Debate Magazine

Why Didn’t You Tell Me?

By Stevemiranda

For the rest of April, this space will be used to support a fundraiser for PSCS. The stories here will be posted in the same spirit of generating conversation about changing the way we think about school, but will be explicitly in service to raising money for the school. If this is no problem for you, great! If you’d rather just check back here in May, that’s great too.

* * *

A couple months ago, I received an email from a former student. I knew him from my old school, before coming to PSCS. His name is Devin, and I remembered him as being super smart but also quiet, unassuming, and very humble. He wrote to me, in his typical self-effacing manner,

“I’m finishing up my last year at Stanford, and the funny administrators of engineering here decided to give me the Terman Award, apparently the highest award for undergrad engineering at this school. Given to the top 5% of the class or something.”

He said there was a classy awards luncheon, and the university would pay the travel expenses for his “most influential secondary school teacher.” He chose me. It was an incredible honor. I had to attend.

It ended up being the most extraordinary weekend.

* * *

Once I knew I was going to be in the area, I called up another former student who had since relocated to the Bay Area. His name is Mike Matas, and he was a high school dropout. Mike has an extraordinary mind that caused him to struggle with certain written tasks as a high schooler, but when you put him in front of a graphic design program, you’re in the presence of pure genius. I remember overhearing a conversation in the faculty lounge in which one of his teachers was saying, “I’m really worried about Michael. In the real world, he’s going to need to learn to write.”

I disagreed. I said, “That kid is going to make more money than all of combined.”

Mike was a great kid who had to work really hard to find teachers who could understand him, who would help him draw upon his strengths instead of constantly focusing on the things he wasn’t good at. Somewhere in his junior year, he transferred to a nearby “alternative” school in hopes of getting a more personalized experience. Even that wasn’t a good fit. Eventually, he dropped out and went to work for a local software company.

By age 19, he had moved to the Bay Area and was working as a designer at Apple. He was on the team that created the user interface for the iPhone. Like I said, pure genius.

We met up for dinner and he told me all about his latest project. I couldn’t believe it. He had since left Apple and started his own company called Push Pop Press. He was collaborating with Al Gore to create a new kind of e-book that makes the Kindle look like a child’s toy. In fact, he unveiled the project at a TED conference in the winter. His TED talk just went live today. Here it is.

I’d say that, for a high school dropout, he seems to be doing just fine.

* * *

After having dinner with Mike, I asked him to give me a ride to Devin’s house where I could catch up with him and prepare for the awards luncheon the next day. Devin and I talked for hours, and he told me all about his experience with school. Here was a student who was graduating from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, someone who had earned a grade lower than “A” only once in his entire life, and what he told me blew me away. It was so incredible, in fact, that I asked him to write his story for this campaign. Here’s what he wrote:

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like had I not been subjected to over 15 years of industrial education. I went to academically strong public schools through high school, and then to Stanford University for an undergraduate degree in Product Design, but still find myself looking back and wondering why I have such a sour taste in my mouth.

It was such an odd system: six classes a day, learn this, memorize that, regurgitate this on the test tomorrow and then forget it—only until the final exam though, when you have to re-learn it once more by cramming, and only then can you really forget it. But of course, the whole point of the thing is to get good grades, to get into a good college, to get a good degree with a good GPA, to get a good job, to get a promotion, to get . . . wait, where does happiness fit into this?

Nowhere, apparently, which is why so many kids face academic burnout and get turned off from learning after spending their early lives in a forced education system with little choice, freedom, or inspiration. I’m definitely somewhat damaged, especially on topics like literature and philosophy. Crime and Punishment is not fun when someone crams it down your throat, and then you have to write an essay on a topic you don’t care about.

I managed to find enough self-driven and extracurricular inspiration to stay motivated and learning. My most rewarding learning experiences all came out of doing something WAY different than what my teachers asked, or taking an assignment and running with it. For example, in eighth grade, I made a brass chess set by hand on a metal lathe in my basement, for some random project I can’t even remember. Or the medieval siege weapon—it’s called a trebuchet—I made for a math class unit on trajectories in high school. Or the time I spent two weeks of all-day, intense filmmaking work to produce a 20-minute “What if . . .? ” historical exploration film that really just turned into an action movie. Now that was fun.

The problem with education now is that kids are not given the space, the respect, necessary to explore life. They’re boxed in, told what to do, and herded through the most fruitful, explorative years of their lives, with little energy left to explore it themselves.

That’s where schools like PSCS come in. I had a class with Steve Miranda in my last year of high school, and only at that time did I really start figuring out how much I had been duped, how much I bought into the system, and . . . that there were alternatives! Dang, why didn’t I get to go to a school like that?

Devin is graduating in June with an engineering degree from Stanford. It’s a ticket that could open a lot of doors for him, but he’s choosing a different path. Instead, he’s going to follow his passion for music. He has realized: that is what I’m meant to do.

* * *

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about PSCS to high school students, usually juniors and seniors, who have said to me, “Miranda, why didn’t you tell me about this school when I was in 5th grade?”

That has become my mission. That’s what I’m meant to do. I want to tell them the story of Mike, who said “no thanks” to following someone else’s path and decided to pursue his signature strengths, to make art, to do something extraordinary. I want to tell them the story of Devin, who said “yes!” to following someone else’s path, and found that it wasn’t what he wanted.

When you pursue that thing you love, when you do it with passion, integrity, love and generosity, when you act with courage but also humility . . . you win. You win every time.

That’s the story of PSCS. That’s the story I’m committed to telling.

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