2018 summer short story: What it's like to have ADHD

2018 summer short story: What it's like to have ADHD

A teacher’s ignorance is reversed when he receives a letter from a student

This story was written by Janice Yeung, 15, a student from St Mary's Canossian College.

It is the winning entry from Young Post’s 2018 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. Be sure to look out for our other writing competitions in the future.


Nobody told Ernest he had to, but he sat down in front of the girl anyway.

The girl was fearlessly twirling her hair with a pen like she was collecting spaghetti around a fork. Ernest’s blood boiled at the sight and, considering anger wasn’t an emotion he was allowed to simply throw about like so many crumbs in a pond in his field of work, it didn’t help at all.

Pull yourself together, Ernest told himself. Think relaxing thoughts. Fluffy white clouds.

“I didn’t do anything, Mr Lee,” the student in front of him said, pulling him out of his thoughts rather unpleasantly. She cocked her head to one side, her feet tapping up a storm against the floorboard. “Well, at least I think I didn’t, so I’m guessing whatever I’m here for isn’t important, because I don’t remember it. You know, there was this time in primary school when I was yelled at for being late and I yelled back at the teacher …”

“Lydia,” said Ernest.

“... but I really didn’t mean to, though the words were out before I could stop …”

“Lydia,” Ernest repeated.

“... so I think I should’ve just said it was a mistake, but …”

“Lydia,” Ernest cut in loudly. “You’re here because I’m curious why you thought writing a 500-word essay for my maths paper was a good idea.”

Lydia shut her mouth with an audible clack.

“Apart from your answers to questions one to seven, there is nothing even remotely maths-related in your remaining 29 answers.” Ernest pulled out a piece of paper from a thick stack of worksheets and squinted at the (barely-legible) handwriting. “And I believe question seven is only half-done.”

Ernest looked at Lydia sternly. “Now, I’m not telling you off for the grade,” he said, gesturing to the single digit in red at the corner of the test. “But if you have any problems with maths, I’d like to know how I can help you.”

“Oh, you’re telling me off all right,” said Lydia offhandedly. “You’ve just phrased it differently. Quite badly.” Her hand flew to her mouth.

“Sorry!” she squeaked. “I didn’t mean …”

Peace, Ernest thought to himself. Green grass and cows with their calves.

He scanned through the test, every inch of it covered in Lydia’s messy scrawl. “Would you care to explain, then, your response to … ‘Calculate the percentage change in Bobby’s pocket money’?”

He slapped the offending paper down on the desktop, where Lydia could squint at it.

“Ugh, that?” She made a face.

“Yes?” Ernest prompted.

Lydia let her hand fall from her face, and she drummed her fingers on her knees as she squirmed. “Well, I tried to do it,” she ventured, “but the next thing I knew, I’d written a whole load of stuff explaining why normal people wouldn’t calculate percentage changes in their pocket money in real life, so I thought I’d, well …”

Ernest gave her a long look.

“Lydia,” he said quietly, “you do know that this is serious?”

“I said I tried. I totally tried to focus, but it’s like looking out of a broken telescope.”

“You have to understand that you can’t keep looking for allowances.”

“I’m not. I’m just telling the truth.”

The dam broke.

“Lydia, you can’t keep using your condition as an excuse for everything.”

A tense silence stretched above the room like a canopy.

“What did you say?” Lydia asked incredulously.

Oh. Sensitive student speaking. Whoops.

There was no taking it back now, so Ernest figured his next best option was to continue on.

“I’ve read through all your health documents, Lydia, but conditions or not, you’re already in Form Two.
This cannot continue.”

The pause that continued after this had to be the longest period of unbroken silence to occur in the same place as Lydia Wong, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Mr Lee, I think we’re done here.”

“Lydia, if you need help …”

Ernest started to stand up as Lydia snatched up her test paper and stormed out of the classroom. Then he fell back into his seat.

He didn’t stop her from leaving.

The next day’s maths lesson went so smoothly that Ernest could almost believe yesterday’s conversation had never happened.

Proof that it had actually occurred came as Ernest willingly accepted his fifth cup of black coffee from his coffee machine and not-so-willingly accepted that Lydia’s test corrections were, in fact, not test corrections at all.

He should have seen this coming, really, because what she’d done was just so Lydia, but, well.

Just his luck.

The electronic clock in his room beeped midnight, signalling that it was officially the start of Saturday. Ernest stacked up his students’ homework and resigned himself to looking through Lydia’s before going to bed.

Dear Mr Lee, the piece of paper he’d mistaken for homework read, in Lydia’s messy scrawl.

I didn’t plan on writing this, but next I knew, I’d already done it, so I might as well hand it in. I didn’t do the corrections by the way.

Ernest snorted into his coffee. Of course she’d admit it outright – it was simply Lydia logic.

The stuff you told me on Thursday was something I’d pretty much heard a few zillion times already, so I don’t know why I’m even bothering to try to make you understand.

It’s not like I can change the view of the world with a blue plastic pen. But I’m in no position to find out how my brain functions – believe me, it’s been 14 years, and it still surprises me by randomly suggesting I live off fish eyes or something – so I just go with whatever it wants me to do. In this case, it’s writing this out before maths on Friday.

“This” is actually so much more than just a maths test, so it might take a while. Maybe you should get yourself a bowl of popcorn. Just in case.

I would’ve started with something before the diagnosis, but I was diagnosed as a toddler, and I don’t think you’d appreciate descriptions of four-year-old me with sticky fingers and grazed knees. In short, I’ve never known a life without a permanent label, and I never will – though it beats me why the label exists at all. It was okay back in primary school, I guess, at least during the first three years, because all the other kids were running around and climbing furniture and screaming in class just like me. You wouldn’t have been able to tell simply by looking at me that I was the one with ADHD , but the doc said otherwise. He prescribed meds for me when I was eight, but the world I saw under their influence was just so weird that I begged my parents to let me off them.

This isn’t to say I managed perfectly without the meds. In fact, I didn’t manage at all. ADHD doesn’t rob you of your attention span, but it does lower your ability to focus. Lots of teachers before you have told me to try harder. Well, what do you think I’ve been doing, dancing my way to Neptune? Trying and achieving are two different ends of a long rope and, believe whatever you want, trying to focus is something that has never crossed the ADHD border. I can try as much as I like to focus on finishing a simple assignment, but before I know it, my mind will be halfway to Fairyland wearing a flower crown. It’s not my doing. An ADHD-addled brain is like a wild horse. You want to rein it in, to tame it, to take control, but the most important thing in this sentence is, you want. You want to do all that – but it’s always want, not will. “Will” is a myth.

Us ADHD-ers dream of accomplishing things you neurotically-normal people can do with a flick of your little finger, but it will always stay a dream, an intangible idea in our heads – oh, you’ve no idea.

I can’t imagine a life without ADHD, and I don’t want to. ADHD takes me to places nobody else can reach, it gives me 50 different travel plans in a minute – but it also stops me from scaling new heights. People say the sky’s the limit, and I spend a lot of time telling myself that yep, that’s where I want to be. But thanks to my condition, I have a harness that tugs me back down to the ground, where I watch other people fly instead. I used to think I wasn’t good enough for the sky, that I didn’t fit the mould or meet whatever requirements there are for people who want to touch the stars. I thought it was all about chance – and in a sense it is, but that’s not the full story.

For you, reaching the stars is all about trying, but for us, who don’t fit the mould, it’s about nearly always failing. Yes, we try. Yes, we still have our sights set on the twinkling stars of victory. And yes, that victory has not yet come. Perhaps it never will, but we don’t know.

After all, as I told you, this is so much more than just a maths test. It’s a test for something truly significant, of survival, where those who don’t fit the general mould are picked out and eliminated.

It’s a test I haven’t passed.

Yours sincerely,

Lydia Wong

P.S.: If you’re going to give me detention, I’m free all week. Have your pick of the weekdays.

Ernest stared at the paper in his hand. He stared at it for a long time.

He took a fresh piece of paper and began to write.

Dear Lydia,

A part of you must have rubbed off on me, because not only am I responding to your letter via recorrections (which you still have to do, no excuses), I am actually writing a full passage, a feat I have not accomplished since secondary school.

I read through your message, and I think I may have misunderstood your actions after all. I admit that my knowledge on mental conditions is sorrowfully little, and my knowledge on how to interact with people affected by them is less still. I used to think ADHD was an excuse that lazy students used to get extra credit, but apparently I was wrong.

I am sorry for that. I understand that, at times, you do not mean to talk back to me or hand in unfinished homework, and that you have tried your best, but your impulses run independently and you do not control them.

What I want to say is this: I was not aware, before, there was a specific mould for successful people, and after reading your letter, I am still not aware of its existence. The truth is that there are walls stopping you from achieving your goal, as there are for all of us, but those walls are not impenetrable. Successful people discover ways to get past those walls – not because they fit a mould, but because they fit no mould other than their own.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses and, believe it or not, every single one of our traits can be both. One person’s easy-going nature can be a good thing, but when placed in a life-or-death situation, you will find that it is also a bad thing. If you view ADHD as your weakness, you just have to find that one element where you can turn it into a unique strength.

You may be different, Lydia, but, as time will tell you, that difference is often what truly makes you shine. Don’t be frustrated that you haven’t yet found a way past the wall that is hindering your growth.

Mr Ernest Lee

P.S.: Please finish your re-corrections on time. If not, little can save you from detention this time round.

Edited by Ginny Wong

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
No greater test than one you set yourself

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