This article educates about mood disorders – depression, hyperactivity and the overeating that often is a way to avoid inner pain. The aim is to help readers identify symptoms of depression and hyperactivity, teach positive coping tools and instructs on how students can help each other.
Sometimes I come to school early, just to sit in the empty classroom and have my coffee while I watch the fog curl and dissolve off the football field. I can feel the buzz of potential energy in here, as if the classroom is actually bracing itself for the whirlwind of pubescent preteens to sweep through, chattering about drama, buzzing with energy, yet a percentage uneager to learn. People often ask how I do it. They’ll squint at me and say: “Well, I just don’t get how you manage to keep your sanity!” And I still can’t find a good answer to that one. Usually I’ll explain that after a certain time in one profession, you learn to find the patterns – behavioral patterns, that is – and they tend to repeat each year, and it just gets easier to sift out all the baloney. I lived by this naïve conception of child psychology until last year, when I had three moody little anomalies in my fourth period English literature class that changed the way I thought about teens. I like to call them The Three Moody Cats.
First was little “Dee” Brown (Dmitri Brownsend), a skinny little kid with soft features, and these brilliant bright blue eyes. The thing about Dee is that he was the smartest kid in my class; but he seldom smiled, hardly ever laughed, and rarely spoke up in class. I always dismissed his behavior as the preteen blues – he would be generally unresponsive to other kids and adults, shrugging them off with the air of a rebel, while also avoiding eye contact. But it was something more than being a grumpy teen; he always sat in the back corner of the classroom, as if he wanted to stay withdrawn from everyone. At first, I thought maybe he struggled with an illness – he carried these dark circles under his eyes, and seemed to walk in slow motion with little spontaneous gestures. But after talking with his mother, she convinced me that Dee had always been physically healthy. But she too worried about his lack of a sense of humor, narrow range of interests, his down days and constant complaints of fatigue. Dee’s mom and I were concerned that he struggled with depression and needed to see a doctor. Dee was finally seen by his pediatrician who believed Dee was struggling with major depression. The physician said Dee needed to keep busy, learn positive patterns of thinking and get a support network. I later noticed he also lacked the tight circle of friends with whom most kids live, eat and breathe. The closest thing he had to a friend in my classroom was probably his reading partner, a chubby girl named Ashley.
Miss Ashley Love struggled with more than one issue – she had gotten held back twice, and had to grapple with being much older than her classmates, who fondly referred to her as, “Big-Ash.” Although she answered warmly to it, I could tell she was just pretending. As a sixteen-year-old high school freshman, she was overweight and on the border of being obese. I remember snapping at her almost every day, “put away the food, and quit opening that loud wrapper, save it for lunch!” She too had that constant sad expression on her face, like her friend Dee. And then there was the incident: her mother came to pick her up early one day, and in front of the whole class she began to chastise Ashley, yelling that she looked obese and no one would ever want to marry her. My class settled into an awkward, shocked silence as Ashley was dragged out by her scolding mother. Later in the week, I took her aside to talk things over to make sure she was okay and she confided in me that she hated her mother for always putting her down. Ashley said she decided she would get really fat – just to get back at her mom. I realized that she was using food as a way to “give to herself,” as she felt no love from her mother. Food became a source of comfort and a way to rebel. Ashley shared that her family never ate dinner together and the most exercise she got was walking to and from classes. Ashley also said her father had a drinking problem and it scared her; thus she stayed in her room a lot and found comfort in eating. The bottom line is Ashley was also depressed and avoided her inner pain by overeating and rebelling. She also needed to get evaluated by a helping professional.
But the most difficult case I encountered in the classroom was Max Hayes, whom everybody called Max-Hyper. There is often one of these kids every year – a rowdy, attention-lover who the students look up to as their comic relief in the classroom. But Max topped them all. He was constantly on the move or squirming and fidgeting in his chair, often defiant towards any demand I made of him. “Quit bossing me around” became his catch phrase in the classroom, and he seemed to get a kick out of walking to the principal’s office each day. Max blurted out loud in the classroom, inspired by the chorus of giggles surrounding him. Some days, he seldom stopped talking, and it always struck me, the way he talked as if he knew it all. Max really grated on my nerves when he was distracted by silly things like the ticking clock or the student next to him tapping his pencil. Good God, I could hardly make a classroom of teenagers totally silent, but that is what Max needed to complete an assignment. His mother Margaret was a single mom, and would often come in for meetings about Max’s behavior. I learned from her that Max complained abut the water dripping in the kitchen sink, and would get so impatient that he would go off in a rant of four-letter-words. She said Max would often start a chore like feeding his dog Rusty, then two minutes later when she came to check on him she’d find the bag of food open on the floor, and Max playing videogames. Next he was putting the bag away, and then he was on the phone, and then he began chasing Rusty around the house. He would drive his mother crazy. One day, Max came in late after a doctor’s appointment. He seemed quieter, still the same crazy Max, but different somehow. He had been diagnosed with hyperactivity and the doctor said someday he may have a bipolar condition. Now his nickname made sense. His peers had made the diagnosis before anyone else. Yet amazingly enough the visit to the doctor seemed to pay off.
After a month of practicing some recommendations from his psychologist Max started to shift his behavior. His mother made sure he followed directions from his doctor, who seemed to have partially taken on the role of a father figure. Max had never met his real father, who left after Margaret became pregnant. Max bragged to everyone that his doc was “fly,” as he played cool music and grew up loving hip-hop. Slowly Max began to develop some charisma, and while I couldn’t quite understand it, his classmates seemed to admire him even more. Perhaps it was due to his developing positive attitude, suave style and athletic body. Of course, he still had some attitude, but somehow it imbued him with an air of confidence. While he could focus a lot better and was getting things done, he still seemed to be on the go. Yet he managed his energy in a positive way; sort of like a Michael Jordan. He’d come into his classroom sweating from a 4-mile run with this glow on his face, and he always had a list of projects to complete. And a major one was helping out his peers. I figured maybe he had gotten this help from the doctor and now wanted to help others. Or else deep down he knew what it was like to feel depressed and unrecognized for his good qualities.
So how did my Three Moody Cats come to be? Max and Ashley, I discovered later, had been next-door-neighbors since they were born, and had always been “friends” because their parents were friends. But now that friendship was starting to mean something – Max treated Ashley with the tenderness that he would a sister. With his boisterous charm, Max was the only person that could pull her out of a down mood. I noticed this, and decided to pair up Max and Ashley with Dee, as reading partners, with Max as the “leader” of their group. And as I watched over the course of the school year, that little devil Max Hayes became a sort of mentor to his two new friends, and actually changed their lives. When he would catch Dee moaning and complaining about how the world made him feel blue Max told him to quit telling himself these silly stories. I overheard some of his lectures: “Dee-boy, you color your world blue by sitting around complaining, and now half the class will feel bad,” he would say “let’s go shoot some hoops at lunch. Then what began as a cursory lunchtime distraction, evolved into a genuine love for the game that culminated with the three of them joining the school basketball team. One day they got so involved in the game, the group came to class late and sweating bullets.
I didn’t have the heart to send them to the principal’s office that day, although it did take some effort to get them to regularly come back to class after lunch. I marveled at Max’s talent to bring the best out of everyone – whether it was motivating Ashley to lose weight by walking to and from school, or by convincing Dee to meet new people by joining clubs at school. Following his love of music Dee joined the band, and later started DJing at school dances and house parties. During these gigs, he often played the record “Three Moody Cats,” which he’d heard on musicandmentalhealth.com because it spoke to him, reminding him of his own experiences. Dee often hummed the chorus to himself, as the record played at a party:
“Don’t let anything get in your way,
Overcome obstacles persist each day
When your mood gets low, just get up and go,
And pretty soon you’ll generate that cool cat flow
The cool cat flow, the cool cat flow
Pretty soon you’ll generate the cool cat flow.”
Dee loved this chorus and memorized it in no time. He would often catch himself humming it during the day and he used it to help move out of a down mood and help others. The song also motivated all three cats to develop their relationship skills.
It was amazing watching all three of them transform in that year: Dee became a happier kid while finding his niche, and soon the whole class was rooting for Ashley, who ended up losing 60 pounds. Exercise made a huge difference as Ashley shared her mood was better and she wanted to look good. Soon, she began hanging out with another girl who was pudgy. It was wonderful to see how one student could make such a difference, and how the kids he helped starting helping others too. Now I understand why Max signed his name with the phrase “One Love.”