I don't normally post another person's blog post. In fact, I've never done it before but my good friend Donald DeSantis wrote an awesome piece on education and what it means to him as part of a contest for Vittana. The post is part of the Vittana “Make a Difference” blogger challenge. The contest asks people what education means to them, and how to make a difference in the world. The writer that gets the most retweets and donations in their name “wins” (though the real winners will be the recipients of the loans).
I am currently working on a longterm relationship with Vittana in agreement to produce 1 video per month for about a year. It's important to me to work with companies who want to change the world and Vittana is doing just that. I'm really looking forward to this relationship. You should stop by their site and see what they're all about. For now, read Donald's story about how much of a pain in the ass he was in school.
A sudden rapping of ruler on chalkboard jolted me back to reality. It was my math teacher. The entire class stared at me with looks ranging from bemused to annoyed. “Donald, I don’t care how good a writer you are. Close your notebook and pay attention!”
I loved songwriting. Unfortunately, my school didn’t offer creative writing classes. So instead of sticking to the curriculum, I created my own. Math class became writing class. Problem solved. I had no idea I would be doing this for the rest of my life, replacing formal curriculum with my own lessons. I was only twelve years old.
I sailed through high school in three years. I graduated with good grades. My teachers regarded me as a pain in the ass, but a bright pain in the ass. I continued focusing on music. I paid my classes the smallest amount of attention possible.
I entered the University of Washington in the fall of 1999. Barely seventeen, I was now making music with a mish-mash of backpack rappers whose eclectic style flourished during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. I helped promote shows alongside people who later came to symbolize Seattle hip hop. This included folks like Prometheus Brown and Sabzi (before they started Blue Scholars) and Meli, who went on to manage booking for many popular venues in Seattle. If I had put half as much time into my classes as I did into music, I would have been a very successful student. I didn’t.
It was the fall of my freshman year. Our math professor approached the lecture podium. “Overall,” he said, “you guys did quite well on the midterm. Someone, of course, got fifty points: a perfect score.” He stopped to let the 400 person lecture hall groan in unison. “The lowest score,” he paused dramatically, “was one point. One point out of fifty.” The very cute girl in the front row let out a pitying laugh. It was the kind of laugh you laugh when a hapless puppy falls off a chair, or trips down some stairs. It was the kind of laugh you feel bad for laughing, but the kind you can’t help yourself from laughing. I didn’t laugh because I knew what she didn’t: she was laughing at me. My stomach sank and face flushed a deep red.
I ran after my professor when the class ended. “I’m the one,” I said breathlessly. “I’m the guy who got one point on the midterm.” He looked surprised, then reassured me. “I wouldn’t assume that. Wait until you get the midterm back.” “No,” I insisted, “it was me. I know it was me.” He looked at me, now quite seriously. “This was not a hard test. One point is basically what you get for putting your name on the midterm. Have you talked to disabled student services? You likely have a learning disability that they can help you to identify.”
I stood gaping at him. The problem wasn’t a disability. It was neglect. But in that moment I realized my unwitting descent from wunderkind to flaming disaster. I’d like to say this wake-up call turned me into a model student, but it wouldn’t be true. The next quarter I barely passed Intro to Computer Science. I enrolled in Two Dimensional Design and the instructor gave me the lowest possible passing grade at UW: 0.7. (In a satisfying twist, design and software development are the two things I do best these days.)
After a miserable run at UW, I decided that leaving on my own accord would be better than getting kicked out. I had no desire to slow down on music and doubted my ability to focus on anything else. Around that time, I heard Western Washington University allowed some students to design degrees based on their interests. I transferred and began working with WWU faculty to create a curriculum. My classes ranged from recording arts to music theory, communications to web design. For the first time in years, I excelled.
At 20 years old, I moved back to Seattle and opened a creative arts space. It was on 10th and Pike, next to what’s now Neumo’s on Capitol HIll. It was primarily a recording studio, though we had a large art gallery and event space. Prometheus Brown (who I knew from UW) came through. Macklemore would drop by and show off unfinished songs from Language of My World. Grieves was there constantly, hanging out and working on beats. This was where I met Kyle and where Mike Folden and I laid the foundation for a really amazing friendship.
Over time, I’ve become better at spotting my disinterest and bowing out early rather than persisting in obligation. This sounds obvious, but it took me years to understand and even longer to practice.
For “nontraditional students” like me, the future has never looked brighter. We have the Khan Academy and iTunes U in our pockets. Standford runs classes online and opens them to the public. Private companies like Treehouse and Code Academy teach us to code for less money than we spend on cable television.
This future may be bright, but it’s unevenly distributed. In 2007 I met a Spanish language instructor in Oaxaca. He had lived in the U.S. for ten years and only recently returned to Mexico. I asked him what he missed most about the states. He paused, then looked up and smiled. “The libraries. They were amazing. You would walk in and be surrounded by all of this knowledge. If you wanted to take a book home, they let you.” This response humbled me.
Most of the world doesn’t have broadband connecting them to Khan Academy and iTunes U. They probably don’t have a public library and community college in every town. They may face economic, gender, or religious discrimination. The greatest challenge I faced was my own single-mindedness (and it nearly sunk me).
However circuitous and humiliating, my education was important. It imparted the patience required to gain technical competence in a subject (recording arts) and the self-confidence to actually do something with those skills. And while my life in software appears very different than my life in music, the core is unchanged. I wake up every day and get to create whatever it is I can imagine. I’m incredibly grateful.
Education is a gift I took for granted and struggled to accept. Today I value it above all else. Here’s to the dreamers and underdogs, whether they’re following lesson plans or creating their own.