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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

November 12th, 2007 · 4 Comments

cover: Joey Pigza Swallowed the KeyHave you read this book? I read it for my children’s literature class recently, and WOW did I need this book ten years ago. (It was published in 1998 or thereabouts, just around the time I started teaching. I’d heard of it, of course — it’s a big deal now — but just never found a reason to pick it up.)

Joey Pigza is a kid in fourth or fifth grade who has ADHD (maybe diagnosed, maybe not). He is written by Jack Gantos, who was also once a fourth-grader with ADHD (maybe diagnosed, maybe not). Here’s what Joey says on page 3:

I grabbed one end [of my belt] and yanked on it and sort of got myself spinning. I kept doing it until I got better and better and before long I was bouncing off the lockers because I was dizzy too. Then I gave myself one more really good pull on the belt and because I was already dizzy I got going really fast and began to snort and grunt like the Tasmanian Devil until Mrs. Maxy came out and clamped her hands down on my shoulders. She stopped me so fast I spun right out of my shoes and they went shooting down the hall.

“You glue your feet to the floor for five whole minutes or you can just spin yourself right down to the principal’s office,” she said. “Now, what is your choice going to be?”

“Can I get back to you on that?” I asked.

Her face turned all red. “Five minutes,” she said. “Settle down for five, and you can rejoin the class.”

I nodded, and when she was gone I wrapped the belt and laces around my middle and gave it a good tug and began to spin and spin and slam into the lockers and I got going so good the gum I had under my tongue flew out and my Superball flew out of my hand and went bouncing down the hall and I kept going and going like when you roll down a steep hill and before long I was bumping on the glass walls around the principal’s office like a dizzy fish in a tank.

And that is how this kid’s story goes. He gets thrown out of class all the time — even gets sent to alternative school because he accidentally slices off the tip of a classmate’s nose with a pair of scissors (!) while truly, truly trying to do what he’s supposed to do — and he loses his whole school experience. The whole thing breaks my heart, and I’ll tell you why. I taught a kid had a kid in the last class I taught who was just like Joey Pigza. He was bright, but he couldn’t get it together, and he had such poor impulse control that it was nigh impossible to do any actual teaching while he was in the room. I sympathize with the teachers in the story — boy, do I — but I couldn’t see at the time where the kid in my class was coming from. It looked, honest to God, like willfulness and obnoxiousness and pushing my buttons. Some of it probably was, but every behavior was colored in some way by the whirling tornado in that kid’s brain.

Every teacher needs to read this book. Every single one.

I think of Joey Pigza, and I think of that former student of mine. I think of my own child, who sometimes seems not to be of or in the world (though he does fine in school — he’s very different with other adults than he is with Dan and me). I think of my brother. And I worry about what school does to these children who need so much to be able to do things incrementally and at their own pace, who need so deeply not to be overstimulated, and to be allowed instead to really focus on the things that matter to them. I want to fix it, and I can’t do that for them. I can’t change how their brains are wired. (Did you know that ADHD works something like depression? Both are related to unbalanced production and uptake of neurotransmitters.) I can only change me. I’m working on being slower and more compassionate. I’m working on building in more structure and more wiggle room. For me, some of this is life with preschoolers — but it’s good practice for getting back into a school setting for work.

So I’m practicing. I may buy this book, it’s that important. Go read it. It’s available, I’m quite sure, at your local library. :)

Tags: daily · words · NaBloPoMo · books

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Cat // Nov 12, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    I’ll check it out. Did you know I had almost that exact conversation with our brother the other day? I don’t think he knew they were related. (depression and ADHD, neurotransmitters and serotonin, etc). There is a really good newsletter I’ve been getting, it’s called celebrate! adhd. The website is here but evidently I don’t know how to put a link in your comment. It is very child centered stuff, and I really like it.

  • 2 Dan // Nov 13, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    I am sorry Christie didn’t pass it along, but you people are to use proper names from now on. (Which brother?)

  • 3 Christie // Nov 13, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    For purposes of the internet, I may come up with some pseudonyms to make you happy. Or, you know, you could email me directly. :) My brothers didn’t volunteer to be identified to the world in this forum.

  • 4 Sarena // Dec 16, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    This was a great book I enjoyed reading every bit of it. Some parts reminded me of myself! Well I thought this wasa great book with a great purpose.

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