Mendel Letter 43 — Shpilkes

Otherwise known as Shpilkes

Dear Mendel,

I was talking with my grandson, your great-grand, the other day. He is about to start his senior year in high school. He has been treated for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) since he was in elementary school and takes medication to help him stay focused in school. He knows I am a bit wired also, I can’ sit still for too long, and I start to feel claustrophobic in a crowded room. In Yiddish you called in shpilkes. My grandson has experienced me at family dinners starting to clear the plates before any else has finished eating. He wanted to know what it was like for me growing up with ADHD and if I ever took medication.

I don’t think the doctors had a diagnosis for anything like ADHD when I was a kid in the 1950s. We were just considered itchy, or in school we were bad if we were disruptive. There was no treatment or medication other than punishment. I don’t think the American Psychiatric Association even considered ADHD an official neurodevelopmental disorder until much later. Today, about 10% of children between ages 5 and 17 are diagnosed with ADHD. Boys are twice as likely to be labeled ADHD as girls.

Since high school I’ve always considered myself “wired,” but it wasn’t until after college that I realized that the problem wasn’t that everyone else functioned slowly. There is a variety of ADHD called Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type. It describes people who are primarily hyperactive and impulsive. It can include fidgeting, interrupting people while they’re talking, and not being able to wait your turn. Kids and adults with PHIT — ADHD can still have difficulty focusing on tasks. In retrospect, this type of ADHD seems to describe me.

My life in school was wired and weird. I was difficult to control, but also very smart. In Kindergarten at PS 104, if a teacher wouldn’t call on me when I raised my hand, I just shouted out the answer. In 2nd grade, to escape confinement, I spent hours reading in the bathroom. I remember my 3rd grade teacher made me sit in the coat closet once for misbehaving and my 5th grade teacher would just try to humiliate me into obedience. In self-defense, I zoned out into my imagination. I invented a game I called pen baseball with each pen or pencil representing a different ballplayer and I spent hours a day in school creating baseball games, seasons, and careers.

My grandson wanted to know if I would consider taking medicine for ADHD now as an older adult and the answer is “no.” I have the ability to intensely focus and work for hours without interruption when I am engaged in a project that I enjoy and I’ve learned how to adjust to other people in staff meetings. I know it is arrogant of me, but I am almost always right, I just often lack judgment about what is appropriate to say. Basically I have four meeting rules. I try to grab an end chair, preferably by a window, so I can gaze outside. I sit next to a friend whose judgment I trust and will ask him or her if I should raise a heated point before interjecting it. I practice the rule of three. Three people must speak before I speak again. And when I really can’t stand it, I go for a walk. The bathroom is always a good excuse.

I think my own experience with shpilkes, being wired and weird, has helped me be a better teacher. In my experience, most teachers have the wired student sit front and center so they can be controlled, but front and center only increases anxiety and the tendency to act out, and when you act out, to interrupt the class. I have my wired students sit in the back of the room by a window. They have permission to stare outside and to get up and stretch if they need to. I only ask that they return to the lesson when I call on them. I find that when they know they won’t be trapped, it is easier for them to function as part of the class.

By the way, you will get a kick out of this. My grandkids call me Zayde!

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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