It was disconcerting, to be honest. Yechiel carefully turned over the pen he was holding, watching it intently, and occasionally putting it in his mouth. A little bit of strange, absent minded fidgeting never hurt anyone, especially coming from a kid only about fifteen years old, but this felt different.
One of my jobs in the yeshiva in which I teach is to be available in the beis medrash (study hall) certain times of day. I answer questions of those studying in the beis medrash with a chavrusah (study partner) or study together with anyone who doesn’t have a chavrusah. This responsibility applies to different grades during different times of day. At the time of this story, I was never available to tenth grade. Nevertheless, Yechiel would approach me frequently with long, deep, and - frankly - brilliant questions. I could not take the time to answer them if anyone else needed help, since Yechiel was not under my charge. This did not deter him at all, a quirk with which anyone in my position needs to be patient. He would grow into the social awareness to see its impropriety.
This morning, though, was different. It was a vacation day. The yeshiva had invited the talmidim (students) to a local shul in which breakfast and refreshments would be provided, alongside a learning program. I was among a handful of rabbeim who came to be available to answer questions and study with anyone who wanted. Seeing a long coveted opportunity, Yechiel approached me early on in the program, asking me to sudy with him. I agreed, and we sat at a table on the left side of the shul. Yechiel indicated the gemara he wanted to learn. I asked him if I should read, or if he would. He said that he would. He read no more than ten words, at a pace too quick to process, in an unpleasantly grainy voice. His pronunciation of the words was so inaccurate that it seemed as though there was a method to it. Then, he just stopped. The aforementioned scene unfolded. I sat there. It was awkward and, well, disconcerting.
I hoped that would snap him out of it. Nothing.
“Oh. Sorry, Rebbi,” he said politely. “What’s the plan?” I asked. “You good to read?”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that.”
I looked back in my gemara, expecting Yechiel to resume reading. No luck. I looked up after about fifteen awkward seconds. Yechiel stared mindlessly out the window, his pen back in his mouth. Thick, purple clouds rained a hailstorm on the shul parking lot. Up the block, it was still bright and sunny. The incongruity of it somehow resonated. Yechiel was easily the most serious student in his class. He spent hours in the beis medrash learning extra on his own. What was this?
I received my answer a year and a half later. Yechiel was now in twelfth grade, and came over to ask questions or learn with me frequently. I quickly learned that our previous episode was consistent: his reading would last a few uncomfortable seconds. I would gently interject and take over the reading when it seemed like that was about to happen. One evening, I explained a case in the gemara to Yechiel based on a story that happened in my ADHD coaching practice.
“You’re an ADHD coach?!” he exclaimed. “I have ADHD!”
I didn’t respond like a professional ADHD coach. I didn’t even respond like a trained educator. I responded much more like the twelfth graders whom I teach. Honestly, I was just so surprised that I completely dropped my guard.
“You?! No you don’t!” I chortled in disbelief as I said the second sentence. There was no way he was serious. Right?
At least he wasn’t as phased by my faux pas as I was.
“For real, Rebbi!” he continued enthusiastically, “I used to even take medication! I stopped because I lost ten pounds in sixth grade.” He chuckled. He is one of those teenagers for whom losing ten pounds does not look like a very good idea. He continued. “I’m also dyslexic. Do they have anything to do with each other?”
I was stunned, but regrouped and answered his question. They do, of course. Learning differences are a common comorbidity with ADHD.
The more I processed it, the more questions were answered. Yechiel had a habit of walking around in a small circle whenever talking while standing. It was mildly irritating when he would do this while I was sitting, but I had never made a conscious note of it. Now I did. It suddenly made sense to me. So did his constant moving back and forth when he sat and learned gemara.
More behaviors began to make sense to me. His habit of coming over to ask questions at inappropriate times. The way he interrupted people when asking questions, and doing so in somewhat of a blunt manner - despite his overall personality being quite genteel.
How did he spend so much time learning in the beis medrash? He pushed himself to spend the time there, but much of the time was spent distracted. His natural brilliance enabled him to compensate.
His poor reading was finally explained.
The pieces all fit, yet even as a trained and practicing ADHD coach - not to mention an experienced high school rebbi - the thought that Yechiel had ADHD never even crossed my mind. Now that I knew, I was not only better equipped to help Yechiel, but much more patient. After all, I now knew what this was.
I had long known that ADHD has countless manifestations. Even in the realm of formal diagnoses, there are three types: inattentive presentation, hyperactive presentation, and combined presentation. Within each, everyone has their own combination of symptoms. One individual may be very inattentive and hyperactive, but highly organized, while another may struggle more with organization and time management. In a presentation I give, entitled “The Lesser Known Symptoms of ADHD”, I list over fifteen behaviors associated with ADHD. Everyone has their own unique blend. This story with Yechiel reminded me how unpredictable these sets of symptoms can be, and what a relief it can be to have a formal diagnosis.
Rabbi Shmuel Reich AAPC is an ADHD life coach in private practice in Monsey, NY (remote coaching also available) as well as a rebbi in Yeshivas Ohr Reuven in Suffern, NY. He can be reached for coaching of individuals or couples, as well as for speaking or writing engagements, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-262-8257.