I was okay with school until 5th grade. My teacher Mrs. Lyddy was a short-tempered grandmother. She terrified me. I was a good girl and never felt her wrath directly, but every time she scolded someone else, I felt on the edge of tears and panic. My stomach would hurt, and morning after morning I would try to convince my mother that I had the flu. Sometimes she let me stay home; sometimes she didn’t.
Mrs. Lyddy didn’t yell at me until the last day of school (and by yell I probably mean scold, but when you are a sensitive kid tone can be as powerful as a bullhorn). It was a chilly morning for May, and I hadn’t brought a jacket. Mrs. Lyddy was verklempt. We were having an end-of-school assembly outside on the grass and she told me I couldn’t possibly go outside without at least a sweater, but I didn’t have one.
I didn’t mind being cold. I often went without mittens and a hat in the winter because I liked the clean freeze of air against skin. The last thing I wanted was to wear my teacher’s cardigan, ugly and laughably large, but Mrs. Lyddy was insistant, and I wore that hairshirt much to the amusement of my classmates, and I was confused as to why whether I had a sweater or not was suddenly so important. I’d worked all year to be good: to listen, to only talk when called on, to do my homework, and in this way I had avoided her wrath, but now, on the very last day of school, the rules had changed: I also had to have a sweater on hand or the mouth of the world would open and I would fall from grace and disappear because only a good girl could occupy my space. There was no alternative.
What I didn’t know was that I was going to win the Good Citizenship award that day, and Mrs. Lyddy didn’t want the parents to see a student under her charge walking up to the podium in front of the school in shirt sleeves on a cool day.
When school ended my friend Janet and I went to visit Mrs. Lyddy at her Cape house. I don’t know how we got there or what we did. All I know is that the teacher who terrified me had chosen me as special enough to invite to her house. She was a normal person who served cookies and milk. She didn’t live in a lair or a cave. She lived in a shingled house, and she liked me. My head was spinning.
Sixth grade was better because the teacher was easier with the reins, but it was a continued slide into my years-long trip from you are a good girl to you are a good girl, why aren’t you doing better? I should have been teacher’s pet, again, but something was off. I didn’t always do my homework and Mr. Gerty was puzzled, unsure how to deal with me. I presented like a good student, but something was wrong: I lied about losing my homework; I missed more school than was normal; I sometimes ducked instead of raising my hand.
Junior high was not good. I cried during basketball tryouts and didn’t make the team. I got caught cheating in math and the teacher cried on the phone when he called to tell my mother. As much as I was engaged, I was more often bored and lost in English, Social Studies, Typing, Psychology, and Gym. I would lie on the living room floor after eating copious amounts of brownie or cookie batter and try to get the world to stop spinning so I could focus on my homework. It was like there was a wood chipper in my brain. It was silent and loud at the same time, and there wasn’t enough space in my head for both it and homework.
To the rest of the world, my parents and my friends, I looked like everyone else. Maybe a little more sensitive, maybe a little more confused, but no one was sending me to a shrink or telling me to stay after school for some one-on-one time. I was getting by.
Here’s what I want to tell you. I think adopted kids are special needs kids. I think there should be protocol, whether kids present with problems or not, for children who are adopted. The only thing is that I don’t know what the protocol is yet. That’s what I’m working on figuring out. I know something’s wrong. I felt it myself and I saw it in my two brothers, neither who—despite their exceptional intelligence—graduated from college, and time after time when I hear about someone being adopted, I hear about problems in school. Sometimes the problems start in nursery school, sometimes in college.
I know there are plenty of adopted kids who had or have no problems, but I’m guessing, and I’m sorry, that that is the exception not the rule. I’m not saying adoption is bad, by the way. I love adoption. I love it because I have all of you in my life because I was adopted, for one of many reasons. Adopting a kid and not attending to his or her special needs (you lose the person who gave you life before you can articulate your feelings, or even after, to be real about this, and see if you don’t walk with a little hitch in your gait) is like buying a high-performance car and not filling the tank with super unleaded. It’s just not going to perform as well as it could.
I still lie on the floor and wait for the world to stop spinning. I still have a wood chipper in my head, but at least now I have some distance from it. This year I have read so much about adoption. I have talked to so many people. Five years ago I barely talked about it. I thought talking about it would be like talking about phantom limb pain. It’s only cool to be called crazy when you are laughing and having fun.
So, teachers, parents, psychiatrists, this is my plea to you: be mindful. Watch the children. Sergeant Esterhaus had it right: “Let’s be careful out there.” Lives are at stake.