When an Adopted Person Says NO to Homework and to Life
I’m not sure why so many adoptive parents are writing to me now saying they have no idea what to do—their teenage kids have stopped doing homework. I don’t know what to tell them.
And now I can’t stop thinking about it.
I don’t remember making a conscious choice not to do my homework, but I do know I must not have done it because I remember teachers pulling me aside to ask what had gone wrong. This was not so much a conversation as a pit of shame. I didn’t know what had gone wrong. I just knew I had done wrong and not sure why. It was like someone asking me why I had eaten the whole pan of brownies when all I’d ever seen were cookies. I didn’t even really understand the questions. Homework? I knew I had it. I just don’t know what happened to it. It sort of…didn’t happen. It was on another planet, maybe. Or I was.
I remember walking to school full of dread, terrified I would be found out. It wasn’t that I was afraid a teacher would see I hadn’t completed an assignment and give me a bad grade and perhaps admonish me. It was more like I was afraid of the nameless happening—something akin to the earth sucking me down to its core. I was afraid of disappearing or of being found out that I was a fraud, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. This kind of thinking was so dreadful it was unbearable, and so I’d run, drink Diet Coke, eat candy, skip classes, chase boys, hide out and read, anything to avoid the present moment of My name is Anne Heffron and I have homework in English class and for some reason I can’t or won’t do it. and, by the way, I am so uncomfortable in my skin I think I may go insane.
In my singing class yesterday, I told my teacher Heather Houston that I can’t really yell. When I try, the sound comes high and thin from my throat. She had me lie on the floor with a book on my belly so I could see what belly breathing looks like as the book went up and down with my breaths. She talked about having sound go down to that place. She had me put my hands on either side of my face so I could feel the vibrations that happen there when I hum or sing. My body, apparently was built to hold sound. I was one big tuning fork, but I had stiffened over the years and was more like a frozen piece of chicken.
She said, “Say no from your belly, like this.” She said NO and it was deep, like she meant it. It was almost scary it was so strong. I imagined a rapist stopped in his tracks. I took a breath and started to laugh. I couldn’t even find the place to start a noise like that in my body. Heather said NO again and I took in another breath and then laughed some more. My hands started sweating. I held onto the table. I was lightheaded. I was scared to say NO like I meant it! Like my whole body meant it.
And then I did it. It felt like gunning my friend’s Mustang when a red light turns green. It was powerful and deeply energetic. My body meant NO as much as my mind did. I said it again, just because I could. Heather’s cat looked up at us and jumped off the couch and ran out of the room.
I don’t know what to compare this ability and feeling with. Maybe punching someone in the face, but I’ve never done that. I imagine the force of a flower opening. You could say a flower unfolds with a long sigh of YES, but I could also argue that the strength it takes for a flower to bloom could also be the force of a deeply felt NO. NO I will not remain closed. NO I do not like the dark. NO you are not the boss of me. NO you cannot keep me tightly fisted.
What if, in 6thgrade, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, I had looked my homework, my parents, my teachers in the face and had said NO? What if my body and my mind had held this sound and I presented myself to this work, to these people, as a force with which to be reckoned? Maybe I wouldn’t even have known that I was saying NO to the terrible lie that adoption was in my life: that my first mother had loved me so much she had given me away and that now I was not like an adopted child at all: I was the child of my parents, and there was no need to say the word adopted for it only made my mother cry. What if I said NO to my guts always being in turmoil, to my brain spinning, to stealing, to lying, to trying so hard to be a good girl and having no idea who I really was? What if I said NO to my falsified birth certificate, said NO to not knowing the names of the people who created me? What if I said NO to trying so hard to fit in while never knowing what it felt like to be with people related to me by DNA? What if I was saying NO to a life I had never agreed to, one that other people had signed on the dotted line for, had taken or paid money for, treating me like a pawn or a commodity? What if I was saying NO to the belief that you can take a child from one set of parents to another and that love will heal all wounds?
It would have been so scary, for I wouldn’t have even known exactly what I wanted, just that I didn’t want this. I would have needed help, other people who had been like me and who had grown up and had figured out what YES looked like.
I would have felt so real.