You Can Do It
I lost it at Peet’s. I had to pack my stuff up and get out before I started crying.
Bill kept talking. “I just don’t get it,” he repeated. “He can do the work. When I sit down with him and we do the math problems together, he gets them right. So why did he get a 0 out of 5 on his math quiz Friday?”
There is so much I don’t remember about being a teenager, and why I got a D in Molecular Biology is one of them. I do remember being pulled aside in 8th grade English and being asked by the teacher why I didn’t do better in class, but I don’t remember what I said. I just remember feeling horrified and trapped. We were reading The Odyssey and I didn’t get it. I couldn’t follow the narrative and connect it to theme and plot. I knew I should have gotten it. I was a reader. I had a high IQ. I loved stories, but something happened in school where I knew what I was supposed to do (go to class, pay attention, do my homework, hand it in), and I saw my friends doing it, but I couldn’t quite get there.
When I used to ride horses, I learned about getting the horse to move on the right lead, referring to which leg first reaches out to trot or canter. It’s a beautiful, smooth feeling when your horse gets the right lead. Which means it’s not a beautiful, smooth feeling when he doesn’t. And school for me generally felt like I didn’t have the right lead.
It wasn’t until this year when I finally started reading about adoption and its effects that I saw I had problems with school and life, not because I was crazy, but because I was adopted.
What a relief.
The place to fix crazy is the nuthouse, and I didn’t want to go there, but the place to fix adoption, or at least to learn about it so I could better play with what brought me, was on the page and in connecting with other adoptees. It was in knowing who I was (yes, parents who adopt, your children need to know their roots) and in having the confidence to speak my truth and to not fear it was going to hurt other people (Try, for example, bringing up being adopted to your mom if you are in a closed adoption and watch her face shift. Chances are good it won’t be into a smile. Try feeling safe in being yourself. Then go do your homework.)
“It’s not that I want him to get good grades,” Bill continued. “It’s just that I want him to be able to go to a college where he can study something he is passionate about.”
“So you do care that he gets good grades.”
“No,” he said. “I told you I don’t.”
“But you want him to go to college and for that he needs good grades.”
Bill sighed. “I don’t know what I am supposed to do. He won’t talk to me. His mother is furious with him.”
“You are asking him to get good grades,” I said, and then I burst into tears, because I was remembering something I had written about in my book.
One time when I was married, my husband and I sat in the marriage counselor’s office and my husband was in tears. We were trying to survive as a family in one of the most expensive cities in the country, and I didn’t have a job. They both wanted to know why I didn’t have a job, and so they were looking at me.
I felt like I was drowning, only there was no water. So much was going on in my head. I was a mother: I had a job, but on top of that the idea of going into the world to ask for work I’d be valued enough to be paid for seemed impossible. There I was in a room with my husband and a therapist and neither could see me. I was in so much trouble.
And this is why therapists who haven’t had specialized training in adoption should not take on adoptees as clients, in, I believe, any capacity. I needed someone who knew my brain was so distracted by the unconscious spin of who am I who is my mother who is my father why didn’t they want me I am worthless I don’t even exist that to even think about being able to pick out the right clothes and driving in the right direction and walking in the right door and going up to the right desk to announce my arrival for a job interview was like asking someone without legs to climb Everest. I mean, the legless person can do it, but he’s going to need some extra help.
“The thing is,” Bill said, “He’s smart. He can do the work. He just doesn’t do it.”
“You think he can do the work,” I said. “But what if he can’t?”
“I don’t get it,” Bill said.
I sighed. I didn’t get it, either. I remembered being in high school and sitting at home with my notebooks open and feeling the sick spin of something is really wrong and I don’t know what it is. It must be me. It was and is so hard to focus. Only now, because I have read so much about adoption and have talked to so many other adoptees who have had similar experiences, do I have more patience with myself. I know to ask for help. To explain that I can’t focus. To even laugh about it.
What do you do for a high school kid who can’t focus but hasn’t yet come out of the adoption fog of not knowing being adopted has deeply affected his ways of being in the world? How do you help someone who can’t do his homework do it? Teenagers are scary in their shut downs, their dark looks. But they need help.
I suggested that Bill find a therapist who specializes in adoption. I wish I were one of those people. I wish I had the key to his son’s ability to thrive in school and life.