A while ago I received an invitation to a high-school reunion. I didn’t go and I probably will never go to a thing like that. I’m trying very hard to forget that period.
I love to learn, but it wasn’t always so.
As a small kid, up to the age of 12 I definitely did. During the summer holidays that I would spend with my paternal grandmother in Arnhem I’d eat my way through the public library technology section, and when I was done with that I made a deal with a second hand bookstore called ‘de Slegte’ that if I could read a book I bought in the morning before closing time I could trade it in for free on another book, and if I could read that one before morning I could do it again. So for the price of one book they allowed me to read their whole catalog, unless I wanted to keep a book, then I’d have to pay again (I kept plenty of them). I read a lot of books that way and inevitably some of the stuff I read stuck and interlocked with other bits and pieces that I already knew. Communications Satellites, computers, rockets, evolution, whatever was available, I’d lap it up ever hungry for more.
Grade school was misery, lots of bullying, lots of fighting, but there was the promise of getting into the VWO, the school where you could prepare yourself for a career in science. Provided you had good grades and provided you worked hard at it. One of my uncles, who had worked for Philips Electronics in Eindhoven taught me a bit of calculus and I loved it, this went way beyond the grade school arithmetic.
Finally, in 1977 I managed to leave grade school behind me and went to high school, a school with a Christian background (even though I did not believe in any god, my mom thought it wouldn’t hurt to send me to a school with kids from an environment like that). The introduction week was pretty harsh. I ended up cycling home on my own because of all the fights. Incredible, this was supposed to be the thing I’d been looking out for for so long. Prototypical nerd, I got into trouble from day one because I stood out in every way that you could to make you impopular. Small, scrawny kid, too clever for his age, not yet interested in girls or any of the other things all the other boys were going on about.
When I was 12 color televisions existed but not every household had one, VCR was about to break through and computers were for the most part locked up in large buildings with an army of priests and acolytes tending to their needs. In many houses the most prominent item in the living room was a gigantic column of hi-fi components hooked up to a pair of enormous speakers.
Even though computers were my long time ambition between the ripe old age of 8 and 15 or so I did the next best thing: tinker with electronics. The cold war was in full swing and there was quite a bit of propaganda intended to strike fear into the population with respect to our imminent annihilation and this affected me to the point that whenever I was at work in the basement of the house and a plane would fly over low I would sneak a peek to make sure that it wasn’t a long range bomber.
Being rather chronically short on pocket money (tools are expensive!) my method of acquiring parts was a bit unconventional, I would get up very early on Tuesdays and Fridays, race with my bike ahead of the garbage collection trucks and strip any and all electronic gear that I spotted near the kerbside of their circuit boards and stash the boards in my newspaper carrier bags. If something was either unknown, interesting or repairable then I’d take it home in one piece. Then I’d go home and dump the loot and off to school (I usually managed to get to school before the bell but not always and I’m pretty sure that Tuesdays and Fridays would stand out on my absentee reports for no apparent reason to the school officials).
The boards were stripped using a blowtorch and a water bucket (heat board in one go, slam down and all the parts drop straight into the water for instant cooling), it was pretty much a reverse-assembly line. Stacks of sorted parts lined the walls and a pretty crummy assortment of tools completed my arsenal. I had the most terrible soldering iron in the world, it leaked current like there was no tomorrow, one of those transformer based soldering guns. Very bad for soldering anything statically sensitive. They also tended to melt down with prolonged use, they were actually intended for very short bursts of activity.
On one evening every week there was a gathering at a local community house where more advanced electronics hobbyists would teach us newbies the magic of making your own circuit boards and doing some more advanced designs. For the first couple of years my career in electronics mostly consisted of ripping stuff apart and I was as surprised as anybody when I finally managed to actually repair something (iirc this was a radio cassette player owned by a girl in my high-school class that had blown up its transformer but was otherwise in good health judged by the fact that it would still work on batteries).
Meanwhile, in school things got a lot worse. I got the highest score for the test that separates grade school from high school, and I wasn’t about to start slacking. So I worked as hard as I could on the stuff they threw at us in that introductory year. The only subject I had trouble with was French, for the rest I pretty much aced it. Even though I did work hard it didn’t look like I was working all that hard. Not long after the nicknames started. Teachers pet, professor and so on. There was one other guy in that class that scored about as good as I did on most subjects, a kid called Cornelis. He had a buddy that looked at 12 like he was 16 or so and nobody dared to pick on him (good for him!), but unfortunately because I came from another part of town I had no friends at all right in the beginning of the new school year, which made me into a convenient target.
Tons of fights, mostly with a small group of kids that enjoyed disturbing the lessons and that were definitely not in this school to prepare themselves for anything in life, other than that their parents thought they should go there. Everything about me was wrong to them, from my taste in music to my clothing to the fact that I didn’t care about team sports (but I did love cycling and ping-pong), the fact that I actually enjoyed learning and so on.
I got through the first year with top marks but felt totally miserable. During the summer holidays I figured out (wrongly) that if I’m going to survive this school I’d have to somehow adopt some kind of camouflage. The easiest way to do this was to get bad grades. I stopped studying completely, all I took in where those things that I heard during the lessons in class, my books remained pretty much unopened that year. I flunked the year, French and now German were my weak points, I think I got a ‘1’ (the lowest mark possible, in nl marks were from 1 to 10 at that time) for it, to great anger of the teacher who saw that I was purposefully not doing anything to learn. (my German is passable these days so it all ended up well in the end).
Flunking the year was bad, but it had one silver lining, a reboot. New people, a bit younger so I wasn’t standing out as being all that scrawny anymore. The darker part of that cloud was that this particular class had a bunch of bullies that was much worse than the ones in the class that I left behind. More fighting, suspensions and other trouble because of that. But at least I finished the year because I already knew most of the material and even cracked a book every now and then. I actually liked the new classes (physics, chemistry) that that year brought and after doing the basics in terms of homework got pretty good grades for those.
On to the third year, this one went pretty good for the most part, I had found what the minimum of work was that I had to do to get the minimum grades I needed to ‘pass’. Teachers still hated me because it was pretty obvious that I could do better. I spent a lot of time in school designing electronics circuits, got a paper route and eventually bought my first real computer with it (a TRS-80 pocket computer made by Sharp, which looks like an oversized calculator). So plenty of distractions but not enough to make me fail another year.
The fourth year the bullying started again. This time it kept on escalating and it would not go away. One particular guy (who was always going on about his karate expertise) thought that it was fun to kick me out of sight of the teachers under the table during the lessons egging me on to do something about it. When I finally snapped after a couple of months of this and put him in hospital I was suspended for three months. So I failed that year as well. Right about this time my family situation detoriorated to the point where I had to leave the house I was living in to move in with my dad.
Him and his new wife did what they could to accomodate me but there was enough friction in the household that that didn’t last for more than a year (which I spent on a trade school for electronics called the ETS in Amsterdam, I recently met again with one guy I met there and it was quite an amazing meeting), and after that my mom split up with the guy she’d been with and I rejoined her and went to work for a big dutch bank and my formal education stopped. I still did a year of nightschool to try to get to equivalency but the work I did was so physically exhausting that I could barely walk home, let alone do a night of clear-headed studying.
From absolutely acing the tests to being a person without any formal qualifications in one smooth move, from loving to learn to hating to learn (fortunately I branched out into loving to learn about electronics and computers instead of the stuff I was supposed to be studying in school, which laid the groundwork for the rest of my career).
Highschool can be hell, especially when you’re looking forward to it.
To all the bullies that I encountered during that time (you know who you are): Thank you for hardening me in a way that serves me good to this day. I don’t blame you for me not finishing my education but it certainly did not help either. To all current bullies in highschool: you are damaging a lot more than you think you are, it’s not just fun and games. One of the people that found great pleasure in hounding me and a couple of other ‘nerds’ is still visiting a psychiatrist because of what he did back then according to an ex-girlfriend I met at a wedding. I’ve long ago forgiven him, but apparently he still hasn’t forgiven himself. Funny how life can turn around.
Highschool reunions are not for me, too many horrors and too good a memory are a bad recipe for rehashing old times.