From the March, 2006 issue of Touchstone

Speed Trap by Robert Hart


Speed Trap

Robert Hart on Not Fixing Boys Who Aren’t Broken

He seemed a nice chap, friendly, outgoing, manly, donning a cowboy hat and speaking with a Tennessee accent. What had this fellow, a professional horse trainer, been doing in a hospital a few months earlier for attempted suicide? After the Shock Trauma Unit had saved his life, he spent some time in a psychiatric ward, but he was released without recommendation for follow-up.

Very strange indeed, as such cases always carry a recommendation for psychiatric care. Here was a mystery, someone simply not the type to be defeated by life. As he told me his story, not unlike others I had heard when I helped people apply for Medicare, I thought about another young man, our son David.

It was a steep climb up the hill in historic Ellicott City, Maryland. So I was grateful for the assistance given to my automobile. For, strapped safely in his car seat, I could hear my then two-year-old son, David Addison Hart, making the noise of an engine. Though he sounded more like an un-muffled motorcycle than a car, any help up the hill was appreciated.

And it was just the sort of help a little boy ought to give. His older sister helped too, I am sure, but in a more quiet and subtle manner. As I look at this son today, at the age of twenty, just entering his third year of college, and working hard without complaining, I am grateful that his mother and I had always understood his boyish nature to be the work of God. And I am grateful that we never took the bad advice of certain schoolteachers.

Just a Little Boy

Like a lot of little boys, he fidgeted a bit in his early years of school, being prone to look out of windows and to exhibit a touch of hyperactivity (as we used to call it). As early as first grade, he came home with a note from the teacher: “Have a doctor prescribe Ritalin for your son.”

I had enough trouble being obedient to teachers when I was younger, for which I received proper discipline. I certainly was not willing to obey now. Just who was this person to tell me to tell a doctor what to prescribe? And just what in heaven’s name was Ritalin?

Ritalin, as it turns out, is what we used to call Speed. Being a son of the baby-boom generation, born in the fifties and able to recall the sixties, I knew two things quite well: All narcotics are addictive and dangerous, and never— absolutely never—trust anyone from my generation who tells you that a narcotic is safe. I refused their advice when we were teenagers, and I know not to trust it now that we are graybeards. “Speed Kills” was the slogan we were given about street Ritalin back in our younger days. Indeed, it is a stimulant so powerful that it can damage the heart.

We went through this again in third grade with a teacher even more persistent. She would call me at home in the evenings and try to convince me to command a doctor to prescribe Ritalin. “He fidgets, and doesn’t always pay attention.” Finally I said, “Maybe you’re just a boring teacher. Have you ever thought of that?”

Not that I am without sympathy for the teachers. It must be very difficult to manage healthy children, especially little boys who do not know how to sit quietly for hours on end like little girls. Little girls do much better than little boys in the elementary schools. They are not caught up in imaginary battles with bad guys, or busy imitating large trucks at high speeds, or airplanes in flight.

If only teachers could use discipline without severe repercussions, or were allowed to bring a bit more of the male culture into the classroom with the help of adventurous tales every now and then. But these days discipline is mistaken for abuse, and adventure for violence.

The psychological need that all boys have, to battle against evil for the triumph of good, is as powerful in nature as the course of a river. The way to spark a boy’s interest in history is by talking of heroes, like Daniel Boone and Robin Hood. The way to teach him American history is to teach the battles of the War for Independence. The way to bore him is to have rules against even so much as the mention of fighting, against even a crayon drawing of a gun.

Familiar Stories

“The bullet is still in my spine, and will be for the rest of my life,” the young man in the cowboy hat told me, bringing me back into the present. “The doctors say it is too much of a risk to go digging after it.”

“Well, why in heaven’s name did you try to kill yourself?” I was sorry right away for asking, because an all-too-familiar story followed. But the story is perhaps not at all familiar to everyone, since few people come across such men as often as I did.

“When I was in school, they put me on Ritalin. . . .” Here it came. After the school years, trying to adjust to life without his legally prescribed dope, he began to use cocaine. Life in a sober and unaltered state was too much for him after years of dependency. He sought medical help. He stopped using cocaine after a psychiatrist prescribed an anti-depressant. But when he was between jobs, he could not afford to keep up with his prescription. And so, one day, for no particular reason other than feeling the deep blackness of chemical depression, he shot himself.

The Shock Trauma Unit of the hospital finished its work, and he was transferred, as all attempted suicides are, to the psychiatric wing. The painkiller oxycontin was prescribed for him. “I refused. I simply said ‘no more.’ It was drugs that got me messed up, and I said ‘no more.’ I would rather put up with the damn pain.”

He looked at me with a kind of sincerity that was assuring. I admire that young man for his ability to recognize the problem. But I know his battle is not over, and I pray for him.

And I know it all started when a teacher told his parents to get a doctor to prescribe Speed, that is, Ritalin. “Oh, and I also have a heart problem,” he added. Of course he does. Speed Kills.

He is not alone in this. But the ranks of victims do not include my son, whose achievements defy the predictions of his elementary-school teachers long ago.

I always enjoy seeing my nephew Patrick. His greetings, when he sees me, excel even the enthusiasm of my dog when I come home. He just turned six, and he is all boy, with the glory of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” at their finest. Recently, he sat me down at a table in front of his globe. After showing admirable knowledge of world geography, he began to tell me what could happen if certain big storms swept across various continents.

Hyperactive Duties

As I watched tornadoes sweep across Africa, and tidal waves crash into Europe, all about the size of certain six-year-old fingers, I was very glad that he did not sit atop Mount Olympus with divine and arbitrary powers. I was glad, too, that my brother and my sister-in-law have the good sense to homeschool him. He is hyperactive, and he needs to use his energy to do very important things that must accompany learning the ABCs, and even the geography he is mastering.

He does not need some distraught teacher demanding that he be drugged. He must answer the call of duty and vanquish many a villain and—often portrayed by his father—the giant. He has pirates to fight, dinosaurs to tame, kingdoms to subdue, and empires to build. •

Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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