Reflections From Honey Harbour Michael MacDonald, MA, RP

Why on earth did I agree to write an article about Going Back to School while I'm on vacation???

I've been at a cottage for the past week canoeing, swimming, laying in a hammock, playing scrabble, campfires in the evening... from time to time this assignment bubbles up into my awareness and I try for a moment to think of a metaphor that might capture the essence of “going back to school”...How does jumping off the dock into the cool water, for instance, speak to what it's like for a child to step onto the school bus for the first time?” Part of me wants to explore that metaphor further while the rest of me thinks “blah, blah, blah!” That's what I like to call cottage-mode apathy. Perhaps that should be the focus of this article. It reminds me of the book my wife is reading: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@#K, by Mark Manson. It's a tongue-in-cheek reflection on where to put one's energy in life and essentially how not to let life's challenges get you down.

So... the article... I suppose I could either continue to write about my experience of apathy toward writing this thing or I could just stick to the assigned topic. But perhaps the two are connected. If I wasn't at a cottage my mind would be able to get into work mode and I would less likely feel apathetic toward anything that resembles “work”. So, what does that say about this theme of going back to school? If I try to remember what it was like as a child when I felt the air cooling towards the end of the summer and I started to notice the first colours of autumn in the trees. And how this, for me anyways, brought not just sadness over losing the freedom and care-free-ness of summer but it also brought a sick, nervous, slight feeling of dread...no exaggeration.

The long care-free days of not having to achieve or perform were coming to an end; when my biggest concern was how to affix the roof on my tree fort...these days would soon be replaced by early morning alarm clocks, stern looking teachers and never feeling like I was “getting it”. The threat that I could “FAIL” was constantly in the air.

I'm sure this wasn't the experience of all my classmates. I imagine that many of them weren't preoccupied with the same fears, freeing them up to enjoy the challenges of learning and socializing. However, when I was a kid, in the 1970s and up until the 1990s teachers, pediatricians and even child psychologists did not have something called Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, on their radar; kids like me slipped into the “poor student” category and had things like “Michael never finishes anything he starts” on all their report cards.

This is interesting...there's something very satisfying writing about my childhood dread. It doesn't feel so much like work now. What initially started off feeling like a rebellious rant against having to write while on my vacation, now feels somewhat cathartic. As a therapist I also understand and appreciate the idea that “what's share-able is bearable!”. Meaning that when I share a hidden part of myself with others that I trust, not only will I allow them to show their caring about me; it also sends the message “hey I'm human and I care about us, and trust you enough to risk showing you what others don't get to see”. This also invites them to do the same...to be human with you. Together we can bear being human.

From what I remember school was not a place where one could feel safe to show their vulnerability. It was a pretty competitive environment. I do recall the occasional exceptionally empathetic, patient teacher. But his or her efforts to create a “safe” learning environment were often erased by the uncaring masses (or at least that's how others seemed to me). Without a name for what I was dealing with I had no way to normalize my experience; I felt “abnormal”. Teacher's also had no way of understanding that my inattention wasn't defiance or a low IQ. They were also ill equipped to help me with my growing feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. I'm not a huge fan of clinical diagnoses but if there had been some recognition that every child has a learning style that is unique to them, the atmosphere of safety required for deep learning and exploration would have been somewhat achieved. The fact that I'm different from you would not have been a source of shame.

It wasn't until my early-thirties that I received my ADD diagnosis and discovered the book “You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?”, by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo, that I began to be kinder to myself about my school performance. It's takes a lot of hard personal work and patience to reign in the wild horses that are the ADD brain; or as I like to picture it, 1000 puppies running in every direction.

I find it interesting that writing this article, which initially felt like pulling teeth has actually become enjoyable for me. In fact, I just said to my wife that the next time we go to a cottage or camping I want to spend some of my time writing. This reminds me of the fact that when I was in school I excelled in subjects that I found interesting; in those areas I had no trouble keeping my focus or finishing projects. And I discovered that less interesting subjects (like math) usually just required more time, which sometimes meant failing and repeating it the following year (which was not something one was to be proud of). 

This suggests that if a child's learning environment can be responsive to his unique needs and to not be forced to conform to a cookie-cutter standard, the child may be able to discover what excites him. So, learning doesn't have to be a shaming or even traumatic experience when the child doesn't “make the grade”.

Children and parents today have much more at their disposal when it comes to education and their psycho-social well-being. Teachers are trained to spot learning difficulties, schools have social workers on staff, and many programs at schools and in the community exist to support children and parents.

It makes sense that there is a part of me that becomes somewhat defiant and I get my back up at the mere mention of “Going Back To School”. I see it now as my adult self, standing up for my inner wounded child who didn't have a voice or anyone to listen and understand. All he received was criticism about how he wasn't measuring up “...never finishes anything he starts”. Perhaps not finishing things was his way of protesting the uncaring and un-creative state of the educational system. Perhaps his unfinished work can be seen as a creative act; his way of saying “I'm not going to complete this thing until you adults figure out how to teach me in a way that doesn't leave me feeling defective!”

So, on behalf of my younger self and all those who have struggled to measure up or couldn't finish what they started. I will end this article in a spirit of protest and do what my younger self did...but this time with confidence and with no fear of failure.

This last sentence will remain....