In some respects, I had it easy as a teenager. I had great parents and things were a bit unconventional at times. My mom let me use her car practically whenever I wanted (none of my friends had this luxury), so I never felt the need to spend my hard earned $6.50/hour as a local video store attendant on a vehicle.
She Also Let Me Drop Out of High School My Sophomore Year, When I Was Only 15.
Now wait a second and let me explain…
I had come back from a 6 week stint in her hometown in Argentina and told her, “Mom, I’m not going back to high school, and you can’t make me”. I hated high school with a passion; I had begged her to send me away. I was miserable and utterly depressed. High school was an awful social experiment that I could no longer bear. It was a Dark Time.
Her answer was immediate. Not even a bat of an eyelash. “Okay, honey. You don’t have to go back”. Half an hour later she came back upstairs toting a community college schedule. After all, she was, and still is, a PhD professor herself. She asked, “If I paid for you to take a class, would you be interested? Have a look”.
I wasn’t expecting this. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, and I had no real plan as a fresh high school dropout. But, I wasn’t totally against the idea either. I mean, I wasn’t especially lazy or incompetent and I wasn’t using drugs or associating with the usual high school drop out crowd too much. I just didn’t conform well to the cookie-cutter environment, and thought most of my high school peers were total idiots who’d rather blow up East Timor than send United Nations representatives in to help with their referendums and gain freedom from their oppressor (yes, a peer actually suggested this as a solution in 1999, when my father was sent there as a United Nations observer. “Why don’t we just nuke ’em all?”). It was the final straw. I needed Freedom.
Leafing through the catalogue of classes, I saw there was so much to choose from… And I could even choose a class that started in the afternoon! Oh, the excitement of not having to wake up at 7am and having choices!
One class in particular caught my eye: Multicultural Studies 210: African Culture– “Survey of ancient, medieval and modern peoples of Africa. Emphasis on social, religious, political institutions and contributions of Africans to World Culture”, taught by Dr. Ernest Johnson. I had recently finished reading Roots, by Alex Haley, and was pretty intrigued by the journey of Kunta Kinte and life in his African village. Besides, the Travel Bug was already born, and this class suited those needs well.
A Few Weeks Later, I Was Officially a College Student, and My Life Changed Forever.
I went from feeling like a total nincompoop C (even D) student to being on the Dean’s List every quarter of University, pretty much overnight. I suddenly realized I liked school and learning, and that it could be exciting and rewarding. The possibilities were no longer as limited as I thought, and I no longer had to deal with high school Authoritarian Prison Guards* (of course they weren’t all bad, but I was an angsty teen, after all). No more forging sick notes when skipping class. No more encounters with Mrs. Evil Face Secretary Who Hates Kids. No more threats of detention for being 2 minutes late to class (the one quarter I decided to get solid A’s and was in the top of my class). No more getting paper wads thrown at me by Mr. G. for sleeping through his 8am class**. No more dealing with all those moronic high schoolers. I was free, free, free, and choosing my own path with delight. The Bad Times started lifting. There was light at the end of a Very Dark Tunnel.
The following academic year, with the full support of both my wonderful parents, I re-enrolled in my local high school under the condition they allowed me to do a program called Running Start full-time, where eligible Juniors and Seniors can take college classes paid for 100% by the government, and earn high school credit at the same time. Because my high school grades had been so low, I was not technically eligible. However, with a lot of persuading/demanding on my part, the high school agreed to give me a trial run, so long as I passed the placement tests. Thanks to my dad who helped me foster a deep love for literature and poetry, I passed the reading and writing portion of that exam between naps on the desk. Math on the other hand… Let’s just say I wish Khan Academy started a bit earlier.
At 18, I Graduated High School On Time With Nearly Two Years of College Finished and Paid for by the Government.
My GPA had increased from 2.5 to 3.7. Had I gone a traditional route (college at 18, moving to a dorm or with friends), it would have likely cost me or my family around $15,000 or more, instead of the few hundred bucks my mom put into those first few classes. At 18, I dedicated 13 months to doing volunteer work. First in Argentina for 3 months, and then in AmeriCorps NCCC in the deep South. The Education Award I received for my 10 month Americorps service paid for my 3rd year of University. My generous parents paid for my 4th year in-state tuition fees, and I paid my own (cheap) housing and living expenses.
None of this would have happened without Unconventional Thinking. It’s thanks to the freedom and support my parents gave me. It would have been so easy for them to just force me back into the mould…
It’s also thanks to Dr. Johnson who taught class in the sunshine by the fountain, gave us freedom to express ourselves, and chose top quality material. I was lucky, and struck upon an excellent teacher who fostered an environment that was a pleasure to be a part of. My experience would have been entirely altered had I had the misfortune of getting a not-so-great teacher.
Thanks to Unconventional Thinking on the part of a few people, my life was changed forever, and I saved a pretty penny along the way.
*Is it ironic that I became a middle school teacher and loved it??
**When my sense of humor matured sufficiently, I actually thought Mr. G’s approach to me sleeping through class was pretty hilarious, and I later realized he was one of The Good Ones. I was just too sleepy to realize it at the time, and for that, I send him my apologies!
Here’s a letter I found on my desk last year, and basically sums up why the teaching profession can be so rewarding. I’ve kept a little file of these types of notes over the years: