I really enjoyed the story that popped up on the New York Times over the weekend featuring Deborah Phelps, mother of Olympian Michael Phelps. The story, Parenting – Phelps’s Mother Recalls Helping Her Son Find Gold-Medal Focus, tells of what it was like to raise young Michael, who teachers felt had Attention Deficit Disorder.
As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.
“I said, maybe he’s bored,” Ms. Phelps recalled saying to his teacher. “Her comment to me — ‘Oh, he’s not gifted.’ I told her I didn’t say that, and she didn’t like that much. I was a teacher myself so I didn’t challenge her, I just said, ‘What are you going to do to help him?’ ”
In the elementary grades at their suburban Baltimore school, Ms. Phelps said, Michael excelled in things he loved — gym and hands-on lessons, like science experiments. “He read on time, but didn’t like to read,” she said. “So I gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages, even if he just read the pictures and captions.”
She will never forget one teacher’s comment: “This woman says to me, ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything.’ ”
His grades were B’s and C’s and a few D’s.
It’s a coincidence that a few days earlier I was talking to one of our interns at work who grew up in the same north Baltimore community as Phelps. She mentioned that “word on the street” was that he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. I guess if you go by his school performance you’d be right.
But this week, aside from the astounding performances in the pool, I’ve been impressed by Phelps’ performance outside of the pool. The extended hand to the boastful French swimmer whose dreams he had crushed. The self-deprecating humor in interviews. The gracious sharing of credit with his teammates and the unbridled joy when cheering them on.
What I liked so much about the Times story was how it told the story of a mom trying to discover and support the strengths of her son. And of a young man who knew what he needed and who he was even when teachers said, “Can’t sit still, can’t keep quiet, can’t focus.” Like many parents, she was persuaded to give ADD meds a try, but ultimately he asked to be taken off.
In many ways the story reminds me of my own brother. Flitting from high energy, thrill-seeking interest to interest: skateboarding, cycling, wooden go-carts, mini-biking, airplanes. Always on the move. He too was a kid who “if a homework assignment had to be at least four sentences, … “he’d just do four sentences.” He did just enough to get by and his grades in school showed it. Thirty years later he is a highly accomplished pilot, soldier, adventurer, leader. Disorganization? Focus? He’s crafted an adventurous life where his skills can shine. Sounds like Michael Phelps–with a lot of help from his mom–has done the same.
(Can I say? I just love this photo every time I look at it.)