An alternate way of learning would have worked better for my success

My energy wasn’t placed on schoolwork, but on what my parents and school counselors glibly called “extra curriculars.” Paintball, building computers, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer with friends.

I spent the days sleeping and nights in front of that computer. My mother chided me before she went to bed and again in the morning when she woke to see my sister off to school.

But what she didn’t understand is that when I hit the computer I was studying. That traditional school would not work for me, but that I was learning in the way I needed to learn. During those late hours, I read books online about theories in Web designing, the material properties of heat sinks, on static pressure fans and how they compared to air flow fans in mechanical part cooling. When I did go to school, it was for an introduction to computer science class, the only course I attended in those years of high school. I finished top of my computer science class.

Of course, those nightly Internet binges were not without misdirection. I often drank beer and smoked cigarettes while reading online. I shot back at my mother when she yelled, breaking potted plants one night when she threatened to call the police for my continued truancy.

My parents, who had divorced a few years earlier, felt hopeless, unable to rein in my constant verbal and physical outbursts and my refusal to go to class. They couldn’t connect with me, saw what they believed was me pulling away and becoming antisocial. It wasn’t hard for them to see a future marked by failure, violence, and maybe incarceration.

They had to do something.

And so one night they thought they found their answer in two men who took me from my bed at 2 a.m. and carted me off to a program meant for kids labeled “at-risk” or “troubled.”

I spent the next 288 days at behavioral redirection programs in Upstate New York, Massachusetts and Utah. Each aimed to reform my behavior and return me to my classmates as a prim and proper student.

Yes, the drinking and disobedience had gone too far and I needed an intervention. My parents tried everything and then felt they had no choice but to send me away. But I wonder today, now a parent myself, what might have happened if my parents had offered less criticism and more support. Perhaps I had become irredeemably out of control because the direction and encouragement I yearned for at home was absent.

I had gotten out of control, pushing back against an educational environment to which I could not conform. I became troubled. I rebelled. Then my parents were told the only way to save me was to send me away to behavior modification programs.

Tens of thousands of children are sent to these programs every year. Some are called therapeutic boarding schools or residential treatment facilities or wilderness expeditions. Having written about my time in these programs, I hear from parents frequently. The narrative is always the same: Their child is disconnecting from them and the only thing they think will bring them closer is to send them away.

But the experience left me scarred. One of my only takeaways was that for whatever joys I later discovered, I would own them without the direction or help of others. I would draw my own path to whatever I desired.

In the years after those programs, I taught myself various programming languages and the finer techniques of rapid machine design and construction, running finite element analysis on my own designs over weekends. I learned to speak conversational Italian and some Kurdish. My wife would even say I’m handy around the house, fixing broken light fixtures, leaky faucets, unsquared door frames. In a more formal setting, I might be called an autodidact, or someone who is self-taught.

Through a hatred of formal schooling, my parents and I failed for many years to understand that what I really needed to succeed was being allowed to find my passion.

There are ways we can help children do this: Alternative Education Campuses and specialty programs like community-based Vo-tech programs mirror dual education tracks, which found success overseas in countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. These apprenticeship-oriented programs take a young person’s interest and foster it from an early age. Developing childhood interests can benefit both individuals and society.

If my parents filled days with guidance and support to foster curiosity outside the classroom, instead of redirection to traditional academics, there would be very little against which a child could rebel. I realize this is easier said than done, of course, when we live in a society where traditional schooling reigns. But to at least consider this as our children grow and change, and as we see who they truly are, may save a few souls.

I consider this as I learn to raise my children, an infant girl and a toddler boy. I won’t pretend to know everything. My goal is to say I don’t know, let’s find out more, rather than this is how it must be done. I aim to be a companion in their journeys, not a warden. I will spend their lives, and my own, trying to understand them and to listen to their needs. This will help me direct them rather than allow my past, my anxieties, expectations, and experiences dictate their way forward. I aim to inspire their learning through curiosity, not resentment.

I often imagine what might have happened had I been told I could get my General Education Degree, attend a National Outdoor Leadership course, myriad other alternatives. Would I have been able to take an apprenticeship somewhere? Would I have found a trade to which I could have dedicated myself earlier, preventing all my later troubles and missteps into adulthood? I might have found peace much sooner.

We millennials are chided as a generation who were coddled and told we could do anything, receiving participation trophies no matter our performance. What we really are is a generation told to stick with outdated, one-size-fits-all modes of schooling that no longer apply to a world that has more ways to learn than ever before.

In my late teens, I quickly tired of sleeping on friends’ couches. I applied to colleges in an effort to shake things up and landed at an art college. Still today I’m not a good student, having skated through college with a 2.8 GPA and dropping
out of an Ivy League master’s program after the first semester. I flinch at the idea of formal schooling. And yet, I write for a living, an ostensibly academic, if not artistic, pursuit.

The coda of this story is that my father, eventually and to his credit, got behind me and supported whatever direction I wished to take. He recognized my difficulty with general education classes and offered an alternative, something I was already spending my time on: writing.

My mother followed, sending me essays and notes I had written dating back to grade school and praising them as early evidence of a fledgling career.

While struggling in college, I told my father there was a writing major where I studied. He suggested I change majors, follow a writing career. I did, and though my GPA didn’t change, I passed those writing courses with ease.

Writing and reporting became a brace against bad influences and influencers. Deadlines trumped drugs; reporting trips appealed more than bar stools. There seemed no choice between getting high or going out to a party when I had writing to do. I chased assignments with a sort of desperation, knowing that keeping idle hands busy was my way out of trouble.

With my father’s nudging and gift of a plane ticket to New York City, I interviewed and landed a job at the New York Times, writing everything from news and culture to essays about my youth and travel.

The path I took was circuitous but ultimately true to those adolescent interests. As a journalist and writer, I am often up late at night, stuck in front of a computer trying to learn new things and to share them with whoever’s listening: much like when I was a teen, right back where I’d always needed to be.