I was a horrible student in school. Most of my schooling involved me barely passing the required courses. I had a tremendous range of grades and a rather strange mix of classes. For instance, I had to retake freshman English and world history (and some others). Yet I was in advanced placement math.
My teachers had no idea what to do with a student like me. Or, rather, most of them didn’t. So I ended up failing courses that should have been easy – English for instance. I love reading, and have learned to love writing. I’m fairly good at both. Yet, I flunked basic English not because of lack of reading or writing ability, but simple lack of executive functioning combined with a way schools have of taking something that kids have natural talent at and turning it into a boring, dull subject.
That’s the first problem I had with school. It didn’t help that I was getting the shit beat out of me, I was incredibly lonely, and was suicidal during most of my schooling. But, ultimately, even if those things weren’t happening, I didn’t do good with school. My college career, bookmarked by 4.0 GPAs during my first and last semesters was pretty lackluster. And college was a very happy and enjoyable time for me, so I can’t blame that on the abuse and depression.
I was plenty capable of doing well in school academically. As I mentioned, I did great at the beginning and end of my college career – even with difficult classes like engineering physics. And I did good my last year of high school, but we’ll get to why later. But, in general I couldn’t do it.
The first reason I didn’t do well was simply executive function. My ability to maintain a schedule and keep up with homework is variable. Sometimes it’s relatively easy (at least as easy as it is for anyone). Sometimes it’s very, very difficult – even impossible. I just can’t finish, sometimes can’t even start. That’s the autistic inertia you’ll see autistics, but not professionals, talk about.
Sometimes, through sheer willpower, I could overcome that – at least for a time. But, inevitably, there’s a crash coming soon afterward. From my experience, I can keep it up for about a year, if there’s tremendous motivation. But no more than that. That’s why I did good my senior year of high school (4.0 there, but not other years, as I graduated “in the top of the bottom quarter of my class”). But I had some significant motivation. I had two things that year – a mentor, which I’ll get to in a bit, and my parents’ help.
My parents helped (actually my mom) by making a deal with me. “I’ll write you a note to get out of school anytime you want, for any reason, if you bring home A’s on your report card.” For a kid who faced abuse at school, few things can motivate as much as getting away from ones’ abusers. Now I don’t suggest that we abuse autistic kids so that we can give some motivation in the form of getting away from abusers. But for me, this was exactly what I needed. I needed a break. And it wasn’t just from abuse – it was from the stress of the routine, that I simply couldn’t maintain. I could do my burst of energy and activity, then take a day or two off from school. That helped.
My mentor was also a huge help – for two reasons. She was the computer instructor in the school, at a time when my school was one of the first schools in the world getting hooked up to the internet. Because hooking schools to the internet, particularly in a rural area, was pretty unusual, nobody had rules about how to do it yet. So I got to run wires through the school, set up servers, and, in general, just learn how the internet worked. This teacher saw that this was something I was interested in, had aptitude for, and she could build upon. So she turned me loose and took a huge risk with me. She also told me that she would arrange for me to get out of any class I was doing well in if I wanted to work on the internet instead – once again, a great motivator!
What’s amazing about this instructor was that I never had her as an instructor – she saw me in a computer lab, saw that I had some interest in computers, and did what someone who loves teaching does – she taught me. Not with formal lesson plans, which wouldn’t have worked well with me, but by letting me do something I valued. It had a great side-effect of turning into my career (I’m employed today “making the internet work”), and has let me earn a good living for myself. At my company, I’m the least formally educated person in my peer group. That opportunity was available to me because of the experience I gained, starting with running ethernet cables in high school.
Yet, while this was happening, I was getting career advice. They felt all high school students should make plans for their future. Fair enough, but horrible implementation. Ever since I was 5, I wanted to program computers. Once I was 10 or so, I knew I wanted to do computer security. When I was 25, I was programming computer security systems – I was the only person I knew who was doing exactly what he dreamed of doing as a small child. How many people end up in their dream job? I’d consider that success.
So, I remember my career counseling. I remember filling out worksheets to find out what I was “good” at, or what I had “aptitude” for – and finding out I should be a file clerk or mechanic. I remember then talking to the actual staff, and telling them what I wanted to do. The most memorable experience was one where I was told, “Computer programming? That requires college. I don’t think that’s the best choice. Have you considered something like welding?”
Now, I have great respect for someone who can weld well. I married a highly skilled welder! I look at what my wife can do with a few pieces of scrap metal and am always amazed. But I can’t do that. Part of it is that I’ve never had training in welding – but part of it is that it isn’t what I have aptitude for. I’d probably be able to become an okay welder, with enough education, practice, and time. But I’m a good programmer, and much more helpful to society as someone who can practice his craft at that level than merely at the okay level. Ironically, his comment about college also was wrong. I finished college last year, about 16 years after I started it. I never had a college degree when I was hired at a job.
That’s my problem with schools and career counselors. Most look at the typical path from A to B. I’m not typical. I’ll never be typical. I can’t do school and succeed the way my peers can. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have things to offer the world, even if I might have to take a bit more twisty of a path to get from A to B. Fortunately, some people saw my ability, and I had good mentors who helped me not with the technical stuff (although they did that by letting me loose on it!), but being able to engage me in my weaker areas while I was focused on my strengths. I’ll write about that sometime, but this is long enough.
But in the meantime, I don’t want any career advice. At least not from the system that thought it would be better to be an okay welder than a good programmer. (for what it’s worth, I shudder when I think of the loss to society because others who would be great welders who are now just okay programmers – it’s a loss either way around)