If you remember me, you probably remember me with a bad taste in your mouth. I was that little kid that everyone hated; I was weird, I misbehaved or behaved inappropriately...and I bit the other kids at school.
Dealing with me was probably a headache sometimes, and I know it was for you because I still remember the night that I came to your house, either on a playdate or a sleepover, I can’t remember which. Your children were teasing and tormenting me, as so many of my classmates did back then, and I bit one of them (I mean, I didn't draw blood or anything but still not a great look). See, I had been skipped a grade ahead when I was very young, and as an adult I’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety and ADHD, which I most definitely had at that age (although in the early 90s in rural Canada, ADHD was still very much considered a boy’s disorder and as a result, many troubled girls like me were simply branded “weird”, “bad” or “inappropriate”). My family was still “new” to town even though we’d lived there several years, but in that small, remote Northern community most kids had lived there their whole lives, and their entire families lived there. Already branded an outcast, I made my situation much worse by being unable to cope with the social expectations of my grade and age, something very common for kids with ADHD. Since I got picked on quite a bit, and since I was smaller and physically weaker than the other kids in my grade, who were older than me, I adopted what I thought was a pretty good strategy to fight back – I would bite whoever hurt me. Pretty embarrassing to admit to the world, but there it is.
I know that you weren’t my biggest fan because in this instance, when the biting incident occurred, you came to talk to me. The memory of what you said to me is so clear, even now at the age of 32, and so visceral, that despite my deeply flawed neurology when it comes to memories, I’ve never forgotten your face and how afraid I was. You were chastising me for my behaviour, and you held your arm up horizontally between the two of us.
“See my arm?” You said. “If you were to bite me right here on my arm,” you moved your arm forward in a quick gesture toward my face, “I’d knock your teeth in!”
Now, as an adult, I know you were only speaking hypothetically to “smarten me up”, and that the likelihood that you’d knock a 9-year-old’s teeth in is pretty low. But as that 9 year old, I was TERRIFIED. I was, as the kids say, shook. I was so shook that I never, ever forgot your exact words to me and just how afraid I felt. As a child I knew that adults were there to protect me, that if you were in trouble you should tell an adult, and the idea that the adult who was responsible for me in that moment, who was protecting me, might hurt or straight-up maim me if I misbehaved again, was mind-boggling.
I’ve reflected on my youth quite a bit, often with feelings of deep shame and confusion as to why I was so weird. Although I was diagnosed with ADHD in my late 20’s, it really wasn’t until my early 30’s that I understood how all-encompassing this neurodiversity is, and how much it affected me and explained a lot of my behaviours back then. As an adult, when I look at children under the age of 10 who’ve gone through major life changes like I had – a move, a divorce, not seeing my dad and brother anymore, having new in-laws, going to a new school – I can understand from an Early Childhood Education point of view how and why children act out. Add on top of that anxiety and ADHD and you’ve got a powderkeg of poor decision making, immaturity, reactivity, impulsivity and behavioural problems. I can go back and think through a lot of those shameful behaviours and see how they *exactly* line up with what a child of that age experiencing the onset of ADHD would go through. And I can forgive myself.
You, on the other hand, I can’t forgive. As a person who has worked in nonprofit programming to empower youth, especially disenfranchised, higher needs or vulnerable youth, I have a deep sense of empathy for kids who were like me. Although I occasionally think of you, recently while scrolling on Facebook an old classmate posted a school photo and I saw your face, exactly as I see it in my memories, with a startling clarity I don’t have for most memories. I figured out who you were, since I couldn’t really remember, and learned that you are or were in fact a Teacher’s Assistant at the school I attended. I am shocked that someone who willingly chose a life of education and children would ever have said something so harsh, so wildly inappropriate, to a child – regardless of the circumstances, regardless of how “bad” that kid was acting.
When children with ADHD (or any children) act out or even inflict harm on one another, action must be taken by adults. This action, however, should never ever involve threatening, hurting or shaming the child, because that behaviour came from somewhere. The behaviour needs to be addressed and stopped, the root cause of the behaviour needs to be sussed out and boundaries need to be set. That should never involve graphically describing how you’re going to hurt a small child. If you were thinking, or still think, “what’s the big deal, good if it got the behaviour to stop, no harm done” – you were wrong and I’m the proof, a grown-up 32 year old woman who still has a visceral, nervous system reaction to thinking of you saying that to me. How did that moment in my life impact my interactions and my trust with other adults? How did change me? What did it mean for how I interacted with others and who I felt safe with? I’m glad no child in my life will ever have to find out the answers to questions like that. To you, madam, all I have to say is that I hope no child in yours ever has to have an interaction like the one I had with you all those years back.
I remember myself as a child who behaved inappropriately a lot, who struggled to understand basic social interactions. I remember a child who watched movies and television and then tried to copy behaviours from media in real life and didn’t understand why situations didn’t work out for me like they’d worked out for the protagonists in my shows. I remember a kid who engaged in bad behaviour out of a place of helplessness, loneliness, and fear – all things you contributed to as an adult and an educator in my life. I also remember a kid who loved reading and learning, who was ahead of her class and didn’t even have to work hard to get straight A’s. I remember a kid who loved animals and babies and engaged in imaginitive play. I remember a girl who wrote an entire novel on her computer at the age 11 (probably not a very good one but still!), who loved video games and horses and cried herself to sleep because she didn’t have any friends, who was desperate to be liked and did whatever she could to protect herself when she wasn’t.
I am always going to be the kind of adult that protects kids like that from adults like you.