“Tell your mother,” she said, guiding my 12-year-old son, Ethan, into the conference room. Her hand rested gently on his shoulder, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” This was the school psychologist, and she’d just finished a round of psychological testing on my son, a legal requirement if Ethan’s status as a student with a disability was to be maintained in the coming school year.
Ethan’s disability is what I’d describe as a mild case of garden-variety ADHD, the kind without the behavior problems. Ethan’s an easy-going kid: he’s happy-go-lucky but disorganized, and was in need a lot of “re-focusing” during those early years in school. (To my mind, ADHD is what we used to call “boys.” Now we have treatment for the condition and legally-required “accommodations” at school.)
There were a handful of school administrators sitting around the table, gathered there on a spring morning for the annual review of Ethan’s 504 Plan. Ethan scanned the adult-filled room sheepishly, then looked down at his shoes. Finally he looked at me and spoke.
“Mom,” he said, “I’m fine with B’s.”
The room was silent—for a moment—and then the door opened and Ethan’s math teacher bounced in with a spring in his step, like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.
“Ethan’s the classic under-achiever,” he announced, as if to say no big deal, just reporting an observation for the record.
“I’m fine with B’s” and “Ethan’s a classic underachiever”: I was the only person in the room experiencing a disconnect. Everyone else seemed to think underachievement was fine if you were getting B’s. Or maybe not even B’s; later on I talked to a family who got the same line about their son, another ADHD underachiever, who was getting Cs. And these were high-school Cs, which count.
After the math teacher’s report, the conversation returned to me and how I might learn to accept my 12-year-old son’s expectations for himself.
When I got to my car, I cried.
Which brings me to the story of how I came to take the SAT seven times in one year. By the end of Ethan’s sophomore year, heading into the all-important junior year, I had a son with a B average, taking non-Honors courses and not excelling in extracurriculars (though he is a very good piano player).
I had seen more studying going on during those first two years of high school, but there was a lot of convalescing, too, not to mention the socializing and the video games. Ethan was a “normal” kid who got B’s and C’s, not one of the stressed-out strivers you read about.
In fact, he was just like me when I was in high school. And while it was true that I’d had a successful career despite my average grades and scores, the world was different now. When I graduated from college, in 1989, unemployment had been falling sharply for six years straight, and the world was brimming with opportunity. Twenty years later, the land I would be sending my little tadpole into was a different place. At summer’s end, two years out from the Great Recession, millions were out of work and the news was filled with worry that we were heading into a double-dip recession or, worse, that we were already in one. That August, the economy created no new jobs at all. (The August zero was eventually revised upward to 104,000, still well below the number needed to absorb all the new high school and college graduates looking for their first jobs.) The days when you could la-di-dah your way out of Bennington, into the Radcliffe publishing course, as I did, and from there to a guaranteed starter job in the industry—a job, not an internship—were gone.
In truth, I was only subliminally aware of how bad things were. I was keeping my head down, avoiding the news. Not intentionally—my conscious thought was that I was too overwhelmed by work and family to read the paper, and I was. But looking back I see myself hunkered down. Which was probably just as well.