After my first week at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut, I knew that if I didn’t do something even more antisocial than I was already doing, the next four years were going to be hell. One way I knew Big Pain was waiting for me along that timeline was that first week when Billy Zwack came over to my locker and said, “I hear you can score me some shit.” I’m sure the fear in my eyes was obvious. “Well,” he announced, towering over me by at least a foot. “I’m going to be your regular shit sampler. I get my samples for free.”
Before I could deny or protest, my brain suffered its first-ever concussion. Zwack took my face in his massive hand and banged the back of my head three times into the door of my metal locker. The next thing I knew I was coming to in the Assistant Principal, Mr. Kennedy’s office. At which point, he bestowed upon me a great gift: He told me I was being expelled from school for fighting. He sowed the first seeds for me becoming an autodidact.
Billy Zwack and his friends were not my greatest threat in high school though. Zwack and friends made it abundantly clear that high school was not a safe place for learning. Or for supplying shit. But the more insidious threat to my brain was teachers who unwittingly tried to induce me to hate learning by constantly doing assessments and evaluations and delivering test results. The public schools of my day were past masters in generating neuroceptive threat – the body’s unconscious, non-verbal meta-wisdom that constantly tells us the threat level all around us at any moment.
Neural Nets Are for Learning
As a consequence of the first week expulsion, I basically dropped out of high school – logging more truant days than anyone else who managed to still get a diploma four years later. Even when I showed up for morning homeroom to get my attendance taken, I would later sneak out and take the bus downtown to the New Haven Public Library. There I would study things I was interested in, like local oddities of the natural habitat, the history of Judge’s Cave up on West Rock, how to become a moonshiner. Had the Internet been around back in my day, a public classroom would have never seen my face.
I followed my own lead pretty much up to age 28, before finally taking the SATs and enrolling in college. And only then because a high school guidance counselor surreptitiously planted a meme in my brain: “You won’t be happy, Mark, unless you go to college.” What she might have said, had she been a social neuroscientist, is: “You won’t be happy, Mark, unless you’re building internal learning networks with kindred spirits similarly committed to personal and global development.”
Learning as Phun
But even with three graduate degrees under my belt obtained in the company of such kindred spirits, I still operate in the world pretty much as an autodidact (I taught myself the meaning of that word 😉 ) I research and investigate what I want, how I want, when I want. There is very little fear or pressure involved in my learning – no journal editorial boards to impress, no tenure committees to kowtow to, no department chairs to battle with over my teaching load. I have no teaching load. What I have is a circle of friends interested in what I’m interested in. We support each others learning and we learn together.
Which is how my brain worked in “Sandbox School” before I ever attended day one of public school. I can still recall the tension in my little body as my grandmother walked me down Pearl Street towards my first kindergarten classroom. I tried to persuade her not to take me by telling her that there was toilet paper stuck in my butt! She promised to take a look once we got to the school. The dread and overwhelm was like I imagine convicted felons feel on their first day in prison.
My public elementary school educator friends assure me things are changing. Not fast enough for my neural net.