Recently, I completed a questionnaire for graduate school and was asked to answer the following question: What do you appreciate about going to school on Zoom? What do you find challenging?
I imagine myself on Zoom. I see my laptop open on the wooden kitchen table, a ceramic mug of warm coffee next to it. I wait for the host to let me in.
When I am on Zoom I think about everything else going on around me
When I am on Zoom, I suddenly have to go to the bathroom. I look over at the dog who is staring out the glass doors, longing for a walk that I can’t give him. My eyes drift from the screen to the two large windows in front of me, to the birds landing on the feeders, just beyond the bushes with the red berries that rub up against the window.
The branches make scratching noises like they are trying to get in the room with me. I wonder if I need to put more seed in the feeders.
When I am on Zoom, I think about the laundry; that it probably needs to be changed right about now. I wonder if I can quickly check my email. Text someone back. Can my teacher see that? Can my workshop participants tell?
I appear to be paying attention, but my mind is likely to be in one of ten different places. I worry that I don’t even look like I am focused on the screen, that I will say something terribly off topic. “Look!” I have the urge to tell my class, “a duck!” We live on a lake and I get excited when I see the ducks.
Zoom is challenging for someone like me with ADHD
What many people do not realize is how much more challenging meeting and learning on Zoom is for someone like me, who lives with ADHD.
I am afraid that if I write my honest answer to these questions they’re asking, I will sound ungrateful, or worse, unaware of the suffering others are experiencing right now, and how good I have it. I am lucky to have the opportunity to Zoom at all, to have a laptop in front of me, to have the option of collaborating with mentors and other writers scattered across the world. But Zoom is something I dread.
Growing up I was a visceral learner who loved school and who gained energy and momentum from the people sitting around me. I sat in the front row in college so I could be closer to my professors. In Psych I, a huge lecture class, I went to the TA office hours to personally connect with someone who understood Freudian theory.
I attended my poetry professor’s coffee houses to get physically and intellectually closer to the professor and her enthusiastic love of Walt Whitman. Class discussions energized me; my hand immediately waved in the air. I arrived early to class, scrawled copious notes, struck up a conversation with the person next to me.
I absorb information from being near my teacher
I am the kind of learner who absorbs lessons from being near a teacher, from sitting next to a group of interested students. When I make eye contact with a teacher, I take in an entire world. There is energy exchanged, an acknowledgment that the teacher sees me, and I see her. Together, we care that we are in this shared space.
Learning on Zoom isolates and worries me. To absorb information, because of my ADHD, I need to be emotionally invested and not remote. Sweatpants and slippers signal to my neurons that it’s bedtime. I can’t take a class reclining on my sofa because I somehow have to let my brain know that we are going to focus now.
Even a virtual support group on Zoom is hard for me
Recently I attended a virtual support group for parents of adult children with bipolar disorder. Sinking down into a deep leather sofa, my laptop on my knees, I joined this group, each parent in his or her own house, showing up on my screen as a stranger’s face in a well-lit square. I listened to them tell their stories and I shared mine.
Several times during the hour long meeting I felt the urge to click the red “leave meeting” button, but I hung in. If this had been an in-person meeting, at a rec center in Baltimore County somewhere, I might have gone to the bathroom, or taken a walk to the coffee urn. The NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) meeting reminded me of Al-Anon meetings I used to attend.
I need the support of others like me but not through Zoom
I knew I wouldn’t be back. But I might have returned if we were physically together. I crave connection with other people who, like me, have taken the sometimes wild, often unsettling roller coaster ride of raising a child with mental illness. But the Zoom experience paralyzes the flow of empathy for me. Looking at other people in tiny squares on my computer screen, trying to sense their emotions, is like trying to feel heat through a thick pane of glass.
I want to sit in a church basement in a folding metal chair with a smooth plastic seat. I need to be with people who, after dinner, made the effort to get into a car and drive to the church to do that with me. We deserted our children who needed help with homework, and left dirty dishes in the sink, closed front doors behind us.
We went in search of the connection you feel when you sit in a room with thirty other people, holding tight to paper cups half-filled with lukewarm coffee, comforted by eyes that know your pain, know your story, by people emitting their smells, their warmth, by the mere fact that they are sitting next to you.
Alone on my leather sofa, with my computer still perched on my lap, I am still alone. Tears run down my cheeks, but no one wraps an arm around my shoulder or brings me a refill of coffee. No eyes meet mine in a shared moment of recognition that wordlessly says, “Catch me after the meeting, we can talk.”
I cannot feel this human connection on Zoom. There is no heat, no touch, no smell, no eye contact. It’s me on my computer screen, and you in a little square against a background that may or may not be real.
I need “real life” cues to keep me focused
Without this same physical and emotional connection in school, learning becomes frustrating and difficult for me. When I am not in front of my professor, sitting next to my peers, I lose the vital cues that keep me focused and learning.
I will continue to pursue my MFA degree despite the residencies being moved to Zoom for now. I fear that if I postpone my degree until we can return to long tables and conference rooms, I will not start it up again. And luckily, this semester, the administrators of my MFA program have learned how to better design a Zoom residency so that all students can learn more effectively.
Last Zoom residency, the face-to-face schedule was merely transferred to Zoom; an all day and into the evening date with my computer screen. This time, thanks to written feedback from students, with and without ADHD, on a post-residency response form, administrators of my MFA program recognized that learning on Zoom is in fact a unique situation.
Our day begin later and there are more and longer breaks scheduled. I will be able to run or swim before the first workshop begins, the physical exercise allowing me to better focus for the day. It took educators a long time to recognize ADHD as a diagnosis instead of a purposeful, annoying distraction in the classroom; a disruption blocking the flow of information they needed to transmit within the hour.
Finally my program has changed Zoom to better able people like me to participate
Most teachers learned how to modify classrooms and lessons so that students with ADHD had the same ability to learn as those without the diagnosis. But Zoom brought back the bias, threw me right back to a time when my actions were disturbing, a distraction; I wasn’t learning again.
Teaching on Zoom necessarily evolved at an impossible pace. Educators are now circling back and scooping up those of us who require that closeness to learn. I feel like someone just tossed me a ring buoy, and I appreciate how quickly and how far they had to throw it. But I can’t wait to be back in a classroom, at a table, sitting next to actual warm bodies.