To The Kids Who Help My Teen Be His Best Self

by Kristen Mae
Thomas Barwick/Getty

Back when I was a perfect parent — i.e., before I had kids — I thought there was no reason for any kid not to make straight A’s. I honestly thought it was as simple as doing the work and turning it in. Becoming a parent sure does have a way of putting your smug ass right in your place, doesn’t it?

My son, Lucas, stood out from his peers from infancy. He was always more active, more prone to jump from one activity to the next, more likely to need extra help getting calmed down for bedtime. His preschool teachers sent home disciplinary notes letting us know he was having trouble settling for naptime, that he wouldn’t sit and listen at story time. He got his first note home from kindergarten the second day of school.

His grades were never good. He easily took in the information — retention wasn’t the issue. He could ace tests with enough time and redirection. But there was never enough time for him, and public school isn’t built for one-on-one attention. He was so easily distracted. We struggled through his homework together at home, and though we always finished it, he often forgot to turn it in. He also often forgot to turn in classwork.

As you’ve probably already gathered, Lucas has ADHD. He received a formal diagnosis in third grade and began taking meds, which helped a ton with his ability to focus during school, and also prevented him from disrupting the class. His grades came up a little, but still weren’t great. Besides the fact that focusing was hard for him, especially at night once his meds had worn off, he also had become accustomed to being “the kid who always forgets to turn in his work.” It was as if erratic performance and inconsistent grades had become a part of his identity.

As we navigated his ADHD diagnosis and worked out a 504 plan in his later elementary years, a great group of kids welcomed Lucas into their fold. In the ‘80s or ‘90s, this group would have been called nerds or geeks. They talk uninhibitedly about wanting to make good grades and earn a ribbon at science fair. They’re obsessed with books and graphic novels and Hamilton and coding, and all of them are writing their own books. In addition to being overachievers, they are also kind, generous, inclusive, and hilarious. They’re all a little quirky, and proud of it. They will confidently tell you that “normal” is boring, that they have no desire to “fit in” or conform.

Lucas always lagged a little behind this group of friends in terms of grades, though he could hold his own in conversations and in the sharing of ideas. His friends have remained by his side over the years, always accepting, never judging. They’ve included him without question. They’ve accepted him for exactly who he is.

By the time this group of friends entered middle school together in seventh grade, they each had phones. No phone plan, just the device, usable wherever there was WiFi. They all got Gmail accounts and started chatting via Hangouts. Now they could talk in the evenings in addition to at school. This was the point when everything changed for Lucas — when he was in near constant contact with his friends via phone. I started to notice that he would be chatting with his buddies on his phone and then would hop up to unzip his backpack. “I almost forgot — I have science homework! Thank goodness Halle reminded me!”

I’d find him hunched over his algebra homework, his phone next to him, live video chat in progress. He and a couple of his buddies would be working out how to solve a particularly difficult equation. They’d hang up for a bit and work alone, then reconvene and check answers, argue about who was right, work through the problem, explain it to one another. They’d crack jokes and rag on one another and just generally make homework bearable for each other.

At science fair last year, every friend in Lucas’s group won first, second, or third place in their category. Lucas procrastinated a lot during science fair and ended up needing to make some last-minute changes due to a failure on his part to order the right supplies in time through his teacher (the science program at their school is kind of extra). But, inspired by his friends’ dedication and excitement, Lucas reworked his experiments and pushed through to submit a solid project.

And, a couple of weeks ago, Lucas got his first all-A interim report in his life. Yes, he did the work. He put in the time. He was determined to finish all his work, to remember to turn it in, to study before tests. But I know his friends’ influence had a lot to do with sparking that motivation of his. He hears them talk about college and all the exciting, wonderfully “nerdy” things they hope to do with their lives, sees them plotting out checkpoints on the way to their dreams, and witnesses their unflinching willingness to work really fucking hard to get what they want. And because they’re his friends, he wants to keep up. They inspire him.

And he is keeping up. I always knew he could. Of course I always believed in him, but I sometimes wonder if he’d have dug up the tenacity required to ace his midterms without this awesome group of friends rallying behind him with their fierce, wise-beyond-their-years commitment to learning.

So I’m grateful to them. As parents, we naturally worry about our kids falling in with the “wrong crowd” and how that crowd could influence our child to make choices that are bad for them. For my kid, the opposite has happened. He fell in with absolutely the best crowd, and I am eternally grateful to have these amazing kids, and their families, in our lives.