Is she daydreaming? Where is her mind right now?
I’m standing in front of my biology class, trying to make eye contact with my students, get them to settle down. This class comes right after lunch, so I’m used to them being chatty and distracted. But Steph is not talking to her neighbour, as usual. She is just sitting at her desk, droopy-eyed and smiling absently. Is she tired? Did she stay up late last night?
Many here at school call Steph “a chatterbox” and no wonder! She likes to talk and she’s good at it, too. It’s her way of being friendly. When I first met her, she was in grade 7 and I wasn’t teaching her yet. It was during lunch and I was on supervision outside. Steph was hanging out with some girls her age, and they were all giggly. At some point, the brownian motion on the school grounds brought me close to the girls – and Steph started chatting with me. I remember noticing how easy going and confident she was. She seemed free of worries and happy, a lively young girl.
The school is quite small, in some ways it feels like a family. Teachers know pretty much all the students regardless of whether they’re teaching them or not. We even know most students’ families, too. Surely everyone knows Steph’s mom. She is this boisterous lady who visits the school often “just to check in, see how Steph is doing,” her chatting endless, it seems. The rumour was that Steph’s mom was thankful to the school staff for “opening her eyes about her own ADHD problem”. Although her daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD while still very young, she’d never thought she might have this herself until, one day, one of the teachers suggested she’d check. And, when she did, she found out she had ADHD, too. Since then she has been taking ADHD meds, which helped her immensely – at least that’s what she is telling everyone.
But Steph sees things differently. She isn’t convinced that the pills she’s supposed to take every day are so good for her. True, when she takes them, she’s more well behaved, attentive. But sometimes she feels sluggish, less cheerful somehow. Also, the pills give her headaches and sleep problems; they make her feel thirsty too! And so, on some mornings – as a matter of fact, quite frequently – she conveniently forgets to take her pills. This isn’t unusual at our school. Many of the ADHD students take their meds only sporadically because they hate their side effects. With Steph, it’s easy to tell if she’d taken them or not: on no-meds days she’s “our chatterbox”. But today isn’t one of those days.
Photo credit: PracticalCures.com
Today she is very quiet. But not the kind of watchful quiet brought on by her pills. Today she looks lethargic and disconnected. Her smile seems strained. I go closer and ask her in a cheery voice: “What’s up, Steph?” This jolts her out of … wherever she was. “Here it is…. my… homework,” she says slowly, as if she struggles to find her words. “Ok, but is something up?” I press her gently. “No, nothing,” she replies. It’s hard to believe her, but I let her be for now. I need to watch her though. She looks like she’s falling asleep.
The class unfolds more or less according to plan. We take up some of the homework. Then, we go over new stuff, and I talk while they take notes. Every now and then I probe them with questions. I keep an eye on Steph but cold call her only a couple of times. She apologizes for “not paying attention” after a classmate shares an idea, which she can’t even repeat, never mind paraphrase. “She’s exhausted,” I tell myself. “What did she have for lunch? Maybe they’ve changed her meds and are still figuring out the dose… But wait a minute, teachers are usually given the heads-up about new meds…This is strange…” I try not to get too distracted. “Should I keep pushing her?” I ask myself. I don’t. During our lab activity, two of Steph’s classmates demand a lot of attention from me. Soon this class is over. Moving on to the next one: my grade 9 students show up.
It’s the end of the school day. On my desk, a pile of stuff is waiting: student papers, reminders and debris from all the classes I taught today. First I have to sort out this pile, then check my email and voicemail, and then prep for tomorrow. Let’s see… Among the things on my desk I find a yellow sticky note with “STEPH!” on it. Oh yeah, that’s right, I should look into this…
The following morning, at the weekly staff meeting, I ask Steph’s homeroom teacher if our “chatterbox” had anything special going on. “Yesterday her behaviour seemed unusual,” I explain. “Not chatty, but not focused either. Looked like she’d taken something, but not her usual pills. Her energy seemed low. Is she trying new meds? Was she just tired? Was she like that in your class?” I ask. “Not really, no,” comes his answer. “She seemed fine in the morning. When did you see her?” he asks. I tell him that it was right after lunch. He says he’ll talk to her. Then we change topics and soon after the meeting draws to a close.
The morning goes by in a flurry. A train station, that’s what my classroom feels like. I greet each of my classes, we spend a set amount of time together carrying out the business of learning, and then the bell rings and off they go… In comes my next class. At some point there is lunch. While eating my sandwich I open the email. A message from Steph’s homeroom teacher reads: “I talked to Steph. Let me know how today goes. Will chat after school.”
After lunch I have Steph’s class again. Two of the students are absent. The class behaves really well today. They’re working hard the whole time. No one seems distracted. No one goes off track. Lesson works like a charm! Steph too is alert today, no more daydreaming. “Quite some change from yesterday! Wow!” What’s happening? I’m puzzled and can’t wait for the day’s end to find out.
The school day is finally over. This afternoon felt so long! As soon as the buses left the school grounds I’m on my way to Steph’s homeroom. Hopefully the mystery of my unusually well behaved biology class will soon be resolved. But I find the classroom door shut. Hmm…That’s an unusual sight at this time of the day. I peek through the classroom window and see someone familiar inside. I recognize Steph’s mom. She listens intently to Steph’s homeroom teacher. His expression is stern. Clearly something is going on, but what?
Back in my classroom now, I try to go through my usual end-of-day things. My desk is a mess. I’d taken in several assignments today and I must put them in order, see if I miss anyone’s. I feel a little tense and keep telling myself: “I’ll find out soon enough what was the matter with Steph.” As soon as my desk is clear and all papers sorted out, I open my email. A few new messages had arrived since the last time I’d checked, which was during lunch. One of messages is flagged and marked “important”. It’s from the school principal and it’s addressed to all staff. “Unfortunately,” it begins, “two of our grade eleven students were expelled today”. It gives the names of those students, and informs us that they’d left the school property today, and weren’t allowed to come back. Teachers were expected to supply course materials to help them stay on track until they got enrolled in new schools. I recognize the names of the two students who were absent from my biology class this afternoon. Both were from Steph’s homeroom. The message doesn’t say why the two students were expelled. But my guess is, it had to do with drugs.
Steph’s homeroom teacher confirms my suspicion. The two boys had done drug dealing at school. They’d been on the radar a while and today, when their backpacks, lockers, or cell phones were searched, something or other incriminated them. “It was our chat this morning that led to the search,” Steph’s homeroom teacher says. “I can’t share any more information, but thanks for letting me know of your concerns regarding Steph,” he adds.
We are not supposed to discuss the incident, but it’s hard not to. When a small school like ours suddenly loses two of its students, ripples are felt throughout. Even the youngest kids have questions. “What did they do? Why are they gone?” they ask. It’s a few weeks before we adjust to their absence – at least some of us do. I’m not sure about Steph, though. Even after several months have passed, she’s much more quiet than before and keeps a lot to herself. One thing is certain, “our chatterbox” has vanished. Maybe she’s learned some lessons, I think to myself. She is growing up.