In the middle of a conference on education, it would be remiss for me to not give thanks to the schools that got me here.
Willowbrook Elementary, where my kindergarten teacher said I'd learn anything I wanted through reading, where the librarians made a special exception to the book check-out limit when I began to max it out each day, and where I had my first taste of small nudges making big systems changes when the grown-ups implemented my solution to the bake sale product drought (give a one-free-goodie ticket to each kid who brought a plate of goodies from their parents). A much younger neighborhood kid came up to me years later when I was in high school. "Are you the one who had the idea for bake sale tickets? I heard the teachers mentioning your name about it yesterday." I should go back and have breakfast there with some of my old teachers; I haven't done that in a couple years.
Maple Middle School, where I learned to write my heart out and deliberately wear my geekhood on my sleeve. Where I learned that just because older kids said something was hard (reading Shakespeare, for instance) didn't mean I couldn't do it. Where I stumbled onto the idea of math concepts having proofs and fell in love with math before I could discover that preteen girls were supposed to think that math was hard. Where I began to throw myself into my work and pull allnighters at 11, sneaking into the bathroom past my bedtime to read textbooks and the most original source materials I knew of and could access (like the Origin of Species - I still hadn't become aware of the concept of the "research journal"). When I graduated from 8th grade, my parents told me they were proud of me. That's the first time I can really remember that happening. I'm pretty sure my teachers repeatedly reaching out to tell them about my somewhat ridiculous overachievement habits played a big role in that phrase coming out of my father's mouth - he told me nearly a decade later that it'd been the first time in 14 years that he realized that I was actually doing really, really well.
IMSA, the first time I ever struggled to pass a class (Fogel's legendary number theory elective), the first time I was surrounded by people smarter than me in every way, the first time I was adopted by a group of older kids who taught me, watched out for me, and were... my friends. It was the first place where I was marked more by my intellectual interests than by my hearing. This is where I learned to teach and improvise, where I started speaking up and making suggestions, where I started to see how I could grow up and perhaps even choose to live in a culture that differed from the one that I was raised in; where I had outlets for all my excess intellectual energy, where I discovered computers and Linux (though not yet the communities which made them), where I was stunned to find that I could adeptly participate in group discussions on the internet where I didn't have to strain to lipread. My teachers pointed out to me that I was good at certain things I'd previously thought of things I "just did," and coached me on creative writing, social science research, and curriculum development outside of class (though I didn't realize that was what I was doing at the time - I thought I was being a class assistant for workstudy). There was the expectation that you would grow up to do great things - it took me a long time to believe that I could be included in a statement like that, but eventually the revelation came that not only could I be worth something in the distant future if I worked my butt off, I already was. And what a difference that made.
Olin gave me a place where the entire instutition was a home - all of campus rather than a corner and a nest of friends. It showed me (with great difficulty) that I could define my own goals rather than always finding my way to someone else's. This is where I caught on fire for education, changing systems of schooling, making learning more self-directed. This is where I learned to work with whole communities, dancing between administrators, students, professors, visitors, having little conversations here and there, making tiny tools, catching others on fire for something so that it became our project instead of mine, relaying stories... until something shifted, quietly, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world that something should be a certain way. It's where I became a hacker, where I started contributing to project communities (including open-source ones) because I thought it would be cool - to have doing something that I wanted to do even cross my mind as an option. I learned how to reflect on my own learning, how to embrace failure as a teacher, and how not to ask permission. How to see my heroes as human and established ways as socially constructed and therefore somehow hackable. And that I could get other folks to realize the same.
None of these schools were perfect; none of them are perfect. Still, I wouldn't be the person that I am without those years - the good experiences encouraged me, the bad ones gave me empathy that drives me to improve things for the kids who follow.
I am ridiculously strapped for cashflow, but I need to put my money where my mouth is. The latter two ended their fiscal year 15 minutes ago; right before that, I made my donations for the year (IMSA and Olin students are known for pyrotechnically last-minute procrastination sometimes) and will circumvent the same thing happening next year by giving my 2009 donations tomorrow. I'm a public school kid and a scholarship kid; thanks to the generosity of many, many people, I've never had to pay tuition, never had to take out a student loan, was able to save some of the money that I earned from working all through college - enough to volunteer for things I loved straight after graduation instead of needing to take a job I didn't want in order to get out of debt.
I've also emailed my old teachers to tell them thank you. (It's easy to forget, my middle school teachers told me when I visited from college. Most kids never come back. Thank you for coming back.)
If a school or teacher - or most likely, schools or teachers - made a difference to you, please go back and tell them - and do more than tell them. Give them something - money, time, supplies, advice, introductions, whatever you can offer. Pay it forward so that they can do the same for other kids.
I'll write an actual update on NECC-Tuesday tomorrow.