As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.
“I said, maybe he’s bored,” Ms. Phelps recalled saying to his teacher. “Her comment to me — ‘Oh, he’s not gifted.’ I told her I didn’t say that, and she didn’t like that much. I was a teacher myself so I didn’t challenge her, I just said, ‘What are you going to do to help him?’ ”
In the elementary grades at their suburban Baltimore school, Ms. Phelps said, Michael excelled in things he loved — gym and hands-on lessons, like science experiments. “He read on time, but didn’t like to read,” she said. “So I gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages, even if he just read the pictures and captions.”
She will never forget one teacher’s comment: “This woman says to me, ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything.’ ”
His grades were B’s and C’s and a few D’s.
It was a tough period. Ms. Phelps and her husband, a state trooper, were divorcing. She had just gone back to school to get a master’s degree to become an administrator, she said, and at the same time she had to be the 24/7 parent.
Michael grew like crazy, but not evenly — his ears looked huge, and when he ran, his arms swung below his knees. (He was on his way to being 6 feet 4 inches tall with an arm span of 6 feet 7 inches.) Kids bullied him, and when he whacked one on the school bus, he was suspended from the bus for several days....
At age 9, Michael was put on Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat hyperactivity.
His mother thinks it helped a little. “He seemed to be able to focus longer,” she said. “He could get through homework without moving around so much.” She said he was still a middling student. “It might have raised some C’s to B’s,” she said. But if a homework assignment had to be at least four sentences, she said, “he’d just do four sentences.”
After two years, Michael asked to get off the meds. He had to go to the school nurse’s office to take a pill at lunch, she said, and felt stigmatized. “Out of the blue, he said to me: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, Mom. My buddies don’t do it. I can do this on my own.’ ”
“I was always stern as a parent,” she said, “but from Day 1, I included my children as part of the decision process. So I listened.” After consulting with Dr. Wax, Michael stopped medication.
-Phelps’s Mother Recalls Helping Her Son Find Gold-Medal Focus