School is Overrated

I want to give a personal perspective on why I feel that school is overrated.  I’ve felt conflicted about writing this for a while, given that it could shatter some illusions some folks have about me.  But then, I’m probably flattering myself to believe they have such a view of me.

Now, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t go to school and try to get good grades, and I would hate to think some slacker kid would point to me as an excuse for their behavior.  If any kid tries that and directs their parent to this post, I’ll also give my blessing here for their parents to ridicule them.  Or worse.  (That’s up to you, parents.)  No, I mean that the degree someone has, and the grades they got in school, are not always a good indication of how smart or skilled they are.

Let me start with high school.  Well, I wouldn’t say I was a model student in junior high either, but I did well enough.  In high school, though, I had some pretty miserable grades.  There were a combination of factors, but a large one is that I don’t exactly test well.  I can do a lot of things while not actually being able to answer questions on how to do them.  It’s a bit odd.  I was also not well motivated by some of the curriculum available.  So by that measure, someone might thing I was a bit dumb or something.  I mean, look at those awful marks!  (Granted, I was still going to Stanton College Prep, so it’s a bit relative, I suppose.)

There was one teacher in particular who saw past the grades that she herself was giving me, one of the few teachers whose names I still remember well years down the road:  Brenda Commandeur.  She was my ninth grade English teacher, and put up with me writing some off-the-wall stuff and doing horribly when quizzed on dangling participles and the such.  (Honestly, I still can’t tell you what those are without looking them up.)  However, she was one of the teachers I had who would tell people that I was one of her brightest students, and not in a way that you know the teacher is just saying stuff to make a kid feel better.  She believed it, and, rather than pushing me too much to try to study harder for better grades, she encouraged me to write more, and be more creative.  She was the teacher who prompted my slightly infamous “Ode to My Dying Pen.”  One day in class, the pen I was using had an ink leak, mostly contained inside, and I joked that it had internal bleeding and I’d have to give it a proper burial.  She suggested I write a poem about it.  Not for credit or anything, just to prompt my creative side.  I had a handful of other teachers like that, not many, but enough.  They gave me the belief in myself that grades never could.

Unfortunately, I never got to finish high school properly.  Halfway through eleventh grade, there was a fire in my family’s home, and I missed a lot of time at school, which wrecked my grades for that year so much that the school system wanted to boot me over to Sandalwood.  And with all due respect to Sandalwood, that was not even remotely an option for me.  I tried at first to do a high school completion program at the local community college, wanting a “real” diploma rather than a GED.  As an amusing side note, when reading the results for the entrance test, the guy looking over them asked why I was even there, given that the test said I was the equivalent of a second year college student.  Wouldn’t know it from my high school grades, though.  (I credit Stanton for a lot of that, though.)

I eventually did go with a GED, because the program was too disorganized for me, and I hate a total lack of organization.  Give me deadlines, give me goals to work toward!

So, GED in hand, I went ahead and signed up at Florida Community College at Jacksonville (FCCJ, now FSCJ, but I’ll continue to call it FCCJ for this post) for an associates degree program.  I picked my passion: Internet Technology!  Two years later, I had it.  Going on the advice of a friend in the web development field, I opted for a second AS degree, rather than a bachelors, and spend another year and a half getting a Network Administration degree.

Many of you might recognize that two associate degrees are not as impressive as a bachelors degree or something even higher.  And you’d be right.  Lucky for me, the first real job (internships not really counting) I applied for had an interesting posting.  It was basically: “Send me a list of websites you’ve worked on.  Don’t send me your resume.  If you send me your resume, I’ll know you can’t follow instructions and will disregarding your application.”  So I did just that.  I had a decent list to send in, too.  And it got me a job, which paid reasonably, and allowed me to build up more experience, which is what led me to my current job.  The education level didn’t matter so much, I’d proved I know what I’m doing.

But here’s the thing there…  The education didn’t do a darned thing for me.  I can honestly say that none of the stuff I’ve used at work came from those years in college.  Well, maybe a little bit of network setup.  But the web design and development?  Nope.  The dirty secret is that the people graduating from that program were ill-prepared to be even the “fodder” for a web firm.  They’d have to be taught real information about the field.

Well, then, how did I know what I did?  Where did those sites come from that I submitted?  Easy:  Hobby and self-study.  Back in the mid-’90s, when I first learned about the World Wide Web and saw my first couple of websites, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I signed up for a website on Geocities, a brand new service at the time, but their Basic Editor was very limited.  Their Advanced Editor was basically a form you pasted HTML code into.  With that in mind, I went to the website of our ISP, Brigadoon, and grabbed this bundle of information they had about coding HTML pages.  I started playing with it, experimenting, and looking up more information.  My dad wanted to have a website (or five), so he got some HTML editors, but as I used them, I studied the code they created, and in time even grew to dislike them because I recognized the amount of bloat they have.  (This is where my distaste for FrontPage and Dreamweaver come in.)  At some point I learned of this cool thing called CSS, and started playing with it to add more graphic touches.

As time went on, I kept designing and building pages for my own hobby sites, and my dad’s.  I also spent time as a Community Leader for Geocities (there were some fun stories there).  Then I came across a game changer for me.  Some guy made a set of code that would take data exported from Madden NFL for the PC and put it together in a presentable format online, even going so far as to allow websites to be built where people could set up a league, draft players, sign and release players, make trades, view player stats, game stats, standings, the works.  It was amazing.  And it was done in these languages called PHP and MySQL.  Thus inspired, I set out to find every tutorial I could and soak up PHP and MySQL knowledge.  I not only used existing codes, but started writing my own for different things, just to experiment and learn more.

Personal exploration and experimentation, prompted by my own wanting to learn more, are how I learned the skills of my trade.  Those two years of Internet Technology classes?  I was being “taught” stuff I’d learned years before.  I spent much of the time in the back of class surfing the web or playing games (except when the teachers put me to work teaching other students).  That knowledge was of no real use to me, and if I’d relied on it alone, I wouldn’t have the job I do right now.

So if you ever feel small because your grades aren’t/weren’t as good as others, or think some college degree is the only way to get a job and do well, take a moment and reconsider.  Find some encouragement, figure out what you do well and/or what you like to do, and do your own studying, and as much work on the side as you can.  Grades are just arbitrary letters, and a diploma won’t tell anyone how capable you really are at performing a job.  At the end of the day, both are highly overrated.  (And seeking that useless masters degree?  That could net you a load of debt and still leave you without a decent job.  Seen that story already, and it’s sad when a person with a masters who graduated high school early has to live with their parents because they can’t get a job, while a guy with a GED and an associates keeps on climbing up the ladder and has an apartment full of cool stuff all his own.)

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