by Kathy Sussell
I start my car and set my GPS to travel across Brooklyn. It’s a cool October night and I’m driving to meet my new coaching client, an eleven-year-old boy with ADHD. His mom contacted me because he’s having a hard time at school.
When the GPS’s anonymous female voice tells me turn right or left, I do, and I follow her directions on auto-pilot. Finally she tells me I have reached my destination and I park my car. I look up and realize I am in front of P.S. 216, my elementary school alma mater.
My chest tightens at the sight of the school. Memories begin to flood my mind. I don’t want to revisit the bleak landscape of my youth even for a minute. I resist returning to a time filled with pain, shame, and heartbreaking loneliness.
School was torture. I didn’t “get” things the way that other kids did. I went to elementary school in the 1950’s before anyone heard of ADHD. If you were inattentive, disorganized, and impulsive (as I was), you were just BAD.
I avoid dwelling in the past. When my kids were small they had a habit of running full steam ahead while looking back over their shoulders. “Look where you’re going, not where you’ve been!” I would shout at them. That became my strategy for dealing with life. Yet as I stare into the silent schoolyard, I am transported back to a bright, cold winter’s day in 1959. I hear the shouts and laughter of children playing in the yard, girls jumping rope and boys chasing each other.
I peer across time and strain to see my ten-year-old self. I recognize her from a blurry photograph I’ve seen, taken with a Kodak Brownie Camera; a skinny girl with glasses held together by a safety pin and a button missing from her coat.
My ten-year-old self runs around the yard, delighted for the reprieve from the row of wooden desks, the crushing boredom and my teacher, Mrs. Nash, whom I never failed to disappoint.
Mrs. Nash had a warm smile and kind words for the other kids, but not for me. She told me not to sing with the rest of the class, just move my lips, because I sang off key. When the entire fifth grade took a spelling test to determine who should represent the school in the city wide spelling bee, I received the highest grade, but Mrs. Nash said she couldn’t recommend me to compete. “You’re a girl who doesn’t try hard enough, you’re just too lazy and sloppy to win a spelling bee,” she said.
In the schoolyard, I look so happy, just a scrawny kid running around pretending to be a horse. When recess is over I will be reprimanded again for forgotten homework, my messy notebook, and for staring out the window. But for now I run freely in the yard, with stringy hair, unbuttoned coat, anklet socks slipping down into my scuffed shoes and knobby knees with scabs falling off.
I reach through the fence and wave to my phantom self but she can’t see or hear me. I push through time and the metal fence to run alongside her. I take her freezing hand in mine. I send her my prayers. “Life will not always be so hard. You will love and be loved. Be strong. Embrace who you are and love yourself.”
I turn away and I’m back in 2011. I reach into my purse and take out a tissue to dry my eyes. I steady myself, placing my feet carefully as I cross the street and leave the past behind. I pause for a moment outside my client’s door.
Now I am ready to coach, eager to reach out my hand to another child– a child I have yet to meet but feel I know. I am eager to meet him and hope I can help. I will smile and ask him to tell me all the great things I should know about him and I will listen as best as I can. I have reached my destination.