Tuesday, April 12, 2022
When I was a senior at Exeter, a prep school in New Hampshire, I was, like more than a few of us there, lost, lonely, but trying to buck up and get along the best I could. It was the school year of 1967–68, a time of national turmoil congruent with the inner turmoil many of us students contended with without knowing what we were up against, because we hadn’t experienced this before. Like everything else that you encounter when growing up, from Shakespeare to acne, to sex, to applying to college, it was new. Wonderfully, shockingly, embarrassingly, confusingly new.
At the time, psychologist Erik Erikson was making news with his theory on stages of development. Terms like “identity crisis” were offered up to explain what kids my age were facing. I had no clue what “identity” meant or what a crisis of it entailed, but when K. Don Jacobusse, my 10th-grade English teacher, came into class one day gushing about this brilliant man, Erik Erikson, whom he’d just heard lecture in Cambridge, I was all ears, even though the content was pretty much lost on me.
I was ever so eager, even desperate, to learn. My eagerness to learn did not arise out of intellectual curiosity. I wanted to learn whatever Erikson or any other smart person knew about people because I wanted answers. I knew I was different. Oh sure, I had many of the external markers of being different—my mother had been divorced twice and had become a drinker, my father had what’s now called bipolar disorder, and my stepfather was an abusive alcoholic—but that was not what made me feel different. I felt like I was always on the outside, looking in.
It was dawning on me that I thought differently from most of my peers. My imagination was always on turbo. And I did not react to life in the same way as other kids. When asked an ordinary question in class, like “Give an example of how to cook a fish,” I’d reply, “I’d ask the fish how it wants to be cooked.” Other kids would smirk, but the teacher—because it was Exeter where being odd was permitted, indeed encouraged—would reply, “How would the fish express its preference?” to which I might respond, “O-fish-ally,” or some such jibber. I didn’t intend to be different. I just was. I said what came to mind, appropriate or not. Often not.
I was also given to dark moods, worries that my life would never work out, that I wouldn’t get into the college I wanted to attend (mercifully, I did), that life was meaningless, and that vanity ruled. These were hardly original concerns. Most of us entertained them. But what set me apart was how much they mattered to me. Others seemed to be able to shrug them off, but not me. Even the struggles of characters in books seared me and weighed me down. I was what people called “sensitive.” I took too much to heart. I didn’t know how I was going to cope with an entire life of being like this. As much as I tried, I couldn’t turn the sensitivity, nor the hunger, nor the curiosity, off. I had little control over where my mind would go.
So there I was, a teenager: I had no role, no identity (to use the new term I was discovering), no direction, and no purpose beyond the pleasures and satisfactions of the moment, like food, friendship, and fantasy, which were actually more helpful than I gave them credit for at the time.
I had no parents looking over my shoulders. They’d checked out in their own ways. I had two cousins a few years older than me who were my de-facto siblings, guides, and comrades-in-arms, but they were not at Exeter.
At Exeter I had friends, but I also lived within a vast, cavernous world of my own.
And then I met Fred.
“Mr. Tremallo” was how I knew him then. He was my 12th-grade English teacher. Fred changed my life forever. The reason I am writing this essay is to urge you, if you have a child like I was, or you are that child, to find Fred. He’s out there, I can promise you that.
What did Fred do for me that was so important that I am here, 53 years later, writing about him with tears in my eyes and a giant lump in my throat? What did Fred do that changed me forever?
He sought me out. He found me. He was a mentor. And over the course of one year he catalyzed my becoming who I am today.
His method was as simple as pie. He’d red-pen that simile calling it a cliché, but I’d tell him I was trying to cultivate the use of cliché, and he’d listen and ask me why. His method was simply to connect, then inquire—unadorned, unrehearsed, no b.s.
He was a burly, mustachioed, linebacker lookalike of Italian descent (“My name means three evils,” he’d tell us, “so watch out!”), married to Ellie, the warmest, sharpest, most outspoken woman you can imagine. (Ellie made sense; No b.s. was one of Fred’s most treasured rules and Ellie brooked no b.s.)
Fred first drew me in by writing one question in his red pen at the end of a three-page story I handed in in September. The one question that changed my life was, “Why don’t you turn this into a novel?”
He might as well have asked me to converse with fish. Write a novel? I knew Exeter was a tough school, but write a novel? Yeah, right. Still, I was the only kid he asked to do that, as far as I knew, so I was at least flattered.
So I gave writing a novel a go. On my own time—this was not an assignment, I’d get no credit for it—I added page after page to a growing document, a.k.a. novel. Sitting in an easy chair in the library on the second floor of Phillips Church, a room I had all to myself because no one ever went up there, I’d sit and write longhand in a spiral notebook, which I’d later type up. Fred would then add his bits in red pen.
I’d come over to his apartment located in a dorm called Wentworth, where Ellie would provide juice and cookies and Fred and I would smoke a cigarette or two. Such a forbidden pleasure was at the time allowed in faculty apartments (don’t worry, it’s since been banned). We’d discuss the progress of the novel. We’d often discuss the meaning of life. I couldn’t believe Fred wanted to hear what I had to say.
Those conversations in Fred’s den were like sessions in a hothouse for a seedling. I looked forward to seeing Fred in a way a boy might look forward to seeing his father if he had one who was able to see him and wanted to.
By the end of the year, I completed the novel. I titled it Wake to Sleep, taking a line from the American poet Theodore Roethke. It won the senior English prize, still the award in my life of which I am most proud.
But it was not a very good novel. Fred brought me to meet with his friend C. Michael Curtis, an editor at The Atlantic whom Fred had asked to read Wake to Sleep. Mike Curtis puked all over the book and I left, licking my wounds, resolving never to write again. But Mike Curtis did me a favor. I did write again. In fact, I just published my 21st book. (None of them novels, however. Before I die. . .)
The quality of Wake to Sleep is not what matters. It’s what Fred did for me that matters. The thing that mattered so much, which I didn’t comprehend at the time, was that Fred saw more in me than I saw in myself. He got me to prove to myself that I could do something I would have thought impossible. I remember thinking, when I wrote the first page, what a futile effort this would prove to be.
When I say if you have a child like me, find a Fred, by “like me” I don’t mean a future writer or kid from a troubled family or any other demographics that define me.
I mean a kid who isn’t yet known, even by himself. A kid who is searching. A kid who has talent, but talent that is undeveloped. A kid who may be misunderstood. I happen to have both ADHD and dyslexia, neither of which were recognized when I was at Exeter. But I am referring to much more than kids who have ADHD and dyslexia. I am referring to the vast and potentially wonderful world of different so many millions of us inhabit.
I’m talking about the witty, maybe wise-ass kid who teachers think doesn’t care and is wasting his or her potential. I am talking about the cynical kid who rejects help and doesn’t see the point in trying hard. I’m talking about the kid who’s discovering Existentialism and believes life is absurd. I’m talking about the kid who thinks he or she is a waste of space and will never belong—but who you just know has so much to offer. I’m talking about looking beneath face value—which takes time, like the time Fred gave me.
I’m talking about a little boy who was sent to a Lutheran school in the Midwest. This boy had a gift such schools do not appreciate. He could make people laugh. Telling jokes like, “Who is the most elastic man in the Bible? Balaam. He tied his ass to a tree and walked two miles,” did not go over big in that Lutheran school. This boy was paddled severely and often throughout his school years there, all the way into high school.
But this boy kept sharpening his gift with humor and with art. When he found out the mere word “underpants” could make people laugh, he never forgot it, even though he got punished for saying it. That boy turned into one of the great children’s book authors of our time, Dav Pilkey. His Captain Underpants and Dogman series have sold more than 80 million copies.
I’ve come to know Dav. He is one of the sweetest, kindest men I’ve ever met. Along with his wonderful wife, Sayuri, Dav continues to bless this world with his children’s stories.
Dav has both ADHD and dyslexia. Like me, he was and is different. But the reason he didn’t crump and die from all the abuse he received is that he, too, had a Fred. In fact, he had more than one. His parents. And then an art teacher. It is always the force of connection that spells the difference between perishing and prevailing, indeed thriving.
The millions of us who are different don’t know how to tell you about ourselves because we don’t understand ourselves any more than you do. I never knew I had stories in me worthy of being told until Fred tapped them. Dav Pilkey never knew that the cartoons he drew in class would get him anything beyond more punishments. But he kept drawing. And now he’s changing children’s lives.
Now, as a specialist in learning differences, I do not treat disabilities. I help people unwrap their gifts. Just as Fred helped me unwrap mine.
We’re out there all over the place, we different ones. And well beyond the conditions so misleadingly called ADHD or dyslexia. We may just be called weird, or oddball, or quirky, or simply shy. We may be called aloof, or distant, or self-centered. We may be called wise-ass, or bad-ass, or lazy, or dim. Lots of different labels, adjectives, catcalls, and derisive terms can find their way to us.
But one fact I’ve learned over my many years of working with kids and adults is that it is rare to find an especially talented, creative, entrepreneurial, or original person who does not have at least one of the many conditions described in the manual of mental illnesses, such as ADHD, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, depression, generalized anxiety, OCD, PTSD, paranoia, substance use disorder, explosive disorder, dysthymia, cyclothymia—the list goes on and on.
People don’t realize that within most so-called mental illnesses are embedded strengths and talents. It is the job of all of us who care about people to become Freds, to seek out the talent embedded in each individual, no matter how different or off-putting the wrapping may be.
After I graduated from Exeter, I only ever saw Fred again a few brief times. He was on to other students, other kids who needed to be found. But I never forgot him. I graduated from college, medical school, a residency in psychiatry, and a fellowship in child psychiatry, and then published Driven to Distraction and other books, before I saw Fred for the last time.
That last time he was sitting up, bare-chested, in a bed at the Exeter hospital. He was dying of lung cancer. When I entered his room he was typing on his laptop. “Gotta finish these college recommendations before I die,” he said.
I knew I’d be at a loss for words, and I also knew how Fred scorned sentimentality, so I’d brought along an essay I’d written about my teachers titled, “I Am Here Because They Were There.” It was mostly about him. I sat down on the edge of his bed and read it aloud.
When I finished reading, Fred said, “Well, my feelings aside, that’s an excellent piece of writing.” Teaching, right up to the last.
I was lucky enough to speak at his memorial service in Phillips Church. A lapsed Catholic, Fred deplored the many evils committed by organized religion. A hopeful Episcopalian, I took the other side. I opened my remarks by calling out, “Yo, Fred! I guess we know who’s right now, don’t we?”
My hope and prayer is that he heard me and smiled.
And my hope and prayer for you is that you seek out the Fred you or your child needs, which includes the Fred living within each one of us.
Thank you, Mr. Tremallo.
Edward Hallowell, MD, is a board-certified child and adult psychiatrist. He is founder of the Hallowell ADHD Centers and author of 21 books. His latest book, with John J. Ratey, MD, is ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction—from Childhood to Adulthood.