At an early age in life, I realized that somehow my brain worked differently than others. For one thing, I abhorred boredom. Still do. That’s why I write this blog and others on a daily basis. If I’m not doing something new or relatively creative every day, I get restless.
There are other facets to brain function that go along with a brain that works differently. In third grade, our teacher set up a reading contest in which our task was to plow through a catalog of SRA books that were color-coded by difficulty. The further you went along, the harder the reading got. I never had trouble reading, but again, I hated boring writing, especially if the subject didn’t interest me. It was anathema to me. When I didn’t like a story, there was no way I was about to suffer through it. So I stopped reading those damned SRA books.
Plus I didn’t like the colors.
The teacher measured our reading rate by having us make paper boats out of construction paper. These were fastened to the wall at a starting point above the blackboard. As the class read books, the boats moved around the room at whatever rate the kids completed the SRA sections.
Mine sat still. I would dutifully take those SRA books out of the box but sit at my desk doing nothing. Part of that resistance was emotional more than cognitive. My father had a practice of pushing and exasperating us at times with rounds of archly enforced demands and punishments. Being told that I had to read those SRA books was a demand that felt too close to my father’s driving words and criticism if I failed.
So I avoided the task at hand.
Teachers say what?
One day I came back from recess to find my mother standing in the classroom with Mrs. Helm, my third-grade teacher, who’d also been my second-grade teacher. She liked our class so much she moved up a grade to have another year with her favorite students. I felt proud to be liked that way, but that didn’t mean there weren’t issues at hand.
Mrs. Helm thought she knew me well, and called my mother in for a conference to see what was going on with my reticence toward reading. When I walked into the room, Mrs. Helm directed me to address my mother. “Will you tell your mother why you don’t want to read?” she suggested.
I stood there a moment, took a glance around the room and gave my answer. “I’m waiting for the other boats to come around again,” I replied. “Then I’ll start reading.”
My mother suppressed a laugh, but Mrs. Helm was not amused. “You must catch up,” she told me. “Or you’ll get bad grades.”
I looked at my mother. She nodded somewhat seriously. But she was also an elementary school teacher, and knew that there was something more to the story than a kid that could not read. She took me to the library on a regular basis and I grabbed books off the shelves with an appetite for joy and knowledge. My mother just understood that I didn’t like drudgery, or being forced to do it.
Instead, she said the one thing that she knew could motivate me. “Chrissy, can you catch up?”
My mother knew me well. That was a challenge I could embrace. It called upon my competitive verve and a desire to succeed in the face of odds. That same instinct would later fuel my running career. I don’t think I’m alone in that respect. I’ve met many runners over the years driven by their own set of compensatory needs or outright demons. A runner is never truly alone with those in tow.
Later in the year with Mrs. Helm, she wanted the class to do a play based on some historical story we’d read about. Again, I found the subject boring and did not want to participate. She gave me an ultimatum: “Chris, I need you to stay in from recess to work on this play.”
Well, that requirement did not set well with me. I was keeping track of the number of home runs that I’d earned in our daily kickball games. A friend and I were leading the competition among all the kids who played. My goal was to tally one hundred homers, many of them by launching the playground ball over the swingset in center field. The feeling of catching that kickball in the sweet spot and watching it fly over the swingset was one of the best feelings in the entire world. I was not about to give that up to stay inside and do some stupid school play.
“No, I want to play kickball,” I told her.
“Okay, if that’s your choice. You don’t get to do either.” She made me sit inside the entire recess period with my head down on the desk. No looking up. That was my punishment. I could hear the sounds of others kids playing outside. I knew that I’d missed the chance to add to my home run lead. “That’s fine,” I resolved under my breath with my head down on my desk. “I’ll just kick more homers tomorrow.”
While most teachers in public schools struggled to motivate me, even my baseball coaches knew how to use motivational tactics during practice. At the age of ten, I was so much faster than the other kids on the team, and could run so much farther, that they’d make me do extra pushups (my weak spot) before being allowed to chase after the other ballplayers. I’d still catch them.
Looking back, I realize there were genuine attention disorders going on with some parts of my brain. Long before ADD or ADHD––or whatever you call it––was diagnosed with kids, I dealt with some sort of attention deficit disorder. I’ve taken to calling it Creative ADD. People of a creative nature need to learn in different ways because their minds work differently.
That’s why sports were so appealing to me. They offered a physical release of energy and a brand of mental stimulation that fueled better concentration. They also provided creative challenges and an opportunity to act in every second of play.”Depending on the sport, and I played nearly all of them in some form, baseball, basketball, soccer, football, wrestling, table tennis, court tennis, volleyball, the list goes on… there was also problem-solving involved; geometric calculations, math problems of time and distance, reading opponent body language and response and paying full attention in the moment and over the long term. Add in goal-setting, discipline and pain tolerance, and sports were and remain a constant source of affirmation, mental and physical stimulation.
And I still say I was right to want to go out to recess rather than stay inside and work on that foolish classroom play.
As a perpetual “out-of-the-box” thinker that alternative capability has had its benefits and its costs. I recall several races where my inattention to course details actually cost me the victory. At the same time, the hyper-focus nature of creative ADD grants the ability to concentrate during intense interval workouts when pain is the preoccupying force at work in the body. If that seems counterintuitive, so be it.
I will not lie. My Creative ADD an outside-the-box thinking has cost me in some ways through my adult years. While many companies like to promote thinking “outside the box,” in practice it is seldom welcome or tolerated. When it comes to individual management of employees, especially those whose brains work differently, the instinct is to corral and control rather than encourage and reward alternative ideas and God Forbid, failing forward.
Granted, emotional intelligence enters the picture as well. People addicted to honesty and liberality are not always welcome in the workplace. Not with bosses insecure about their own management capabilities and shortcomings.
That said, my early encounters with perceived injustice has motivated me to create opportunities for others. Drawing on those early experiences with the reading program in elementary school, I’ve always wanted to encourage other kids to read without turning it into a grind.
In the early 2000s, I conceived and developed a summer reading program that grew from 35 libraries and 50,000 kids in its first year to 175 libraries and 375,000 kids in communities all across Chicagoland. The program rewarded kids who read 10 books a Panera Bread free Kid’s Meal. At twenty books they earned a Culver’s ice cream cone. At thirty books every child completing the program received a coupon book containing free admissions to twenty seven cultural and entertainment opportunities. These included leading institutions such as the Shedd Aquarium, Brookfield Zoo, Art Institute of Chicago, several children’s museums, sports teams, a railroad museum and Wild West town, historical and nature parks, and more. The free admissions totaled $270 worth per child. At a completion rate of 75% (or 281,250 kids) that potential value equaled $75,937,500. That’s a whole lot better than handing out packs of pencils or a book mark.
One day, while meeting up with lines of people waiting to enter the Kane County Cougars ballpark on summer reading admission day, I saw a child sitting on a parking block reading a book. His mother looked at me and said, “I made him promise to finish his last book before we went in the gate.”
“Is that a good book?” I asked him. He looked up and smiled. “Yeah, I really like it.”
That made me smile. From early anguish good things can come.