My grades in elementary, middle, and high school were less than desirable. Actually, they were horrible because I always did the bare minimum — C’s and D’s were common. As for college, I completed one semester but with two incomplete grades because I didn’t attend those classes. School was just a distraction.
I remember in either fourth or fifth grade, I was placed in a class for “slow-learners” to augment my normal curriculum. In sixth grade, I had a mild speech disorder; I occasionally stuttered. I remember in Mrs. Snelling’s sixth grade class, she went around the room so each of us could read a couple of paragraphs but when it was my turn, I froze. I stammered the same first few words over and over for at least a minute or two until she finally said, “That’s okay. Maybe you just need a drink water.”
Sadly, I don’t recall reading an entire book in high school. As for book reports, I usually just skimmed through them and haphazardly wrote a report. I seldom took books home and would often complete homework an hour before it was due — usually during another class! That is… if I turned in any homework at all.
I loved learning and solving problems but the things I found intriguing weren’t part of the school’s curriculum. So, I just neglected school and pursued my own interests. Furthermore, I belittled those areas of study which I considered irrelevant such as art and literature. Like most immature teenagers, I declared that those things would never be of any use to me in the “real world.”
I did not have the discipline to simply memorize facts and regurgitate them on demand. In my mind, this process of memorizing facts was just a distraction which took time away from my interests.
“Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities–that’s training or instruction–but is rather a making visible what is hidden as a seed… To be educated, a person doesn’t have to know much or be informed, but he or she does have to have been exposed vulnerably to the transformative events of an engaged human life…One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated.” — Thomas Moore (1779–1852)
Despite my stubborn youth and disinterest in school, today I consider myself an educated, successful person — a fact many of my friends and colleagues would agree with. Before anyone accuses me of being pretentious or you proponents of higher education dismiss my story, please allow me to explain.
First and foremost, I believe education is one the greatest gifts one can give themselves and secondly, each and everyone of us define “success” differently. In my case, my earliest definition of success was almost a synonym for “wealth.” Today, my definition of “success” is more tightly coupled with “contentment.” To that end, “education in the broadest sense is any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability of an individual.”
After “squeaking” by high school, I joined the military at age 18 and in retrospective, it was just what I needed. I learned self-discipline and focus. I learned that we can’t always do just the things that we want to do. We have a responsibility to ourselves and others. If you don’t agree and you’re content sitting around misquoting Nietzsche, listening to Phish, enjoying sweet cheeba while selling braided anklets on the boardwalk to tourists, then continue to live free! You’ve found the happiness many are still pursuing.
My passion for literature was sparked by a desire to escape reality. When I was in the Navy, I was deployed to the remote island of Adak, Alaska and then later in my career I served aboard combat ships and fast attack submarines. I began to read contemporary novels but soon acquired a taste for the classics.
As I read more and more, my vocabulary increased and I remember repeating words and phrases from the books that I’ve read — usually out of context. Nonetheless, I continued to read and my ability to communicate improved. It was no longer about trying to impress people with pompous words and phrases; it was about more easily conveying my opinions or articulating a complex task. For someone like me working in a technical field, the ability to effectively communicate is tantamount to success.
I grew considerably during my eight years of military service. Since leaving the military fourteen years ago, I’ve worked in various industries as an engineer and today I have earned the title of Principal Engineer. Considering my disinterest in literature and lack of communications skills years earlier, I think it is ironic that today I write numerous research papers, technical design documents, and routinely speak to large audiences.
I attribute this to the opportunities afforded to me — specifically, by those people who saw potential in me. One could argue that those people only saw potential in me because of the positive results of my previous activities. However, I would argue that those people took a chance on me because they believed that regardless of the task at hand, I would prevail. I had an innate ability to not only design a solution but inspire and effectively communicate with my peers facilitating a collaborative environment.
If you know a young person who says they’re “good with computers” and they believe they’re going to earn a lot of money despite their poor writing and speaking skills, tell them that a key operational characteristic of technology is maintainability. If its design and function isn’t clearly documented, how are others supposed to maintain it? Secondly, tell them that if they think they are “smarter” than everyone else, then others may not understand their innovative design. How will they explain the merits of their superior design?
I continue to grow and learn as an engineer but over the last few years my interests have expanded into areas I once considered “artsy fartsy.” Besides reading, my new outlets include calligraphy, history, photography, and poetry. When I read (or re-read) a book, I truly enjoy the book differently than when I was younger. For example, when I read “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” I no longer just visualize an action/adventure story. I understand his emotional ties to a culture and people he had grown to love. After reading the “The Great Gatsby”, I thought about how others are perceived — how we label people with little to no information about them.
[ Insert high school English teacher’s smile here ]
In general, reading can be more than just enjoying a story; it can touch you on a deeper level and give you a greater appreciation for things you never considered. As for my own poetry, it is much too personal to share with anyone yet. As for my skills as a calligrapher, I am far from being an expert so I limit myself to only writing a few lines on an occasional card. For me, the reward is the learning and discovery of new things — the journey — not necessarily the attainment of knowledge itself.