What follows is my history of learning, schooling, and education.
See Spot Run
In my early years, I was sent to a Montessori school. Grades were mixed; 1st through 3rd occupied the same classroom. I remember an exercise were we wrote every number from 1 to 1000 in a grid of boxes. My math skills were far beyond that of my public school peers. I was doing very long division by the time I entered 4th grade.
I remember sitting where I wanted and doing things I wanted to do. I describe this time of my life as a little anarchist paradise.
When I was in maybe 3rd grade I remember being called aside to work with one of the teacher assistants. At the little desk were a number of those “easy” books like see spot run. I was told that I had a reading problem, that I couldn’t read like the other children. This, of course, confused me. During our “free reading” time I was reading Goosebumps along with everyone else. I was surely reading those books…see spot run was clearly beneath me…but teacher knew best. I had a reading problem and they would help me.
Even with my reading problem I was sent to the 4th grade. Into a new room, across the hall, where the “big kids” were. And they were big. The 6th graders were practically adults. I had always been older than I was, so it was welcome to be able to share space with older kids. I recall much of my time belonging to me. I remember being gently scolded for spending too much of my time taking apart disposable cameras and shocking myself with the charge meant for the flash bulb.
Something changed in the summer after 4th grade. I had a “processing problem” and it had something to do with my terrible spelling test scores. Though I clearly recall making the 99th percentile in the state sanctioned tests we were forced to take, a few days where “normal” school leaked into our anarchist paradise. I would later learn that my parents were told to get me tested to determine what my processing problem was. Well, they couldn’t afford it, so it was off to public school.
From circles to the grid
I left my childhood home when I was 5. It was probably one of the most traumatic events of my life and it has set the tone for who I am today, a man of little attachment. When I was 10, I was taken from Montessori and dropped into 5th grade public school. Nothing made sense. There was a single room I was relegated to. The chairs, which had tables attached to them, were arranged in a grid all facing forward. A single teacher (I had always had a few…) stood in front of the class. “How could this be learning?” I asked my mom.
I was that smart ass who always questioned what we were doing. I was so far ahead of the rigid curriculum (only faltering in reading and spelling, but that was a processing problem…not my fault!). I would second guess the teacher and act like a total brat. Mr. Woody, my 5th grade teacher, was a first year teacher. The other teachers saddled him with every problem kid along with me, the transfer. My class of misfits. He only lasted one year…the other teachers broke him. Screw over those who are weaker than you. Lesson learned, thanks.
I sure did learn a bunch of curse words on the bus to school.
I’m sure they taught me something else, perhaps math or literature. I don’t really remember. I was reading at a 13th grade level, which was weird, seeing how I had a processing problem and couldn’t spell.
You know what I do remember? My computer. A Compaq. It came with a web camera which I discovered could take single frame stop-motion video. I spent hours making lego animations. God did I love legos.
I was a boy scout, literally. For some reason cub scouts never interested me, so I started out as the lowest rank when I entered scouts. To “rank up” one had to earn specific badges. I enjoyed the badges: making fire, small boat sailing, knot tying. I was soon up for 1st class. I had my first aid badge and swimming and orienteering. Then there was citizenship. I went to camp and signed up to complete my citizenship badge so I could obtain the next rank. Trouble was they wanted me to write a paper about what it meant to be a good citizen. Sounds like homework…I don’t even do homework for school! There was no way I was going to waste my time writing some dumb paper for boy scouts of all places. Scouts was for camping and playing with knives.
I didn’t do homework. School was a roller coster because of this choice. I would make good grades, pass the tests, and get sent to advanced classes. These classes would expect me to do homework! Not the normal homework either, not the stuff I could do on the bus or in home room, they wanted me to spend time at home doing this crap! Home time was when I played video games, not wrote stupid papers. I had a processing problem anyways…it was hard to spell all the words right.
Turns out not doing homework adversely affected my grades. Who knew! So then the roller coster would dip, and I’d find myself back in remedial classes. God these classes were so boring. The upside is that there was no hard homework and I could catch up on sleep or doodle in the margins of every piece of paper that crossed my desk. It was high school by now, and I had a room far away in the basement, which meant I could dedicate much more time to my computer and its video games.
After passing the remedial classes the roller coaster would send me back up to the advanced classes and I would repeat the same pattern of not doing that homework. It cramped my style. Of course my parents tried to discipline me, which was really annoying.
One year I took my report card, scanned it into the computer, and changed my grades using photoshop (a skill I had picked up because I wanted to edit the skins of my video game characters). That worked really well. My parents got to see “good” letters across from the names of subject areas; I got to continue playing video games without being bothered.
By 10th grade I was playing lots of Counter-Strike. This was a community created “MOD” (modification) of the popular Half-Life game. Some kid had made this MOD in his basement for fun and it was picked up by the company behind Half-Life (Valve) and made into a “real” video game. Modding really interested me, and as it turned out, all the tools one needed to modify the video games I loved were available for free to me. So I started building levels for my favorite video game.
I’m told important stuff was happening at school, but to me it just got in the way of me playing with my games, or in this case, the tools used to create my games. I got really involved with this and was even publishing tutorials about it.
All this practice with 3D modeling actually came in handy when I was “ready” to take geometry. School gave me the test appropriate formulas to determine the area of triangles and find the center of polygons. My life revolved around polygons. Every character and element in the virtual worlds where I spent most of my time were made up of triangles stitched together into monsters and terrorists and trees. I would manipulate the points where they met and create my own polygonal creatures. What power I had! The ability to pull from the ether and birth something!
Doodles in the margins
I was told I had to take notes in class. I never really truly understood why, something about studying them for tests, which sounded a lot like homework. Like many requirements of school I found a way around this task. If I doodled in the margins of my notes I could turn a wholly unproductive activity into a creative outlet. To the casual observer I was diligently taking notes when in reality I was creating.
Robots were my prime subject matter. A staple of video games and futuristic fantasy. I would create massive battle scenes with rich narratives that I would explore through the medium of drawing. Before I was taught to focus on the outcome of my art, I found quite a lot of joy in the process, building and fulfilling the story as I drew it. Looking back through the lens of my experience it’s clear that I derived a great deal of pleasure from these activities because I was in control. The story followed my narrative instead of a state mandated one.
The margins of my papers were where I found freedom from a public school system I had questioned from the very beginning of my internment. In this way drawing is closely related to video games. Unlike the media of my parents’ generation, video games granted me agency. The story moved only as far as I moved.
Violence was and still is a central theme of many video games. I, like many other kids, grew up playing out these violent fantasies. I remember an early flight simulator with blocky graphics that took place over California. While the aim of the game was to shoot down Soviet planes (the good violence), I would typically spend my time shooting missiles at the San Francisco skyline until all the blocky buildings were reduced to rubble, except the Transamerica Pyramid, which, to my frustration,would never succumb to my wrath no matter how many high explosives I launched at it.
This pattern of ultra violence was played out in many games. I would ignore the condoned violence of killing the “bad guys” and turn my weapons on the helpless NPC (Non-Player Characters). Even in “peaceful” games like Roller Coster Tycoon (where the objective was to build successful theme parks) I would find myself dropping random guests into water or building roller coasters that were in gross violation of state and federal safety ordinances.
I don’t look back on this sadistic activity with much horror or shame. In a strange way it provided a safe way to explore my relationship to a violent world. I was able to process the violent parts of society that were ever present. Of course I was taught to be this way, the games were programmed to allow for this. Society expected me, as a boy, to be violent. Even as a teen, in the wake of school shootings, when the adults began to rally against video game violence, I saw clearly the hypocrisy of these parents, so concerned with violent fantasy while seemingly ignoring their complacency within a society of violence.
My love of violence and robots merged into a love of war planes. Jet fighters were my speciality. I knew every single make and model. I researched it endlessly. I would spend hours reading about jet fighters then jump into Microsoft Paint and draw massive top down sky battles between my favorite planes, each drawn with great detail.
This passion lead me into other related areas of knowledge. I learned about the physics of flight by looking up animations in a CD-ROM version of Encyclopedia Britannica which came with my Compaq computer. The mechanics of jet engines was a natural topic for exploration. The history of these planes was also something I found myself learning quite a bit about. My father shared this fascination with me. I recall us reading about Skunkworks (a Lockheed alias during the Cold War) together. This was the team of people who developed my all time favorite plane, the SR-71. To this day the SR-71 is the fasted and highest flying plane…It was so awesome.
A funny side effect of this was that I learned quite a bit about the geo-political history around these planes. The SR-71 was a spy plane, but who were we spying on? Why? Russia, the Cold War, Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, proxy wars, communism, World War 2. I already know about WW II: I play Day of Defeat, another MOD turned “real” game from Valve Software.
I would try to find ways to sneak my passions into school work. It wasn’t easy, as most projects were tightly defined and it was often a stretch to get a super sonic jet into an English essay. Though it did exercise my creativity to try, even if sometimes my grades suffered.
Finding a community, finding a voice
Kids on my bus would make fun of me sometimes. I was a chubby teen who wore his grandma’s hand made clothing until the 10th grade, when I finally started wearing “cool” stuff with superfluous straps and buttons. I fought the bullies with a kind of ignorance…It didn’t make sense why they would say mean things and a confused reaction didn’t really “do it” for them, so it stopped.
I, of course, was pretty used to shit talking. I played Counter-Strike (CS) after all. An online shooter which introduced voice communications around the time my voice was just starting to crack, for which I was mercilessly made fun of. I learned to take it just as much as I learned to dish it out, once my voice stopped resembling that of a “little girl”.
Looking back, the CS “scene” was pretty toxic. It was full of machismo, racism, and an enormous amount of sexism. Though there were safe spaces if you knew where to look. Games would be played on dedicated servers; each server had its own community and standards. The independent ownership gave server operators, or admin, the power to create any kind of space they wanted. I would always gravitate toward safe spaces that banned trolls and racists, places that respected the few openly woman gamers, and valued casual play.
Recently I was speaking to a grey haired sociologist who had studied social activists and why they become activists. As a self-identified activist I inquired about the findings, and he said that in many cases it was interaction with a person who wasn’t from to same culture that sparked a life time of activism. I immediately thought about my time online. I spent many hours over many years within these communities where people of all ages, races, and backgrounds came together to kill each other’s online avatars over and over and over again. The game was actually secondary to these communities, and these virtual communities were welcomed refuge from a real world where I was segregated by age and largely unable to influence the culture around me.
Within the online sphere I was able to join “clans” of players, and by showing my responsibility I would be granted admin rights on servers so that I could protect and influence the culture of my server. Again video games granted me something I didn’t have and seemingly couldn’t have in the real world: agency.
Along with having agency, I would be listened to and judged on the content of my contributions rather than the number of times I rode the earth around the sun.
From the outside it would be easy to see me as a kid rotting away in my basement, failing school, and wasting my life playing worthless video games. From my perspective I was part of a community, learning about my passions in spite of school. Plus, I wasn’t running around with my contemporaries drinking and doing drugs.
In 9th grade I elected to take art. I drew, and people celebrated my drawings, so it seemed like the right thing to do. Unfortunately my art teacher was underwhelming and many of my classmates were put in art class because the school simply had to put them somewhere. I didn’t take art classes the next year.
By 11th grade I had a new art teacher who was inspiring and lit up my creativity. Even though she faced the same influx of involuntary students, she made it work. Art was one of the few classes I really enjoyed. By this time in my high school career I had become adept at creating a more pleasurable schedule for myself. My forged notes bought me time away from classes that bored me. I had become proficient at playing hooky and leaving school on my own terms. I had learned that a white kid who walked with intention and held a slip of paper (even if it was blank) could go anywhere. I figured out that one could just photocopy library passes and scribble on the teacher signature line to gain unlimited access to a quite place to read and hang out.
I was also learning quite a bit about computer networks. My friends and I gained administrative access to the local school network and installed video games on every computer on campus. Now we could jump onto any computer and join our fellow students in a few rounds of Half Life: Deathmatch!
After geometry I had basically checked out of all math classes. It may be true that I was required to attend math and was taught math, but I didn’t learn math anymore.
By the last semester of my 11th grade year I was leaving school everyday after lunch with my senior friends who had been given permission from the school to do “off site learning” stuff, which they had—of course—manipulated to basically be free time. I don’t remember how exactly I pulled it off, how the teachers and my parents never put it all together, how no one realized that I was illegally leaving my prison school every day. What I do know is that school was finally bearable.
The final nail, the next lie
What ended my faux high school experience was a trip to New York City over the summer leading into my Senior year. My art teacher had suggested that I attend Pratt’s summer program, a month in NYC where I would pretend to be a college student.
It ruined high school for me. For the first time I was nearly autonomous! The city and the campus dazzled me. I got to do art and was given responsibility to get to class on time and take care of myself. It made clear to me that I was ready to move on.
When I returned to “real” school I only lasted 5 days, most of which I skipped anyways. On Friday, me and some friends had left early to avoid an assembly where we were to be talked down to, preemptively scolded, or hyped up in a half-assed weird jingoistic way. My dad came home early, too, and caught us. We half-heartily made up some excuse why we were home and not at school.
Years before, in 9th grade, I had skipped a day of school only to chicken out and return half-way through the day. Me and four friends all walked back into school at the same time and tried to sign in. We were covered in sweat from the August in Atlanta heat and were fooling no one. The assistant principle and his minions split us and interrogated us until we ratted each other out. I was suspended for one day. My parents struggled to punish me…they had never been very good at the whole punitive justice thing and furthermore they knew—to some extent—my lack of enthusiasm for school.
So it was easy to convince them to let me drop out of high school. My argument was compelling, and I promised to take an online course to finish out the year. Which is to say, I did what I had been taught, I told the adults in my life what they wanted to hear so I could do what I wanted to do. So I pretended to work the online course, which was basically just homework all the time, and my parents really weren’t that into it either. So eventually I stopped.
My intention at this point was to go to art college. For this I needed a high school diploma and SAT score. Luckily I had taken the SAT and got a perfect middle-of-the-road score: 1100/1600. It turned out I could just take the GED, and if I passed I would get a high school diploma and could move on with my life.
I lazily studied—a skill I never have mastered—for the GED for a little while then took the test. Top percentile in all the subjects apart from math, which I did also passed. I remember finishing the test, the last in a long line of standardized tests, and thinking to myself that I could have probably passed this in the 9th grade and never had to deal with high school.
With nothing left to waste my time, I set to work on my art portfolio.
I remember the last time I raised my voice in anger: it was nearly 10 years ago. I was in a candle-lit apartment, the power was out, and we were living there because our house had burnt down (furthering my lack of attachment to things). We were talking about schools and money. My mom was trying to dissuade me from attending Pratt. It was an out-of-state private school which a hefty price tag, I wouldn’t get much financial aid, and we were a bit tight on money, with the house burning down and all.
“I don’t care what it costs, I have to go there,” I foolishly yelled.
Mom was right. I hadn’t realized it yet but my parents were right about a great many things. I, however, was an only child used to getting my way. To my credit, I did make a compromise and choose to go to Pratt’s sister—and far less expensive—school in Utica New York.
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute
Out of the darkness of the Georgia public education system I emerged in this amazing place. We call it Munson, me and my 90 classmates (down from 1400 high schoolers). It was as if every weird art kid was collected and put in an arc, stranded in the middle of a post-industrial wasteland city. We had not much else to do than make art and go to class.
Munson was only a 2 year school, after that students were automatically accepted to the Pratt Brooklyn campus where I had visited for the month just a year prior.
I learned much in my time at Pratt. One of my first classes, sculpture, immediately thrust me into uncomfortable territory by tasking me with creating an installation piece in the student gallery building. How amazing to be challenged.
The “foundation” year introduced me to many expressions of art that I had not experienced. I did a lot of exploration outside of class and their still rigid requirements. I shot portrait photography of friends after hours and did many collaborative projects. Using my skills of institutional manipulation I was able to get graded on my terms, rather than that of the syllabus. At the end of my freshman year I embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of my life, corpse gold. A large scale Exquisite Corpse (collaborative drawing).
I did the video editing and composed the music for the whole thing, as well as participated in it. To have so much creative freedom was astounding. The time really felt like my own. I was pushed by the institution to create and supported in my exploration. School made sense again.
By my second year I was doing great and feeling great about my choices. I was more independent and coming into myself. All the sophomores lived in a large house together and our RAs (Residential Advisors) were our peers and let us get away with all but the most blatant violations. It was as close as I had ever come to being free and on my own.
Something that struck me in those first two years were the people who weren’t happy with what they were doing. About 10% of my peers were unmotivated or unsure of why they were even at art school. Some were there because they were told that this is what you do, go to college. Others were there because they were told “you will go to college.” Those whose choice was made for them or whose choice was unenthusiastically made had a bad time, dropped out, or worse…they stayed.
No sleep till Brooklyn
Graduation came, I passed, and would soon find that no one would ever know or care. This graduation simply meant that we were automatically accepted to Pratt in Brooklyn, or could transfer to some other school where most of our credits would be honored. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t go home for summer vacation. Atlanta had nothing to offer me, so in 2007 I moved to Bedstuy into my first apartment.
I now had a lease and rent due. I had a roommate, and I had a revelation. While trying to scrub the dried cereal from a bowl left by my roommate I remembered my dad’s voice:
“Drew, when you eat cereal could you at least rinse it out so it’s not impossible to clean?”
There, standing in my bare apartment with soap up to my elbows the wall of teenage angst and parental distrust came crashing down. Everything they had told me was true. Broccoli was delicious. Getting mad only made a bad situation worse. My attitude was everything. Years of ignored advice came flowing in. They had even foretold this very moment, when I would realize that they were right and were actually pretty smart. What an ass I had been.
It was almost fall. School was about to start.
Living in Brooklyn cost money. Lucky for me I had some sellable skills. I could use photoshop and other such computer-aided design programs. Because I made digital art, I wanted to share it, so I learned to code HTML. Having learned about web design I wanted to dig deeper, so I read a book on code (PHP). This string of self-directed learning had armed me with the tools I needed to make a buck during the worst recession in living memory.
I quickly found a job paying $11 per hour. Suddenly I was an independent—adult like—human.
Then school started. Pratt has an absolutely beautiful campus: there is art everywhere and the feel is very collegiate. There was a big renovation to the campus while I was there, and the walkways were being replaced with bricks. It looked very nice, even if it got in the way a bit.
With the start of school came all my friends who moved into the dorms, a large tower north of Pratt. A mostly vacant lot butted up against the north edge of the dorm. It would soon be cordoned off by temporary construction walling. A new building was to be erected.
Something began to change in me. The classes were interesting, but I found them to be more theory-based than practical. This was surely because I now had a job to contrast them against. I paid Pratt for ideas, someone else paid me for production. I was learning more by doing than by being taught. This haunted me as I went from work to class to my apartment. My mom’s warning about the cost of Pratt and debt echoed in my head, and hadn’t I just realized she was right about everything?
Every day I visited my peers in their dorm. The construction walls had been painted white and a sign read “post no bills”. An empty white wall which nearly almost touched a building stacked with artists. The myth I had created about this place began to unravel. Why was this wall white? How could it be that hundreds of artist armed with every art supply they might ever want—from the school store, of course—walked past this blank canvas every day?
Behind the wall was being built a new administration building. The myth shattered. This was no place of refuge, this was a trap. Two massive capital expenses were underway: the superficial beautification of the campus and the erection of a massive administration building. I had been deceived. Pratt wasn’t interested in creating a space for artists or making art. It was a business, a machine like all the others to maximize profits. It presented an alluring exterior and a promise of a better life outside of high school where you could be a real artist! “This is the way to be a real artist,” sang its siren song. “Look here at our beautiful campus! Just step into our massive administration building and sign up. Years of debt are worth it!”.
The cramped and limited artist studios, the vapid classes with content that could have been read out of a book, and that white wall… the blank canvas begging to be painted. The administration who would support no such activity and the students too afraid to mark the wall for fear of losing their scholarship.
I had to leave this place.
You’ve already paid
Said my advisor. I might as well finish off the semester. The remainder of my time was quite pleasant. I did only what I wanted to do, attended only when it suited me and when I had something to gain. I would never again worry about what marks I got in a class.
The year came to an end. I had chosen to follow the commercial design path at Pratt rather than become a fine artist. For my final piece, however, I would dig into my artist’s heart and pull something shocking out for them to see.
For commercial design, rather than a final review we had “survey” where students would put all their best work on display for all to see and be graded on their display. It was worth 50% of your final grade, so fail survey, fail the semester.
I calculated how much the semester cost me, $21,300 and had a friend cut it into my body.
And that was that, I walked away. I am proud of my departure from both high school and college. Everyone around me said not to quit, don’t throw away your education. Somehow I knew without knowing that my education was mine and was not a product that was given to me but a process I had taken. I didn’t end up like some of my friends, tens of thousands in debt for something that they never wanted and were too afraid to quit.
Quitting, in real life
Soon after I left school I decided to leave my job. Going to work was a drag, the work was getting to be a bore, and I felt that I had the skills to make more money as my own boss. So once more, I left.
I was scared.
I started looking for gigs on craigslist and hustling for clients. It was here that I confronted one of the most heinous lies we tell children. My fear was of my clients. I was inexperienced and young. I was going to be seeking work from business owners, people who had their lives together, who were in control, who knew what they were doing.
This, of course, is the lie. No one really has a handle on what they are doing. Parents don’t know how to raise kids, business people don’t know how to run businesses, and workers don’t know how to work. I hope you understand my meaning… We are all pretty much making it up as we go along. This I did not know, and would not have know for a long time if it wasn’t for my intimate relationship with business people as a contractor.
“Not in front of the children” adults often say. Teachers put on the happy face, trying not to expose their frustration or confusion or anger. Business people hide behind a brand or a logo. People hide behind institutions. Casting a vail over our true selves, our fears and uncertainty. Act like you’ve got it together so the children aren’t afraid. So the children grow into adults and find themselves confused and uncertain surrounded by people who are—seemingly—anything but. What did they do to fail, where did they go wrong?
Perhaps this has been the biggest lesson of my life.
So this is my education, this is what I have been taught. These 15 years of school and what did I learn? How to appease the apparatus so that I could find my own education. How to see the unintelligible truth from the comfortable fiction.
I’m not sure yet, and finally after all these years I feel like I might just be growing comfortable with the uncertainty of it all.
Ultimately what I learned is that there are no tidy book ends to my education, for every day is a class, every experience a lesson, every one person a teacher and pupil.
And I wouldn’t change a thing.
I really appreciate this story since I’ve seen child after child pass through my classroom with the brains of Einstein but the setting of a prison. It’s nice to see that you did not conform but while doing what you needed to do to get to a place of being free to think and do. It is my hope that we can provide a setting where free thinkers, creators and innovators can have a space to accomplish their goals. Thank you for sharing your story, I know it will help many. And the art survey final in the end was AWESOME!