American Pie: A Cautionary Tale About Three Sixth Grade Misfits

By Ruth Rosen
Thursday October 06, 2011 - 09:37:00 AM

We were bad. Incorrigible, they said. We had curious minds, awkward bodies and awakening hearts. When we disrupted the class with our chattering and chaotic behavior, the teacher asked us to leave the room and stand in the hall until we behaved properly. On our report cards we received "unsatisfactory" for our social behavior.

The year was 1957. Our teacher viewed us as difficult, inattentive, and troublesome, but no one ever suggested to our parents that we had a medical problem or learning disability that required medication.

But that was then, when we were 11 years old and the great waves of hyperactivity/ADHD diagnoses and stimulant medications were still a thing of the future. Now we wonder what would happen if we were misfits in 2007. Would we be referred for medical diagnosis? Would we be among the nearly 10% of children currently treated with psychoactive drugs? 

The truth is, we didn't really care how long we had to wait outside in the hall. We peered through the window and watched our classmates. Don hummed and Peter and I talked about books we were reading. We learned from each other and were glad to be moving, feeling and thinking. 

We loved learning, but we were restless, active and energetic; we just couldn't conform to the constraints of the classroom. We called out before we raised our hands; we didn't stay in our seats; we walked about the room to peer at the goldfish or thumb through the encyclopedia in the back of the room; and we constantly "talked to our neighbors." From the teacher's point of view we disrupted and distracted the class and, she was right. 

Every so often, she'd call out, "Ruth (or Peter or Don) would you please stand out in the hall so we can continue class?" Sometimes, we spent as much as 1/4 of our time out in the hall, frequently talking with each other. Often, we had to stay after school--punishment for our bad behavior. We were three of the more difficult kids in the class, surely a topic of discussion in the teachers' lounge. They probably talked about us and wondered, what will become of them? 

Despite their likely bleak predictions, we all became successful and productive adults. Recently I--one of these troublemakers--had lunch with another of these sixth grade misfits. His name is Peter Conrad and he is a distinguished medical sociologist at Brandeis University. He's perfectly wonderful and quite normal. He has just published a book called The Medicalization of Society. Like Peter, I have also enjoyed a successful career in academic life and became a historian at the University of California, as well as a journalist. Today, I teach write for a variety of magazines and publications. Between us, we've probably published ten books and hundreds of articles. 

Though we're relatively well known in our own small worlds, the third misfit is positively famous. He is Don McLean, the legendary songwriter, whose "American Pie," one of the greatest songs of our generation, gave us the sober words, "that was the day the music died." I still remember Don humming and strumming on his ukulele, before he picked up a guitar and became a professional musician and songwriter. His songs live on. On his website, fans write that their grandchildren are busy memorizing the lyrics of this great poet. 

Yes, we were disruptive and incorrigible. Don wanted to create music; Peter and I were too curious and restless to sit in a class where our veteran but traditional teacher--who seemed like a species from another planet to us--had to deal with a large baby boomer class. 

But we weren't sick, we didn't act manic and nor did we suffer from attention disorder or any learning disability. We needed freedom to express our interests and talents, but drugs were not the solution. 

Half a century later, today's sixth grade misfits are likely to be evaluated by doctors, diagnosed and medicated. By the time they reach college, they have been told repeatedly that they have an array of diagnosable behavior problems and learning disabilities. Every year, the number of university students who have brought me letters that certify their learning disabilities increases. It seems like a growth industry. 

Many young people do, of course, suffer from serious medical problems and learning disabilities. But I confess to a certain skepticism. Are all these "experts" capable of distinguishing between creative kids who simply need a respite from conforming to educational norms and those who require medical help for their own benefit? 

My sixth grade friends share my skepticism and worry about the growing medicalization of today's classroom misfits. After catching up with Peter, Don and I spent hours on the phone fondly recalling our experiences out in that hall and happily discovering how much our values had not changed. 

What happens, we asked each other, to individuality and creativity when our educational system demands compliance and students must demonstrate conformity in order to avoid diagnosis and drugs? Could it be that some students merely need a hallway in which they can chatter and learn from each other? The three of us have reconnected and discovered, much to our pleasure, that we are still rebels, in our different ways, and live successful and satisfied lives with our families and our work. 

Ruth Rosen, Profesor Emerita of Hisgtory at the University of California, Davis, was a former columnist at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Right-wing Movements at U.C. Berkeley. and the author, most recently of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2006). She will be contributing occasional columns to the Berkeley Daily Planet.