Opinion: Getting an ADHD diagnosis as an adult helped my Iowa schooling make sense

Only a very specific type of personality and learning capability can succeed in such rigid environments as American schools.

Maria Reppas
Guest columnist
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  • Maria Reppas lives with her family on the East Coast.  She lived in Iowa from 1978 to 1999.

Born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa, I had little in common with actor, writer, and comedian Rob McElhenney with the exception of a desire to write for "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia." (I wanted to craft an episode where The Gang has to sell old cases of Invigaron, a vitamin shake from a previous multi-level marketing scam, so they can pay to take classes on selling life insurance.) But I felt differently after McElhenney tweeted last month that he “was recently diagnosed with a host of neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disabilities” at 46.   

When I was 44 years old, a licensed neuropsychologist diagnosed me with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Every awful school experience in the Cedar Falls school system finally had an explanation.

As my neuropsychologist examined childhood medical records and current test results, he kept repeating that my symptoms throughout my life were “so obvious.”  Multiple experts classified my poor behavior and annoying habits as laziness and lack of motivation, as if a child could intentionally choose to lose homework, fail tests, chronically fidget, struggle to pay attention, remain in a constant fear of rejection, and be the daily target of shame and anger from adults and peers.  

The massive American education system — the officials who run it, the behavioral experts who support it, and the teachers who oversee the classroom — is in no position to effectively educate and guide millions of American children to a productive, satisfactory life, regardless of what that path is. The slightest learning difference can upend an entire classroom in the same way asking for no cheese at McDonald's can ruin an entire order

Kaitlin Olson, left, and Rob McElhenney arrive at the premiere of "Fool's Paradise" on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, at the TCL Multiplex in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

American schools are primarily focused on rote memorization versus learning comprehension; preparation for university instead of job and life skills; teaching adherence to arbitrary, biased standardized tests versus ethics, morality, and global awareness. Only a very specific type of personality and learning capability can succeed in such rigid environments: the students who can fulfill the teacher’s expectations, which is not the same as being knowledgeable

My fourth-grade teacher dropped a heavy stack of books on my desk to get my attention, narrowly missing my fingers. He raged at me in class because I couldn’t maintain eye contact. The experts at the Gundersen Health System in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, were confident I couldn’t have ADHD because my testing errors “made (sic) appear to be related more to a longstanding response pattern vs. impulsiveness related to an ADHD profile” and that some of my scores were too high, even though there has never been a connection between intelligence and ADHD, which was known then. (Although the Gundersen Clinic described the sloppiness and carelessness of my mistakes during testing, the report was ironically littered with typos, missing punctuation, and proper noun misspellings.) While I did get top grades in some classes, no one investigated why.

To be sure, education experts didn’t believe girls could have ADHD. Yet throughout my K-12 education experience in Iowa, no adult questioned how a child could intentionally coordinate acting out multiple complex, frustrating behaviors on a daily basis. Like McElhenney, I also had intelligence and a passionate desire to learn, but because my brain functioned differently, my educational environment was completely upended.  

As McElhenney shares more information on his diagnoses, I'm anxious to hear how he will reevaluate his childhood, especially as we were in the same grade, and what, if anything, will change. I want my ADHD diagnosis to explain me, not label me. I want to finally feel confident about learning for the joy of it and contributing something of substance rather than fretting over one random person grading my performance

Would an F from a writing instructor on an "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" script matter to McElhenney today? I doubt it. 

Maria Reppas

Maria Reppas lives with her family on the East Coast.  She lived in Iowa from 1978 to 1999.  C X (Twitter):@reppasmaria. You can also visitmariareppas.com.  

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