How I Spent My College Years

The Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.  If you click through to that article, you’ll see a lot of talk about academic excellence, expected Nobel Prizes for graduates, all the wonderful achievements that TAMSters have been able to make.

You won’t see anything about me, or the other students like me.  I’m one of the students that TAMS would rather never existed. But I’m still glad it was there.

There are two types of students who end up in programs like TAMS and TIP.  The first type is the student who works hard to achieve academically.  This type of student knows how to study from an early age, is familiar with doing homework, works diligently on all assignments.  They strive to achieve those goals that parents dream of when their babies are born, to become doctors and lawyers and scientists.

The second type is the one like me.  I never had to work for any of this.  I never learned how to study. Assignments were always put off until the last minute and completed in a great rush the day before they were due. I liked learning new things, but I enjoyed that knowledge for its own sake.  I never wanted to work to be the best in my class, to have the most amazing science fair project.  I received a lot of praise and preening and showing off from my parents when I was little, and so when I started falling a bit behind those students who worked so hard, it was disappointing…at first.  Then I got over it.  I didn’t care enough to take that first place back.  For me, taking the tests that got me into places like TIP and TAMS was sort of a curiosity, a bit of, “Gee, I wonder just how good I can do on this one?”

What I don’t think TAMS realizes when they try to brush us under the rug is how much of a good thing the program was to kids like me. Those busy-bee students would have done well in any environment.  Left alone in their high schools, they would have continued to study and work, graduating tops in their classes and heading off to college just like their predecessors.  The students like me, though, are the ones who used to make people shake their heads and think, “But he had such a bright future!” Had I stayed in my high school, I would have continued down a path I had already found, following the kids who smoked and did drugs, settling for small-town excitement, continuing to flounder in a teenage world that I didn’t even want to embrace.

TAMS gave me the opportunity to see another option, another slice of life.  I got to spend time, more time than the three weeks a year that TIP allowed, in an environment where I wasn’t unique.  I met others who played with computers and played with music because they were fun, not just to win competitions or fulfill an elective.  I met others who read the same books I did.  I met other smart, intelligent college students who still lived life for fun, who took care of both their intellectual side and their rebellious side.  Some of these were fellow TAMSters, but most were not, and I would never have encountered them and been able to join them had I stayed at home.

I didn’t excel academically at TAMS, but I got a chance to jumpstart my life in a way that was good for me, to skip a few years of social adolescence that held no benefit for me, even if it wasn’t the way that my parents or the administrators envisioned.  I was in the fourth class at TAMS, and more than half my class, like me, failed to earn a diploma from the program.  You won’t hear that statistic from TAMS. They consider us a failure, an embarrassment. But I don’t have to be a good little statistic to say I benefited from the program, and that I am still grateful, 20+ years later, for the opportunity it gave me.

Forcing “Socialization”

Dawn Hentrich posted this article yesterday:

Anyway—I was talking to the resource teacher about this and mentioned that they didn’t play with Ben. And she said—“Well, we can make them play with him”—as if that were the most natural solution.

And it really rubbed me the wrong way.

It rubs me the wrong way, too. It also points to the heart of my biggest complaint about not just government school, but most private schools as well.

Our idea of “socialization” as it occurs in these grade school environments is artificial and unnatural, and leads to worse, not better, social outcomes.

Children in grade schools are placed there generally without their consent.  In school, they spend up to 7 or 8 hours a day in close proximity to a large group of children whose only common characteristics are age and zip code (and maybe religion or race, in the case of a private school).  During this time, they are repeatedly told that negative opinions may not be voiced where adults can hear them. Everybody is expected to get along, do the same work at the same time, without complaining.

There is no place else in life where this type of socialization takes place.

Imagine if it did.  Imagine if, as an adult, you were informed that because of your age, you would be working in the 36-year-old office.  Everybody else in your office is 36 years old, too. You are told which office you will work in, and you are told what kind of work you will do.  Somebody else decides what you should be interested in, what kind of work will be most beneficial to you.  Everybody in your office does the same work, regardless of how good they are.  Everybody in your office goes to lunch together, too, in the same cafeteria, sitting at the same table.  Again, you are not given a choice.

Are you feeling stifled yet? Frustrated? Not listened to?

Here is where it becomes more difficult to find an analogy that we can relate to at all…again, because this is a completely foreign situation in adulthood. Yes, we do often work at jobs we don’t like, next to people we don’t like.  As adults, though, we can move. We can change jobs, we can move to a different place. We can eat lunch someplace different, we can stop going to that bar.  We have the freedom to choose our associations.

A group of football-loving, athletic adults may not choose to hang out with other adults who prefer throwing dice to throwing balls.  The football adults will hang out together and watch games and toss the pigskin, and the gaming adults will hang out together and wage fictional warfare and write code.  And they will all be happy. We don’t insist that the gamers must go play football for their own good, or that the ballers must go roll up some new characters for their own good.

Why would we do this to our children? Why would we put them into a situation where they have no power whatsoever over their lives, force situation after situation on them that they would prefer to avoid, give them no real choices in anything…and then act surprised when they turn around and exercise the little power they can find as bullies?