Smart ADHD Girl Flunks Math and Goes to Grad School

ADHD SuccessIf you're a smart kid with ADHD, you may get do well in 3rd grade,  even 5th grade.

Then comes middle school . . . and oops, the trouble starts. It's harder and takes more concentration of which you have little.

But wait, high school is on the horizon. Now you're in big trouble.

It's my senior year. I dutifully go off for my scheduled appointment with Mr. Attleborough, the college counselor.

"MaryJo, I've been going over your grades and your SAT scores. You did extremely well on the verbal part of the SAT. In fact, your
score is one of the highest in your class."

I smile. Of course, I did well on verbal part of the SAT. Hardly a big deal.

"But your math score is the worst in your class. Very odd that you would do well in one part and not the other."

"Yea, I knew that, Mr. Attleborough. I've never understood math at all. I hate it. I only passed algebra and geometry cause the
teachers liked me. Never got above a D in any math class. My parents even got me a tutor. Didn't help."

I was the poster child for dyscalculia, a math disorder. But nobody back then had heard of dyscalculia or knew how to help a child who suffered from it.

It's not unusual for kids with ADHD to have learning disabilities. Some have dyslexia, a reading disorder. Others, like me have dyscalculia or dysgraphia, a writing disorder.

"MaryJo, you know your grades just aren't very good, except for journalism, and English literature and composition.

"Yeah, I know."

"I see you came in second in the Wolcott contest--a speech contest. And I see that you were an assistant editor for the school paper. At least you've done well in a couple of things in high school."

"But isn't your Mother a French teacher? How could you get nothing but D's in French?

"Yup, my Mom teaches French at Smiley Junior High. She majored in French and got straight A's all through college."

"Well bottom line, MaryJo, I just don't think you should go to college. Perhaps you could work as a secretary. I see you did well in typing."

I thanked Mr. Attleborough and left his office. Not going to college wasn't an option. I couldn't wait to start. I loved learning--everything was interesting. Surely I'd do better in college.

Once in college I majored in education--the only major that didn't require math. And besides that's what my parents had insisted on. They had already decided that I'd be a kindergarten teacher.

Now the struggle I'd had in high school continued. More D's than any other grade.

My father received the letter.

"Dear Mr. Wagner, We are sorry to inform you that MaryJo will be dismissed from Colorado College if her grades don't improve."

Then I started taking music theory and music history classes. I took every tough class Dr. Albert Seay taught. I'd not only found a passion but I'd also found a mentor. Forget teaching kindergarten. I'd be a musicologist like Dr. Seay.

Renaissance music became my obsession. I mastered transcribing centuries-old musical notation into modern notation. Wrote a senior thesis that involved research at four different university libraries. Now I'd fallen in love with research. I got an A+.

It's not unusual for ADHD kids to find an unusual passion--after all, who's ever heard of musicology? And whom do you know who sits around blissfully focusing on transcribing Renaissance music?

Once having found the passion, many ADHD kids can easily hyperfocus. Now distractions melt away.

However, I continued to major in education because to major in music required taking math.

Because of the number of classes I was taking that fed my passion, my grades went up. I graduated from college.

Thanks to Dr. Seay's caring and encouragement, I went on to graduate school . . . in musicology. And I passed both the required French and German reading exams.

My parents disapproved of my esoteric passion. My friends thought I'd lost my mind. I didn't care. I was pursuing something I loved.

My studies in musicology came to an end after a silly argument with my adviser over footnote stye.  In a fit of anger and impulsivity, I burned the only copy of my master's thesis and went on to other things. More about ADHD and impulsivity in another story.

Now it's easy to see that I went from failing to getting ahead because of my passion. And thanks to having a mentor who cared and encouraged me.

Without these two ingredients, I would never have graduated from college.

You can help your child conquer ADHD too.  Love and support often isn't enough. Your success at helping your child requires mentoring too. Read more about how you can get mentoring for yourself to help your child with ADHD.

Discover 12 conditions that look like ADHD and ADD but aren't. Sign up now!

About Dr. MaryJo Wagner

MaryJo Wagner, PhD, helps you help your kids transform ADHD behavior for success. Sign up at Coaching & Accountability to get your questions answered with a complimentary Transformation Session.


  1. I really loved your article, 'smart adhd girl flunks math and goes to grad school'. You could have been describing me. I distinctly remember my high school counselor advising me to become a secretary as well due to my accelerated writing and verbal skills but poor math. That spurred me to pursue college. I am 56 years old and have been an OT for 32 years, have ADHD, own a large pediatric clinic which provides OT,PT,ST and am in my doctorate for OT. I became the first OT in the state to be board certified in neurofeedback and the only one in the nation who has dual certifications in sensory integration and neurodevelopment treatment. I say this not to 'blow my horn' but to offer that individuals with ADHD can not only do well but exceed expectations. We try things that other's tend to deem too difficult. We have overcome obstacles and if encouraged and supported can make a major impact on the lives of others.

  2. Great article! Actually, my question is for both you & Linda Marshall-Kramer... I have a diagnosed learning disability and really question whether or not I will be able to be successful in grad school. I question it so much that I wonder if I should save myself the time, energy, & potential embarrassment & not even bother. My undergrad is in Kinesiology & I am very interested in PT & OT but just not sure if its realistic. Would love any & all insight/feedback.


    • Hard to answer as I don't know you,what your learning disability is, and how severe. But bottom line, you made it through college. So something is right. Talk to some admission folks in the programs you're interested and see if they can give you some insight. I say "go for it." I actually did better in grad school than in college.

      Thanks for your question and good luck.


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