Although I had plenty of positive experiences, my general impression of primary and secondary education was unfavorable.

Classes were frequently unchallenging, originality was punished, and my social ineptitude led to years of bullying.

Sometime after I graduated from high school, I discovered Paul Graham’s Why Nerds are Unpopular. Suddenly, everything made sense. The essay was worth a small fortune to me in terms of therapy.

Below are some negative experiences that led to my disliking school, interspersed with excerpts from PG’s essay:

The First Mistake

When I was five years old, my parents decided that it would be prudent to have me skip kindergarten. Not only would it save time, it would also increase my social standing. Or so they thought. You see, intelligence was the main determinant of popularity when they were students in China.

Unfortunately, popularity in American schools is based on attributes such as athletic ability. Being a year younger than your peers is a huge disadvantage in that department, especially since major American sports favor size.

In the schools I went to, being smart just didn’t matter much. Kids didn’t admire it or despise it. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on the smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.

Paul Graham

The resultant self esteem issues lasted well into early adulthood.

The Most Popular Sport

In Grade 6, I had a math teacher who loved baseball. One day, I asked her why the baseball championship was called the World Series. She replied, “Because baseball is the most popular sport in the world.” I paused. Surely I had misunderstood?

I had not. She genuinely believed that baseball was the most watched sport in the world. It was my earliest memory of a teacher being demonstrably wrong about something. An innocuous gap in knowledge to be fair, but it still shook my confidence in teachers. For the first time, they were fallible.

Accused of Hax

Billionaire hedge fund manager Jim Simons once said that America lacks good math teachers because people who are good at math can find more lucrative and prestigious employment elsewhere.

I experienced this firsthand during Grade 7. We were being tested on single variable algebra. For example, 2x + 4 = 84; solve for x. After I submitted mine, the teacher sent me straight to the principal’s office. I sat there nervously for the rest of the class, wracking my brain for the reason.

I found out why after the teacher arrived. Since I had filled in the correct answers without showing any work, she insisted that I must have cheated. How was she so sure? Because she herself couldn’t solve the problems without pen and paper.

Damned If You Do…

I was frustrated by the pace at which the class was reading a book, so I read ahead. For this, I was yelled at. I wasn’t happy, but I understood. It’s hard to teach a book if students are on different pages.

What I didn’t understand was being yelled at when I started reading other books under the table. What else was I supposed to do? Stare off into space?

I mistrusted words like “character” and “integrity” because they had been so debased by adults. As they were used then, these words all seemed to mean the same thing: obedience. The kids who got praised for these qualities tended to be at best dull-witted prize bulls, and at worst facile schmoozers.

Paul Graham

Selling Stock Short

I participated in a mock trading competition. Without explaining why, the teacher instructed us to avoid doing anything “weird” like selling short. As a stubborn individual and natural contrarian, that’s exactly what I did. Lo and behold, the stocks rose in price and I lost money.

When the teacher reviewed our results, she yelled at me. According to her, I had lost money because I didn’t follow instructions. I wonder what she would’ve said if I had won the competition by selling short.

The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don’t really take it seriously– not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

Paul Graham

Casual Racism

A friend and I decided to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq by refusing to stand for the morning pledge of allegiance. While it is now reasonably popular to say that the invasion and subsequent war was a mistake, it was decidedly unpopular at the time.

As everyone else stood, we remained seated. Our homeroom teacher turned around to identify the disturbance. He scowled. Ignoring my (white) friend, he marched over to my desk and asked, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”

Zero Tolerance Policy

A couple of students thought it’d be funny to shove me into a locker. Typical schoolyard bullying.

Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn’t a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups. Ask any nerd: you get much worse treatment from a group of kids than from any individual bully, however sadistic.

Paul Graham

I decided I wasn’t going to take it. I can’t say I won, but I didn’t lose either.

Even though the security cameras clearly showed that I was defending myself, I was suspended along with the instigators under the school district’s “zero tolerance” policy. Whatever faith I had left in the education system vanished.

That said, I want to end on a positive note. Yes, I had a bunch of teachers who were glorified babysitters. But I also had fantastic teachers who inspired and challenged me. Yes, I went through a bunch of hardship. But hard times make strong individuals.

And it’s hard to be too upset about any part of the journey when I’m happy with the person I am today.

Images courtesy of Chaz McGregor and Sasha Freemind.