When I was about 16 years old, I dropped out of high school. I’ve waffled on whether that was the right decision, but I’ve never really regretted it. The school system we had wasn’t right for me. I’ve never excelled under ‘authoritarian’ conditions and even in adolescence, it felt demeaning to have to ask for permission to use the bathroom, or worse, have to carry around one of those massive keychains that screams “I’m about to relieve myself”.
Of course, looking back, I can see why those things were necessary for the whole of the system to work, imperfectly as it may. Kids, as a general rule, can’t be trusted. This is not a discussion about how they could be trusted, or how your kids can be trusted—I believe in that, but it’s not the point right now.
I was a bright and mostly honest kid in a system that fell somewhere on what I’d call the prison spectrum. Highly ordered, mandated, little reward for creativity, and a lot of rules that seemed arbitrary when applied to a big diverse population. I didn’t rebel though, I just withdrew from learning. Stopped trying, stopped caring, focused on my social life and walked the line of respect and responsibility just well enough not to get in too much trouble. I was a C student most of the time and that seemed plenty good enough to me when considering the alternative.
When I dropped out in 10th grade, I spent about a year doing nothing, as you’d expect a dropout to do, before getting a job with a small local tech company. I found it interesting enough. I liked having a cubicle at the time—made me feel like a real adult. Making money was also pretty neat. But I wasn’t terribly motivated by what I was doing. I looked around and saw opportunities all over the place. I thought, “I could probably go to school and learn to do what that guy over there is doing…”
Fast foreword a few years, and I’d gotten a job at a religious bookstore. For the first time, my interest was piqued. I was heavily invested in a religious faith at the time and I started reading books thanks to the store’s generous lending policy. I studied a lot harder than I’d studied anything before, and getting quite good at it, I eventually ended up in admissions office of a local bible college. A life as a preacher seemed appealing.
But, I decided to put off school again when a friend from church presented an opportunity to work with a media watchdog company. It was real adult money, working alongside a friend, in an office environment, doing something that seemed fun and important to me at the time. Admittedly, I’m a bit embarrassed to have worked for their cause now, but I digress.
While at the watchdog company, I did some writing. I did some organizing, and I thought to myself, I could really do this if I went back to school for journalism and business.
Luckily, the friend who’d gotten me the job was also an aspiring photographer. With perhaps a tinge of competitiveness, I wanted to get into photography too. Hell, my dad was an amateur (in its original sense) and I really loved what he did. So I bought a camera, I bought some lenses, and me and my friend started shooting during lunch breaks, and on the weekends. I started thinking to myself, “I could go to school for photography and art, and I could do this for a living!”
Fast foreword through a sort of mini-emotional breakdown, a departure from my faith, and a falling out with my church confidantes, and I found myself working at a Thai restaurant serving tables and still taking pictures for fun on the weekends. One day, I got a call from an old family friend who needed a wedding photographer. I reluctantly agreed, but with dollar signs in my eyes (holy shit, money for pictures, really?).
When the wedding day came, It was crazy. It was a blowout for me. I mean, the wedding went fine, but the pictures look like a disaster from my current perspective. There were more than 700 guests attending, a giant church, a gymnasium reception and a huge family that needed wedding formals. I wasn’t ready for any of it, but I made it through and learned some of the most important lessons of the career I’d eventually choose.
Then someone else asked me to shoot their wedding. It went better than last time. Then someone else. And it kept going. I stopped thinking about going to school, except for the specific challenges I was facing. I was already moving foreword and making progress and school, as a means of ‘certification’, seemed irrelevant.
But it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. Even though I didn’t take advantage of the education opportunities around me, I was benefitting from just having them around.
At every opportunity causing me to pause and wonder if I’d enjoy doing this or that for a living, the door was always left open by this sense of confidence that I could just go to school and learn how to do it. I could go and be a phone tech making a little money, and flirt with the idea of becoming a field tech with an education. I could go and work in a bookstore and tease my interest in being a preacher or author. I could work for a watchdog company and consider whether I’d like being a political pundit or journalist. I could do all of that without any sense of defeat. Nothing ever felt like a dead-end because education was always an option.
It was the possibility of a formal education that allowed me to worm my way around in life until I found something I really enjoyed doing. And when I found it, it turned out I didn’t really have to get an education because I was making one myself. And even now, when the occasional feeling of “is this really what I want to be doing?” comes up, education is right there to say, “Sure, you can do something else if you really want”.
That’s been my path so far. But there are lots of paths.
I know people I went to school with who did very well in their academics, who went on to college and then on to well paying jobs. And some who didn’t go to college and still went on to well paying jobs. I also know people who saw no path to an education, and they did not do as well in school and are not doing as well today. Some of them have gone to jail, others are just working for beer money.
Hope is a powerful thing. Without an education or hope, you probably have a criminal on your hands. Without an education but an abundance of hope, you have topsoil for human excellence, even if education isn’t the path to get there.
Thanks to Bernie Sanders in this presidential election cycle, we’re hearing a lot more about education from the stump than we have in previous cycles. “Free education!” Some people say derisively, as if an education is akin to a 60″ TV or a luxury car. And no, college is not the right answer for everyone. Yes, we need plumbers and electricians, garbage men, HVAC technicians, construction workers and janitors, but we need them have other options too. For some people, they love those jobs, but for others, alternate options are the very reason they don’t mind doing those jobs.
Those positions are not the bottom rung of society, but they become the bottom rung when they are filled with people who feel they have no other choices; when people have to be there, or be desperately poor. It’s not a bad job, unless you hate it and feel trapped.
Public education is an important factor in hope. The feeling that we’re not necessarily trapped doing what we’re doing. But unfortunately, that’s how a lot of people feel. They work too many hours at a job they don’t like to get an education for a job they would like, and even if they do, they’re saddled with debt they’ll be hard pressed to repay before taking a year off for an internship or something. Whining slackers, I know. But the thing is, every single one of us benefits from public education, whether we personally get that education or not. Either way, we all get to enjoy a better, safer, more economically equitable society because other people are getting that education. It matters to all of us, whether it’s obvious or not.
You don’t have to like education yourself, but stand up for it. It’s important to all of us.