While his classmates were learning to read, Michael struggled.
Looking back, I see evidence of Michael’s ADHD in his behavior as a toddler. His energy was boundless and even as a baby he seemed to need very little sleep. Despite a desire to be well-behaved, Michael had a mischievous streak. If we left the room for a moment, he would color on walls, furniture, and his clothing and arms. As fast as we installed childproof locks, Michael figured out how to open them. We even had to put a lock on the toilet to stop him from throwing things in it.
While knowing Michael had ADHD and learning more about kids with ADHD helped us better understand his behavior, I worried about the stigma he might face as a result of being identified as having special needs. However, I quickly came to appreciate that along with Michael’s diagnosis came a special learning program created just for him and additional in-class support from our public school system.
Those early years were a struggle. Homework that his classmates finished in minutes took Michael hours. My husband, a stay-at-home dad, spent afternoons from the time Michael got home from school until dinner working with Michael on his homework. When I got home from work I took the second shift when needed. Michael wasn’t alone in hating his homework; we all hated it.
Recognizing we weren’t experts in educating children, we arranged for Michael to receive additional tutoring after school and over the summer. As Michael grew, he showed a passion for Cub Scouts, anything with wheels, tigers, turtles, and his baby brother, Luke. His teachers consistently said Michael was well-behaved and he tried his best, but, no matter how hard we tried, he had little passion for school work. Despite our best efforts, Michael continued to lag a year or two behind his classmates in most of his subjects.
Gradually, in middle school we began to see some positive change. For the first time, Michael came home excited to talk about things he was learning, particularly in science and history. He began to do his homework on his own. When the time came to pick classes for high school, I was cautiously optimistic when his teachers recommended Michael take some college preparation courses.
In high school, Michael continued in scouting and added fencing to his hobbies. His grades and standardized test scores improved. The gap between Michael and his classmates started to close. Over the four years he closed that gap to the point that this year, his senior year, he no longer needs in-class support. In some areas, like Spanish and biology, Michael excels and he’s taking an advanced course for college credit in psychology.
In his college application essay, Michael wrote about his passion for learning. I’m incredibly grateful for the teachers, counselors, tutors, and scout leaders who helped ignite and feed that passion. Today, I see strong determination, resilience and grit in Michael. I believe those amazing qualities were nurtured by his learning disorder, which often required him to take a different, more challenging path than his classmates.
Ten years ago, I saw many limits in Michael having a learning disorder. Michael never saw those limits. It took me much longer to learn, but finally, neither do I.
Pam lives in New Jersey with her husband, Mike, and two sons, Michael and Luke. She has worked in healthcare communications for more than 25 years and joined Johnson & Johnson ten years ago. In her free time, Pam loves to cook, read, and travel with her family. Like her son, Michael, learning is one of her greatest passions.