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High school slackers not doomed to fail in life

All hail to the high school superstars — the kids who earn straight As, ace the SATs, play in youth orchestras, excel in sports, lead student organizations, master multiple languages, mentor fellow students and do substantive volunteer work.

They are fabulous, accomplished, impressive young people, and they deserve every honor roll spot, valedictorian designation and selective college acceptance they get.

But how about a shout-out to a group rarely mentioned in this season of graduation ceremonies and college acceptance letters? Let's hear it for slackers.

Not for what they've done, which is by definition not much. Consider instead what they may yet accomplish. And no raised eyebrows: Many a successful life story includes a chapter titled, "Apparently Going Nowhere."

Take Paul Sereno. In elementary school, teachers wanted to hold him back and make him repeat second grade. In high school, he copied from a friend's work to pass trigonometry. He did so poorly on the PSAT that he had to study the dictionary to get an SAT score that would get him into Northern Illinois University.

And then?

A master's degree in geology from Columbia University, a doctorate in geology from Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and a meteoric rise to world-renowned dinosaur expert and professor of paleontology at the University of Chicago.

Or take Eileen Brewer. Bored in high school, she spent her time in class reading novels. Her grades were so bad that she was rejected by most of the colleges she applied to and ended up at a little-known Catholic college in upstate New York.

And then?

A master's degree in history from Loyola, a doctorate in the history of religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School, a law degree from Harvard Law School and a law career that led to her election in 2002 as a Cook County Circuit Court judge.

Or take Jimmy John Liautaud. He smoked pot at an early age, got poor grades in high school and came close to being ejected before graduating in next-to-last place.

And then?

He attended Eastern Illinois University for one semester, but then parlayed a $25,000 loan from his father into an empire of 1,000 sandwich restaurants and 40,000 employees; with his father donated $5 million to the University of Illinois at Chicago to establish the Liautaud Graduate School of Business; and gave $1 million to his high school because, he says today, "they deserved it; I gave those guys so much trouble."

Stories like this warm the heart of a fellow former slacker, namely myself.

I can't match my betters' success stories, but I can give them a run for their underachiever money. I spent my high school years cutting class, hanging out in parks and doing what parents today call "making bad decisions." One of my memorable educational experiences was learning how to siphon gasoline out of parked cars.

And yet here I am, a productive member of society who can't stand litterbugs.

So what happened?

Sereno discovered art, specifically painting, toward the end of high school. "For the first time I felt I could do something," he said. Then he visited the American Museum of Natural History, and that was that.

Brewer discovered college classes in history and literature were as interesting as novels. "I had some very good teachers; I took courses I liked, in subjects I liked," she said. "It made all the difference."

Liautaud, facing a sink-or-swim situation when his two buddies quit working at his fledgling sandwich shop, took on their work hours himself, poured time and energy into the enterprise and discovered that he liked working really hard.

"I just flipped a switch," he said.

Me, I got bored by my aimlessness, discovered my college newspaper and had a close call with death in a hiking accident at the Grand Canyon. My attention now fully focused, I got busy.

The moral of ex-slackers' stories: The race is not to the swift, or to the top 5 percent of the graduating class.

"You can't evaluate yourself just by your high school years; that's a very small part of your life," said Brewer. "Take some courses . . . art, art history, English, chemistry, whatever has that spark for you. And then see where that takes you."

In fact, "I think the kids that struggle are way more prepared for real life," said Liautaud. "When I see kids who naturally get As and who naturally score high on tests and the teachers naturally like them because they require the least amount of management — when they come out into the real world, I find they're very poor at getting through obstacles. And life is about solving obstacles."

"For those that think that it's all laid out by high school — that's crazy," said Sereno, who with his wife runs Project Exploration, a nonprofit science education organization aimed at minorities and girls. "Nothing is decided. Everything is ahead of you."

You there, with the bad grades and matching attitude:

See you in a few years.

And don't brag.

High school slackers not doomed to fail in life 05/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 5:39pm]
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