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Magic happens at that school

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Gretchen Conyers had ADHD diagnosed when she was 8. At 23, she is encouraging young people with learning difficulties to focus on the positive attributes of their disorders (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Gretchen Conyers realised she was different once she started elementary school.

It was hard to pay attention and stay organised and she couldn’t read at the same level as her friends.

She received a formal diagnosis at eight — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Before that I was just in my own world and didn’t understand it,” the 23-year-old said. “My mom picked me up that day from horseback riding and handed me a paper that said, ‘25 Best Things About Having ADHD’.

“I completely related to the article and thought it was the coolest thing ever. Because of how it approached the disorder it felt like a really positive thing for me.”

ADHD sufferers have “significant problems with executive functions”. It causes attention deficits, hyperactivity or impulsiveness not normal for their age.

Many talk a lot and are impulsive, leading others to believe they are merely ‘scatterbrained’.

Miss Conyers prefers to see the positive traits.

“We tend to have more of a sensitive spot because often children with ADHD are picked on, so they show more care and a certain understanding for others. But how it shows up is different for everyone. Mine was more academic.”

Miss Conyers left Bermuda High School at 14 for more specialised education at Forman School in Connecticut.

“[It’s] a school that works specifically with people with learning difficulties like dyslexia and ADHD,” she said.

“In Bermuda, when I was growing up, they weren’t that aware of those things. The learning clinic at BHS only had one staff member at that time, although they have grown since then, so not many people understood about learning challenges to the extent that Forman did, and there were all these kids who struggled in the traditional educational setting.

“There was also this stigma around having ADHD because we learnt differently and had to take these medications for it.

“But at Forman, we could all look at each other and have this understanding: ‘Yes, we’ve been through some hard times, but we’re in a place now that really wants us to succeed’. Magic happens at that school. It transforms you.”

She especially benefited from the small classroom setting and having one teacher for every three students.

“I didn’t feel like I had to sit in the back so I wouldn’t be recognised,” she said.

“That anxiety went away and you’re pushed outside your comfort zone and it forces you to learn and allows you to be way more confident in learning and excited about it.”

Her days were guided by a very strict schedule. Classes were followed by sports, dinner, study hall and then a short break before bed.

“I learnt a lot about time management,” she said. “Another thing that helped was seeing the confidence my teachers had in me. That made me realise how much I could actually do.

“In my freshman year I was class president and was later a dorm leader and tour guide liaison.

“But the leadership roles weren’t what I struggled with; it was the academics. I wanted to be in the honours history class and my teacher told me I could do it but needed to work for it.

“I started going back to my room early before study hall and would just study and read. I finally ended up getting into the course and took part in the Model UN.”

The skills she learnt at Forman helped her to thrive at St Lawrence University in Upstate New York.

“Forman helped me to organise my time and learn how to study for tests so that when going to college I wasn’t just dropped into the woods by myself. I knew I could do it,” she said.

Miss Conyers is now the alumni programmmes associate at Forman.

Her advice to any other young people with learning challenges? Use them to your advantage.

“If people don’t understand something or like something about themselves they try to ignore it, but with something like ADHD you have to face it and embrace it,” she said. “Running away from something doesn’t solve it, it only makes it bigger. Facing it and embracing it forces you to dig deep within yourself and find the light and confidence you never knew you had.”

• Representatives from Forman School are on the Island participating in the International Boarding School Fair at The Fairmont Southampton today and tomorrow from 4pm until 8pm.

Hosted by Schools to Know, it’s free for parents and students to attend. For more information, e-mail Tory Dodge at tory@schoolstoknow.com.

Gretchen Conyers had ADHD diagnosed when she was 8. At 23, she is encouraging young people with learning difficulties to focus on the positive attributes of their disorders (Photograph by Akil Simmons)