I don't remember a lot from the fifth grade; it was a long time ago, and it's pretty natural to lose a big portion of your childhood memories before the age of 10.
The most vivid memory for me from that year was one of the days I ended up staying home from school. My mom had driven me to the path just behind my elementary school, where I usually walked in to avoid the cars and buses. But this time I didn't want to get out of the car. I remember sitting in the passenger seat, quiet, until I finally started bawling to my mom that I didn't want to go. I wanted to pretend I was sick, but it's really hard to lie to my mother — she has this way of guilting you until you tell the truth.
So when I told her the truth, I couldn't manage anything more than "I hate going to school." I was so busy crying, I couldn't articulate everything I needed to. All I knew was that I couldn't get out of the car.
My mom started crying with me. Then she took me back home.
Like a lot of other kids, I was bullied, particularly in the few years right before middle school. Other kids made fun of me because they thought I was strange. They excluded me from everything. Sometimes they would take a few minutes to pretend to be nice to me, just so they could wait for me to say something they thought was weird, then run back to their friends who were watching at the other end of the classroom, ready to tell them whatever they got me to say. They made it into a game.
But they weren't the main reason why I stayed home that day. It wasn't because the snotty kids thought I was a freak, but rather because the whole school system did.
Even at 8 years old I understood that much; I'd like to say it was because I was "gifted" in social and self-awareness, but it was probably because my mom had a hard time keeping her thoughts to herself.
But I experienced it every day in the way my teachers treated me and how I had to be pulled out of class at least twice a day by the school's special-education teachers, and mostly how I was always told before lunch that I had to go to the nurse's office to get my pills. I was in and out of the principal's office regularly, and I had to take tests with the school social worker.
Almost every adult working in that school either looked constantly frustrated by me or patronized me in a suspicious way. So when the other kids called me "retarded," part of me believed them. Why else would the school be treating me so differently?
The school district was situated in one of the most affluent neighborhoods on Long Island's "old money" North Shore. It was known as "the private public school" because the taxes that went toward it were sky-high and the segregation was more than just a coincidence. My family was "new money," which basically meant that every other family was waiting for us to lose it all (which we eventually did).
My fourth-grade teacher during a family conference had given a sweet but patronizing smile when she said, "Rosey's just special." My fifth-grade teacher the next year reviewed my grades, finding the one A on the report card in band class. She told my mother, "At least she's good at the flute."
I didn't pay attention in class, and I didn't have a lot of friends. I attribute the former to me knowing early on that I wanted to be a writer and nothing else, so nothing else really interested me. The school didn't have any real writing classes, and the only other things I liked were reading and band class. The latter I'd blame on being generally socially awkward, but I knew it was a banquet of reasons why I just never hit it off with other kids.
The school attributed things differently. They suggested I was "special needs" and encouraged my parents to send me to a psychiatrist for a diagnosis and some form of treatment. Their way of encouragement was pretty straightforward: If my parents didn't send me to a doctor who would "fix" me, they would remove me from the school district.
There were a lot of trouble-causing kids: boys who pulled hair and pushed girls around, and girls who bullied and screamed and scared other kids. I wasn't like that; I was too quiet to be a real nuisance to the class, and I never distracted other kids. I was just "different." I failed a lot of tests because I wouldn't study, and I read a book under the desk during math class because I didn't like it. When kids were mean to me, I was mean back, and I cried a lot during recess.
The school district wouldn't let me just be different. Instead, I was shipped off to a few different psychiatrists. The first one said I was autistic, the second said I had Asperger's, and the third couldn't decide between ADD and ADHD. And no matter if the diagnosis was ambiguous or even left with a little question mark at the end — I was put on medication.
I learned later that Adderall, Zoloft, and Ritalin — all drugs I was put on decent amounts of — are now on the list of street drugs. I knew a few people in college taking Adderall to pull all-nighters, then they eventually started taking it for everything.
I know I wasn't the only kid in the world who was half-assedly diagnosed with ADD and then fed Adderall to streamline them. But right before lunch, when the class lined up to go to the cafeteria, when I had to be escorted off by a special-ed teacher in the other direction so I could swing by the nurse's office, I felt totally alone.
It made the bullying get exponentially worse, and now the word "retard" came up way more often. These kids were brutal, but I think it's part of growing up — to always laugh at things you perceive as different. And with the teachers still patronizing me and constantly getting impatient, I started to think there was something horribly wrong with me, and the pills were a punishment for being so unlike everybody else. It wasn't just the kids being mean — it really was me.
What made the whole situation worse were the pills themselves. I kept getting put on higher doses of mixed and matched prescriptions. My parents were constantly trying to find the pill that would fix me enough for the school district to accept me. But I wasn't broken in the first place. I might have had Asperger's, autism, or anything, but that didn't mean there was anything wrong with me.
I remember excusing myself for the bathroom during class because I was feeling strange. I didn't want to see the nurse, so I hunkered in a stall and watched my hands shake in my lap for 45 minutes. My head was buzzing, my heart was beating too fast, and my skin was tingling all over, but worst of all, I couldn't control my thoughts. My brain was buzzing, coming up with strange words and phrases, and I hated it.
What I figured out years later was that I was high, freaking out in the bathroom because I'd never been high before.
I also stopped eating regularly because I was constantly nauseated, and I lost enough weight to scare my family.
My doctor put me on an antidepressant (Zoloft) because I was emotionally suffering from dealing with that every day. I don't remember if it was before or after the Zoloft that I had dreams in which I died, and I fantasized about drowning myself. I learned later that a common side effect for adolescents from the pills I was on were "suicidal thoughts and tendencies." You've probably seen the commercial, but it only aired years after I stopped taking it.
When I tried to tell my parents about the effect the pills had on me, they didn't know what to do. They asked my doctor to switch to different pills, but it was all just more of the same. My doctor didn't know what to do for me because I wouldn't talk to him, and I wouldn't talk to him because I was scared of him due to what his pills made me feel.
My parents, I understood years later, probably felt more pressure than I did. They weren't as ignorant as I was, and they were the ones that the superintendent threatened. It was their job to find a way to fix me, or their child would be kicked out of school. For a family that couldn't afford local private schools, there really wasn't any other option than to just watch their kid suffer.
The jaded, bitter part of me says the school system was trying to force me to normalize enough to excuse their tunnel-visioned "traditional" education methods. But I wasn't special needs at all; I was just creative-minded in a school focused on math and science. I wasn't good at memorizing facts, but I was good at playing the flute. I didn't need normalization; I needed stimulation. I needed an art class that was taken seriously, or the encouragement that there wasn't something wrong with me if I wasn't good at math.
Some of the school faculty tried — the social worker tried to tell me that I wasn't "slow," I was smarter. She tried to convince me that my special-ed classes were because I needed to learn harder things because I was gifted. I tried to believe her. My fourth-grade teacher let me come into school an hour early to write poetry with her. One of the special-education teachers gave me a notebook to write down my janky but open-ended prose, and I still have it in my closet at home.
Overmedicating, segregating, and ridiculing "different" kids isn't the fault of cruel people. It's the fault of a lazy, unsympathetic American educational system that wants all the blocks in one shape so they can all fit through the same hole. For me, it became a cycle of scorn and self-hatred that fed itself far enough to make an 8-year-old contemplate suicide daily.
Pills shouldn't be force-fed to kids through threats to their parents. Pills are for people with real medical problems who need legitimate treatment, not for kids who don't like math. I pray that by the time I'm ready to have children, the school system and the pharmaceutical system — two American systems that feed off of each other in isolating those who could be treated differently — will have changed. Because I don't think any child is "normal." They're all different, and they'll all become differently functioning adults with their own strengths and weaknesses.