Ty Pennington: Growing up with ADHD and that time my mom discovered I was the worst kid at my school | His Word - Christianity Today

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There’s a loud ringing in my head that’s not caused by distant mortars, but rather a more immediate deafening sound.

The first-period school bell.

It’s quite alarming, not just its tone (that will come moments later) but the visual motion picture the visitor will see peering through the rectangular glass in Miss Spaulding’s class.


There I am in the middle of the blitzkrieg, ducking from incoming fighters in the shape of paper airplanes, launching grenades of my own in the shape of large erasers that explode with powder as they slam against the chalkboard.

I’m being outgunned by Johnny and Jamal on my right flank, so I push forward, dragging my desk along the window corridor, hoping to use the teacher’s pets as neutral shields. But as in all battles, you will have collateral damage.

Let’s face it, considering I am instigating all this while completely naked (this is why I was dragging the desk – I was trying to cover up my “homework” . . . you should’ve seen the substitute teacher’s face), I’m pretty sure the damage will have a lasting impact, especially when I recognize my mother’s look of horror as she stands at the doorway.

A doorway that, God bless her, she will spend her life trying to unlock.

A doorway into the mind and uncontrollable behavior of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, aka Pandora’s Box. (I especially like the D for being disorderly.)

You see, Mom is studying to be a child psychologist and has come here to test the worst kid in the school.

“Mrs. Pennington,” the staff warns her, “are you sure you want to know who that is?”


I don’t have focus, punctuality, or great class participation skills, aka teamwork. However, I can lead the class, just not in a direction that’s healthy.

My mom is a psychologist. She is getting her doctorate in child psychology when she shows up at my school and asks the principal if she can observe the most troublesome child in the building as part of her thesis.

The principal thinks maybe this is some kind of weird joke, but it’s definitely not. She is serious.

The look on her face when she peers through the glass to see that troublesome kid waging terror in his classroom is one I’ll never forget, because I’m the one she’s looking at. I’m that kid.

I guess one positive way to look at this is she doesn’t need to do an additional observation, since Lord knows, she’s seen enough.

My behavior is never diagnosed throughout grade school and high school as anything other than being a misfit. In those early grades, things are really bad with the chaos I’m creating, but as I get into fifth and sixth grade and move closer to high school, Mom realizes I have a problem and starts to study and use all these techniques to help.

There’s no big article or doctor coming forward at the time to say, “I’ve solved the riddle,” so instead I’m given riddles to solve. Those seem to help. As do the tests my mother puts me through, like setting a timer and having me arrange different wooden blocks to make one complete image.

Mom learns that even though my “verbal skills are horrible,” I’m good at visual puzzle solving. I view them as motor skills in many ways.

My problem in school isn’t just the chaos I’m creating that results in spending a lot of time in the hallway and in the principal’s office. There’s a bigger problem. It’s the reason I’m causing all that chaos in the first place – nothing I’m hearing in the class or reading in books is actually sticking inside my head.

The moment we start going over an assignment, I don’t know what the teacher is talking about. I try to read a paragraph but then have to start over and over again and nothing sinks in. I’m too distracted and I’m not interested, so naturally it doesn’t resonate with me. Then I never have the correct answer, and I fail and have no idea what the rest of the class is talking about.

So what’s a guy to do? For me, it’s to keep causing chaos.

One way I like to describe ADHD is that it’s sort of like trying to play pingpong while reciting the alphabet backward.

It’s like being at a party where everybody is talking about something you don’t understand and have nothing to say about.

Are you going to sit there and act like you know what they’re talking about, or are you going to throw out an entirely different subject so they can be discussing something you’re engaged in?

Or are you going to cause a distraction so that whatever they’re talking about makes no sense anymore and you’re finally doing something fun?

That would be my attitude in class – I don’t know what you’re talking about so I’m creating chaos so we’re not talking about that anymore.

By the time I get to Cross Keys High School, the teachers have already heard about me from my Ashbury Park Elementary School days. Teachers single me out the moment I walk into a classroom.

I go through some tough years where I want to fight everybody, including those in my family.

At this point in my life, it’s pretty clear with everybody about how Ty Pennington is going to turn out. They all have a good idea of what the end result is going to be.


But what you need to learn about life is that sometimes you have to get rid of the big obstacle right in front of you in order to see the future waiting for you.

A future with an outcome that’s different from what you first expected.

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