The Benefits of Repeating a Grade Outweigh the Stigma
I like to joke that I did the best years of my life one and a half times each. In the middle of 6th grade I transferred to a new school and into the second semester of Miss Fendell’s 5th grade class. On my first day shadowing, the “5” plaque on the teal door compelled me to ask, “Is this 5th grade?” My parents weren’t ideal communicators, especially when it came to my educational journey. No one had warned me. Yes, I was in 5th grade: Well shit. It is what it is, I thought. After a slew of other days shadowing 6th grade classes in different schools, this school looked at my records and decided I would be better off in 5th grade. They were right. I fit in and nobody cared that I had done half of sixth grade already. The social aspect factored into my decision. Repeating the second half of fifth grade would allow me to take my time to catch up and re-establish the basics, like the multiplication tables. This type of logic may sound too self-aware for an eleven year old, but kids know more than their bad choices suggest. I was also obnoxiously precocious. I more-or-less ended up choosing to go back to 5th grade myself.
My previous school had “asked me to leave,” which is a fancy private school way of culling the herd. They didn’t want subpar students bringing down their stellar standardized test scores or their record of sending 8th graders to the most selective San Francisco high schools. This method also allowed students to transfer without an expulsion on their record, which was compassionate considering the school was giving kids the boot. I was bad for my school’s academic image. They tried all their usual grade-boosting solutions on me to no avail. A revolving door of tutors attempted to help me catch up. One was just for organization. She taught me to write my name and the date on the right hand corner of paper and then put it in a plastic accordion folder. Medication was added to the equation. My third and fourth grade were a mercurial parade of trying out different ADHD medications. My parents decided on the one that zombiefied me during the day and kept me up all night watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island. The medication didn’t stop me from accidentally zoning out in class, but it did keep me quiet. I was sent to reading comprehension and math Summer School at this fancy one-on-one learning center in the Marina District. Every day was the same, trapped in a wooden cubicle with soft-spoken women pushing through their own frustration with me in weak smiles. My mind wandered off to the corner store across the street and the possibility of Cheetos Puffs. The colored wax blocks for visualizing math agitated me with their powerful crayon scent and tacky texture. My ADHD found a way to disrupt at every turn. Back then, the learning center had this guarantee where if you did not do better on the exit exam than the entry exam, they would give you another year for free. I did worse on the exit exam and got more tutoring for free. In case you are wondering how I pulled this off, let me introduce you to my lifelong accomplice, testing anxiety. Next time you go on a roller coaster, while your heart is racing and you don’t know what direction you will be thrown or dropped from next, try doing long division. On top of all of these other efforts, I went to preemptive cursive summer classes so that I would already know cursive before we learned it during the school year. It was the early 2000’s and cursive was still seen as an important skill, especially for 4th-graders who would one day go to an Ivy League. It sounds ridiculous to write, but this is really how parents thought. Sometimes my dad is still baffled at how I managed to gain admission to my exclusive preschool and even more selective elementary school. All I remember from my kindergarten interview was sitting on the floor and making pasta necklaces.
Repeating a grade affected my confidence and was a source of shame for years. I was the oldest kid in my class by less than a week, but it was still an annual reminder of my deficiency. Both of my parents were incredibly successful in their careers and my struggles made them concerned, confused and frustrated. This drained every drop of my self-confidence. If I was an amalgamation of both of them, why wasn’t I exceptional? I was ashamed of having to change schools and going back half a year until I went to college, even though I knew it had been the right decision. I carried that sense of failure too long, although it also motivated me to do my best. Now I can see that the schoolwork at my first school hadn’t been too hard, but that my loose-cannon focus caused me to fall behind, where I then toiled in anxious despair like a beetle on its back. My first school was plagued with homework load issues. A select group of parents harassed the principal when they believed their kids weren’t challenged enough. The school pushed the kids harder. We had homework, we had busywork, and we had so many textbooks that my little ten-year old ass was dragging around a wheely backpack. Then other parents complained the backpacks were too heavy because of all of the textbooks. More kids got wheely backpacks. It simply wasn’t the right environment or school for me, and evidently it wasn’t right for the principal either, who left after a decade in his illustrious position. Now it is trendy to give kids less homework. Later on in high school I learned that two students in the sophomore class had attended my former school. One day my curiosity got the better of me and I pulled them aside in the library. They both said their experience was an unpleasant blur, and that after I left the school the parents successfully lobbied to replace the cookies in the cafeteria with oatmeal baked into squares. Not oatmeal cookies, oatmeal baked into squares.
My mom and I went on a two week trip to Japan before I officially started at my new school. The new school was in the middle of a block lesson and everyone agreed it would be better for me to come in when a new block started. My parents, the new school, and I had also decided I should try to come off my ADHD medication. As a kid I didn’t think this was a big deal — you just stopped taking the medicine. My parents knew it wasn’t that simple. A trip to Japan was planned as a distraction while I was tapered my medication off and experienced withdrawal symptoms. I knew nothing about this orchestrated plan until at least a decade later. My mom had told me she wanted to visit an old friend, a half-truth. The trip was life changing. I fell in love with the beautiful terraced rice fields of the Japanese countryside, fed the deer at the Nara temple, soaked at an Onsen, cooked an egg over a volcanic hot spring at Hakone, ate to my heart’s content, and went to an expansive outdoor zoo where they had enormous orange bats. The main attraction was feeding squirrel monkeys, but the two Megabats are what I remember best. They were so big that petite middle-school-me imagined giving them hugs. I don’t remember any specific symptoms from the trip that were obviously withdrawal-related, although I was more irritable than usual, cried frequently, and forgot things. But I was already panicked, crying, or overwhelmed most of the time anyway. And to my parent’s credit, there were too many other things to focus on, including this comical pattern where restaurants everywhere we went reliably presented my food in Hello Kitty dishware.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the extent to which my privilege allowed me to thrive. I went from one private school to another, saw tutors, did summer school, saw a slew of therapists and doctors and what was apparently a detox vacation. We went to an audiologist when my parents thought I had hearing problems. I have excellent hearing, but like many other kids with ADHD, I also have Auditory Processing Disorder, which means it can be hard for my ears to communicate with my brain. Occasionally when people speak to me it sounds like when the adults in the Peanuts cartoon talk, “wah-wah-wah.” I was given all of the assistance and opportunity a kid with a learning disability and anxiety could ask for, but I still struggled. Most kids don’t get these types of resources, and I’m endlessly grateful. More recent studies show that lower income children, especially black boys, with un-diagnosed ADHD are frequent victims of the School to Prison Pipeline, as ADHD symptoms can be mistaken for willful disobedience and behavioral issues. Individuals with ADHD are also over-represented in the US prison populations (ADDitude magazine had a good overview of information in this article: https://www.additudemag.com/health-equity-adhd-care-african-american-latinx-youth/).
My parents occasionally just threw money at my “problems” and assumed medical intervention would cure and solve them (ADHD, Panic Attacks, and then Major Depressive Disorder starting in high school). But the solution in this case was much simpler: re-doing half of fifth grade and the beginning of sixth grade at a different school. A fresh start. That did not mean the adjustment was easy. After joining midway through the year in 5th grade, I worked with my teachers and classmates to right the ship. I memorized my multiplication tables again, started to enjoy reading more as we read aloud in class on a regular basis, and I calmed down. I had to learn patience. Even though I was previously medicated into a stupor, my anxiety stayed active, it just wasn’t as noticeable from the outside. Now it was all out in the open. Without my medication, there was nothing suppressing my fidgeting and outbursts. Before a teacher was done introducing a concept, I would interrupt aloud: “I don’t get it!” Sometimes I interjected random things too, like yelling “CHEESE!” I did not want to shout cheese, it just happened, but luckily my classmates found it entertaining and endearing and did not torment me about it. Moving past these outbursts was a delicate dance between hating myself and laughing it off. The less anxious I was, the less the outbursts happened. I made friends. Joining a preschool-12th grade school in 5th grade makes you exciting and lots of people want to get to know you.
Drawing, painting, woodworking, and other arts were a huge part of my new school, and teachers were critical about students slapping projects together. If your assignment was not up to what they believed you could do, you had to redo it. Some projects required the utmost concentration. Carving a teaspoon out of wood with only hand tools like mallets and gouges does not leave much room for error. A slipped stitch had to be undone and fixed. This emphasis on completing work correctly assured me that I had time to learn. I could do my work if I practiced diligently and was patient with myself. Of course, no matter how much I practiced math I still needed a tutor, but that is another story. I started to succeed academically and joined sports teams. By seventh grade I had caught up to my peers academically. In eighth grade my report card was mostly A’s.
During my ADHD diagnosis in elementary school a doctor told me some people “grow out of it.” I haven’t, even though I aspired to. The concept of outgrowing ADHD is contested among experts. Many theorize that the ADHD doesn’t go away; rather, people learn to mask symptoms and work through the challenges so that when tested they no longer qualify by the standards of the DSM (Interesting piece on outgrowing ADHD here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/well/family/is-it-possible-to-outgrow-adhd.html ). Finding more coping strategies made learning with ADHD easier. Qualifying for extra time on exams allowed me enough time to briefly panic and then actually complete tests. I had excellent grades in high school, although I never got a handle on chemistry or physics and still struggled with math. I made close friends, was involved in theater and music and other types of performance. I didn’t completely crash and burn when I took the SAT exam (extended time means filling in bubbles for six hours!) and the extra large bubble sheet prevented me from filling out the wrong bubbles by accident. I attended and graduated from a four year liberal arts college, the same college a classmate from my former middle school attended. This fact drove home the point that I wasn’t an unintelligent failure. We had both gained entry to a quality educational institution by merit, no pasta necklace necessary.
I owe my academic success to doing the best years of my life one and a half times each. I owe the confidence I have in my intelligence to learning to be patient with myself during my mulligan. The stigma of repeating a grade is worth finding the right school, and staying on track with academics. Struggling with school does not make you confident in your abilities, or happy, and pressing forward just to not be “left behind” is foolish. Also, nobody worthwhile gives a shit if you repeated a grade.