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My Childhood With Undiagnosed ADHD

“Mrs. Khan, your son Ivan is hyperactive.” It was the second time in just a few years that my immigrant mother heard that description of my behavior in the classroom.

I was in the 4th grade, when my caring and nurturing teacher, Mrs. Bishop, noticed in me a pattern of behavior that she experienced with some students throughout her decades of teaching in New York City public schools. Though I was placed in the Intellectually Gifted Program (IGC), now called Gifted and Talented at PS 100 Queens, I was still impatient and hyperactive.

As a 9 year old student in Mrs. Bishop’s classroom, I would often be the first to complete my work, raise my hand to share “I’m finished”, and then find any reason to leave my seat. As an immigrant child of two NYC teachers, ensuring positive and respectful classroom interactions with my own teachers was always reinforced at home by my parents.

Needless to say, my mother wasn’t surprised, and couldn’t help but feel a combination of worry, shame, and of course a common South Asian term for stress: “tension”.

“Ivan, Mrs. Bishop said that you’re ‘hyper’ in class. Is that true?”, asked my mother.

“Ummmm, hyper? I don’t think so, why’d she say that?”, I replied.

My mother went on to describe some of the telltale signs of ADHD — traits in a child that Mrs. Bishop had described earlier. As a 9 year old, my teacher’s feedback was eye opening. She reported the following:

  • I would finish my work rapidly, oftentimes, out of boredom.
  • Completing my work quickly would work in my favor for visual and contextual subjects like math, art and even social studies.
  • However, finishing early would also work against me for subjects like grammar, reading and science.
  • After completing my work, I would then proceed to find a reason to go to the bathroom, or visit the back of the classroom to find other work items to occupy my boredom.
  • I would also be likely to chat with my friends once my work was finished.
  • During classwork review, I would be one of the first to raise my hand to break the monotony of sitting still.
  • I would engage in classroom discussions, which helped me get offered the lead role in the 4th grade play.
  • I would engage with as many friends as I could make, both in class and at recess.
  • I would chat up my teachers and ask how they are doing when others wouldn’t.

Ultimately, if there was any activity that could break long periods of stillness or silence, I tried it! What was sometimes a source of distraction and interruption for my teachers, was also who I was inside. While certain aspects of my life felt restrained and difficult, the rest of it could feel open, fun and limitless all at the same time.

My ADHD During Adolescence

When I turned 10, my life would undergo several transitions that I had never imagined growing up in South Ozone Park, Queens. After my Dadi (paternal grandmother) passed away rapidly from Liver Cancer 3 days before I turned 10, my mother and I temporarily moved to Bangladesh for 18 months.

During those 18 months, I started at an English medium school in Scholastica Bangladesh to get a crash course in taking “Midterms” as a 10 year old in a new country. I had already missed 4 out of the 6 months of course work, and I was doing everything that I could with private tutors to learn the material with such little time remaining.

While I did fine when consuming, memorizing, and understanding the material, I couldn’t understand the difference between 2 point questions and 10 point questions. Additionally, having taken state exams here, my young New York City public school brain was never challenged with writing a page long multi-paragraph response for each question, similar to what high school students understand by the time Regents Exams start.

You can imagine my shock, despair and heartache when upon review, I only received about 2–3 points per long answer question. Not only was I never trained at learning to submit long form responses, but the stress and hurry with which I had to learn the material didn’t allow me to understand how to actually answer the questions the way the school saw fit. I was learning it all for the first time and I struggled. It took me one full year to understand the education system there, and once I did, I re-trained my young ADHD mind to flourish in the new setting.

When kids with ADHD start struggling in our academics, we often struggle in our social relationships as well, and vice versa. As people with heightened awareness of social situations and norms, we are more prone to feeling shame when we let others down, especially mentors.

Social Transitions Can be Challenging

A few months later, the opposite became true. This time, it was my difficulty in making friends that negatively affected my grades. Our family had just moved back into NYC by Fall 1993.

It was the early 1990s and New York City was too dangerous of a place for my parents to send me to my local junior high school. Rather than move into the small home that my family had just bought at the corner of Linden Blvd and Lefferts Blvd, where TrinCity Roti shop is located, we chose to rent a smaller apartment unit in a better neighborhood.

Growing up in a working class neighborhood, moving to Bangladesh for nearly two years, and having to move back to a brand new junior high school in a more affluent neighborhood was one of the most challenging experiences of my childhood.

Making a few good friends was important to me, but no matter how hard I tried, it felt impossible. Most of the students in my new junior high school were from ethnic groups I never had any exposure to, and their affluent family financial backgrounds were a reminder of me either not being good enough, or just not belonging.

When my social situations struggled, my mental health wasn’t optimal and my motivation to excel academically suffered. This challenge would last all the way from 7th grade and last until the start of my 10th grade at Bronx Science.

Self Identity and High School

By the start of 10th grade, making time for a small social life was becoming a bit more manageable. After reconnecting with a childhood friend who started at Bronx Science, the two of us enrolled into several after-school student organizations.

Furthermore, safety on the subways was finally starting to improve and traveling home to eastern Queens from the North Bronx wasn’t as threatening as it used to be.

Though sophomore year was filled with honors classes, late arrivals home, and countless school based exams, it all became more manageable with any small sense of control that I could gain for myself.

Sometimes that meant watching Seinfeld reruns until midnight after completing homework. On Fridays, it meant going to the movies, bowling alley or the billiards halls with a few friends. Having that identity wasn’t only important for me as a high school student, but I realize how critical it was for someone with ADHD.

Our minds can often move from one important task to the other, without much time for reflection, appreciation and sound judgment. Oftentimes, our decisions are made on the fly and we can be described as impatient or impulsive. Learning more about my condition, and allowing myself to live in my own ADHD shoes provided much needed clarity, even though it would be years before any greater understanding of my neural wiring occurred.

To learn more about my journey with undiagnosed ADHD throughout College and, then as a CEO at Khan’s Tutorial, stay tuned for Part 2 and 3 of this series.

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