Illustration by Yasmin Haq
It wasn’t laziness, being unmotivated or careless. It was a real problem.
Anytime Gerrod Cleburn read a passage or flashcards he instantly forgot it. Any attempt he made at getting through his primary or secondary education seemed fruitless.
Gerrod’s condition was first observed in the 4th grade, when his grandmother was shot by his grandfather, which resulted in Gerrod going to counseling. Because of this, he missed a good portion of school.
“I started struggling and [my teachers] assumed all of my struggles were due to me missing school and having to deal with the emotional stress of [the shooting],” Gerrod said. “So they didn’t really do anything for me, just assumed I had just missed a few important months. I got by with C’s and D’s even in elementary school. I struggled with everything and my handwriting was so bad I would get detention. They would make me come in during recess and make me read my assignments out loud because they couldn’t read my handwriting.”
In elementary school, Gerrod figured out ways to get by in school, like using notes he got from girls as an outline to trace over, to figure out how to improve his writing. He got through middle school the same way, with C’s and D’s, but all of that caught up with him in high school.
“My freshman year went OK but my sophomore year was becoming something I couldn’t really beat anymore,” Gerrod said. “I couldn’t just get by. Nobody was really helping me out. We had moved from Oklahoma to Texas my freshman year and it was a whole new school and no one was really paying attention to me and just assumed I was behind because I was a new student.”
Gerrod was threatened by his coaches who told him he would get kicked off of the baseball team if he didn’t improve. He said that when he did try to do better, he just could not figure out how to retain information. Gerrod said it was heartbreaking for him when even his teachers started to give up on him.
“I tried really hard but I couldn’t get it, I couldn’t figure out school,” Gerrod said. “I couldn’t figure out math, spelling and writing. I remember going home and sitting across from my mother in a conversation and just crying. I remember looking at her in the face and said ‘I can’t do this. I can’t live with this.’”
When all hope seemed lost for Gerrod, he was introduced to a girl, now his wife Susan, at a summer camp in Oklahoma his sophomore year of high school, who inspired him to give school another chance.
“I decided to try home school; I couldn’t do regular school anymore,” Gerrod said. “Home school didn’t work out great for me either. I was like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but it isn’t me.’ [My wife] was valedictorian at her school and I was like, there’s no way this valedictorian is ever going to want to date a guy that can’t even finish high school. I decided I was going to give it one more shot.”
After struggling to get by, Gerrod thought getting his GED was the end of his education. But, he went to community college for a year before transferring to the University of Oklahoma. It wasn’t until college when an observant professor of Gerrod’s reached out after noticing something interesting.
“I did pretty well my freshman year and then in my sophomore year everything was falling apart,” Gerrod said. “I got a D in one class and was close to failing another. The professor walked up to me and was like, ‘I don’t understand you. You’re different. You sit in class every day and take notes, you answer, but you’re failing all of my tests. It doesn’t make sense.’”
Gerrod’s professor gave him a flyer for a center to get tested for conditions and the diagnosis led to his life turning around.
“I ended up having ADHD,” Gerrod said. “It was really ADD but it was severe poster child. There was no way I should have gotten through school with it as bad as it was. It was funny, because I wasn’t a full believer when I had heard stories about ADHD. I didn’t understand it. It took me a long time to come to the reality that I had it.”
His mother, Nancy, remembers feeling a sense of relief and guilt when she got the phone call from Gerrod that he had a condition and the bad grades were not because of being a bad student all these years. When she first noticed signs of Gerrod not doing well in school, she requested him to be tested, but because he did not display hyperactivity, he never was diagnosed.
“He called me and I was like, that explains everything,” Nancy said. “It was like ‘I know what the thing is, finally.’ I felt guilty. Sometimes school representatives or medical people, [do not] pay attention to what moms know about their kid. I knew Gerrod was incredibly smart. I knew that whatever was wrong with him made it so hard for him to read. Once we figured out what that was, [it was] amazing. I still feel like there should have been something I could have done because he was struggling the whole time and I knew he was struggling.”
After getting his diagnosis, Gerrod started his medication and graduated from OU with a teaching degree. Gerrod said he could not begin to describe how good it felt to get his diploma because it was something he never imagined he could achieve.
“I decided then I never wanted to be that teacher that told kids they would never accomplish something and I never wanted to be the teacher who made kids feel they are not worth something,” Gerrod said. “It’s kind of been my mission since I’ve been a teacher: to help everyone at least feel like they have a shot and to give the patience and the kindness that I should’ve gotten when I was in school.”
Susan said the biggest difference she has seen in Gerrod since his diagnosis was [him] having mood stability and focus. Before he was taking medication, he was impulsive, irritable at times and had quick mood changes.
“Even now if he doesn’t take his medication, I can tell when he hasn’t,” Susan said. “He was in college for several semesters before he started taking any medication and you could just tell a difference in his motivation to get his work done.”
Gerrod said it is important to take time to figure out what is going on in someone’s life before assuming what is going on. Gerrod said he believes it is his calling to be an advocate for students who were like him and struggled.
“It was really tough at times because I struggled with who I was and who I wanted to be,” Gerrod said. “In the end, this has been absolutely amazing and I feel like I can finally make a difference for those kids who were like me and struggled and didn’t get it.”
Gerrod sees his condition as a weakness and a blessing, because now he can relate to a lot of people on a different level. Gerrod said by having the right chemical balance in his brain, he now has the confidence to do the things he only dreamed of. He is currently studying to get his Master’s in Teacher Leadership to soon shift his focus to helping ESL students with social studies.
“I have a vision of [what a teacher is]: somebody who is there for you and somebody who believes in you [even though] I never had that,” Gerrod said. “I don’t think I ever felt love from a teacher. I don’t think I ever felt belief from a teacher. I think it was false. I don’t want to be false. I want to give my students at least one chance to have somebody who really cares for them and somebody who really believes in them and knows that no matter how bad it is, anything is still possible. I believe that’s my calling. I want them to know that [my love and belief] is real and not fake. It’s not a job, it’s a mission.”