November 7, 2011 4:00 AM EST

More than 40 years after its inception, the New York City Marathon on Sunday beckoned another legion of runners to test themselves. For many runners, it was a test of physicality. But for Maickel Melamed, it was a mental test to overcome a struggle that resulted from a birth defect 36 years ago.

No mother wants to drug her kids. Nobody lies around pensively stroking her pregnant belly and thinks, "Just can't wait to medicate this little sucker." But here's the thing: Unless we are going to radically alter the way we teach kids, there's not much else parents can do to get some kids through school. In his recent book "ADHD Does Not Exist" and his essay for Time, Dr. Richard Saul suggests that attention deficit disorders are massively over-diagnosed and a bunch of the symptoms occur in any busy human being. He warns that we are looking for a chemical solution to a problem that needs a therapeutic one. But this is a bit like saying that we already know how to prevent AIDS (just no sex or sharing needles), so we don't need a vaccine or a cure. It's not as easy as it sounds.[time-pullquote]We swung wildly from feeling stricken about drugging him to feeling guilty we had waited so long.[/time-pullquote] Everyone who defends giving her kids stimulants has a story and here's mine: I have a charming but mischievous son who skipped the part of elementary school where kids learn to read. Was read to as a child, bookish home, did first grade twice, had tutors, the whole nine yards. Still, when shown a picture of a hen with the word HEN underneath, he'd read CHICKEN. Maddening. He was diagnosed as dyslexic (another condition which "doesn't exist," according to some, if we're counting) and we sent him to a school that specializes in that difficulty. The school was great, but we got a lot of calls. There was a certain amount of our son being sent out of the room. This is in class sizes of no more than 12. Therapy, sleep, "finding a passion," were tried. No stone was left unturned. The subject of meds came up — nobody ever says it's mandatory, it just comes up in conversation — but we held firm. [WE DIDN'T WANT TO MEDICATE? a sentence here saying that, plus why not] What would induce a parent to mess with the chemical balance of a growing child's brain? We may have stood our ground forever, except for the aforementioned "charming" part. Turns out our son was something of a Pied Piper. If he decided to wander off task, he took half the class with him. The nice folks at the nice school pointed out it wasn't very fair to the other parents. It's like that whole other childhood medication controversy, vaccination. Sometimes you don't just do it for you. Maybe you can stomach your kid not learning, but it's not cool if he takes the more vulnerable — and sometimes less able — kids with him. But, in any case, what modern parent can approach the specter of a child who doesn't learn with any equanimity? Even a not-very-attentive adult can see that the knowledge sector of the economy is the safest haven in downturns. The gap between those with college degrees and those without is ever widening. Not just in income, but in life areas like successful marriages and health. The options for a kid who can't sit and learn are not a slightly less lucrative career, they're a much more miserable life. So here's what would induce a parent to start messing with the brain chemistry of their growing kid's brain: fear. As we saw our child fall behind, and we looked at what lay ahead, the cold hand of impending doom got us by the neck and squeezed. The older a person is, the harder it is to learn to read, we're told. If a child can't read, he can't learn any other subject, including math. So the kid needs to be able to concentrate; he needs to be able to take tests; he needs to be able to hear what his teachers are saying. Either he needs a class size of about six, with an incredibly captivating teacher, or he needs a little help. We started giving him meds at age 11. Within two weeks, there was a marked change. That year, he learned to read — and write. I got my first comprehensible Mother's Day card. ("Yeah, the teacher warned me that you would cry," he said.) We swung wildly from feeling stricken about drugging him to feeling guilty we had waited so long. Could we get our kid through school another way? Maybe. Perhaps spend half the day in P.E. Or get him a governess instead of a classroom. Or find a teaching style that is different, somehow, more kinesthetic or less visual. But they're all just maybes and he's not our only kid and he's not our only life challenge and his useful school years are slipping away. The meds work, are blessedly free of side effects and, far from being handed out willy-nilly, are a huge pain to get every month. When I asked my now 16-year-old son if he liked taking his meds, he said "Sure. They help me concentrate," and when I followed up with: "Would you rather be able to concentrate without them?" he gave me one of those specially-reserved-for-moronic-parents-looks and replied, nice and slow, so I'd get it. "Wouldn't anybody?" Right. Wouldn't any parent prefer to get their kids through school drug free? Yep. (Well, mostly. It's hard to believe the growth in ADHD diagnoses is completely organic. [ONE MORE SENTENCE HERE... WHAT IS THIS NODDING AT? HYPER-COMPETITIVE PARENTS WANTING AN EDGE?]) But if we want to eradicate a chemical solution to what might be a behavioral disorder, we've got a whole economy and education system to reorganize. While you guys get on that, I've got to get my kid through school.

Born with a condition called hypotonia, Melamed suffers from low muscle tone, which makes most activities that require any strength extremely difficult. For the past two years, he has been training in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela for the 2011 New York City Marathon. He applied for the marathon last year and was at first denied, but after completing a half marathon in Miami and joining Archilles International — an organization that helps people with disabilities participate in mainstream athletics — he was later accepted.

Photographer Romina Hendlin, also from Caracas, has been following Melamed since 2009, first as a student in his motivational class in high school, then as a friend and now as a photographer. “It’s the perseverance he has to follow his dreams,” she says of her interest in documenting Melamed’s journey. “He doesn’t take no for an answer. He taught us that you can’t accept no — always ask how.”

The New York City Marathon was important for Melamed to run because it is symbolic of how he lives his life. “If you dream it, make it happen,” he says. “I’m very excited and very focused, and just to be in the start line is a huge step. There are a lot of people who want to achieve their goals but don’t get to the start line. It’s symbolic of my dream and [theirs].”

Hendlin is part of a team of nearly 30 people who helped Melamed complete the marathon. The average completion time is about four hours; it took Melamed more than 15. “My celebration will be internal,” Melamed says. “This is going to help a lot of people. I will be the vehicle to help others find their way.”

Romina Hendlin is a photographer based in New York. More of her work can be seen here.

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