How I Failed out of High School and at College/The Teachers Who Saved Me/How I Ended Up Attending Seven Universities

Up until 9th grade I was the student Asian mothers dream about. School came easy. I skipped the 4th grade, won the spelling bee three times, was captain of the academic bowl team, member of the math team and was given the label “gifted.” This was a stamp on my academic achievements that led me to believe I would continue to skate through life with minimal effort. But I got to high school and everything was hard (there is an important lesson in all of this, which I will discuss in a future blog post). All of this “success” was a burden that would take me years to unload.

Lane Tech High School was a massive magnet school located two miles due west of Wrigley Field on Chicago’s north side. There were nearly 5000 students enrolled there and it had 16 acres of space on the inside. To say that I was just a number in a sea of 5000 students sounds like a cliche, but it was literally true. My gym class was so big they took attendance with numbers. My number was 72. I’m only a “P.” Imagine if your last name was “Yates.” I was placed in honors classes. My teachers didn’t care if I passed, failed, or even showed up. I had one history teacher give me a “D” even though my average in the class was over 100%. I had read the entire textbook from cover to cover during class out of boredom. In a factory like this there are always courageous people who cut against the grain. There were two such people on the Lane Tech Campus. Two radical men who changed my life for the better. John Cina, my orchestra teacher and John O’Neil, my English teacher. They didn’t just care about teaching, they cared about me. They cared enough to call home when I missed too many days of school. They put up with my stupid, self-centered behavior in a million ways. These things embarrass me now even after almost 30 years. They also had the guts to sit me down and have real conversations with me. I learned what it means to be a teacher from them. That teaching is about investing in people. They did more than just make sure I showed up to class. They instilled in me a love for beauty simply by talking about what we played or read with excitement in their eyes. They spoke about Hemingway, Salinger, Mozart and Johann Strauss Jr. like they were the best things in the world. It was a masterclass in aesthetics every time I went to class. Now I knew why I liked something, not just that I did. Most importantly, they showed me that the worst things in the world – apathy, abuse, violence – can be overcome by beauty. Despite their best efforts I didn’t finish high school. I basically stopped showing up. When I did I just put my head on the desk and went to sleep. I don’t even remember what I did or where I went when I wasn’t in school. I failed physics and didn’t graduate.

How I Ended Up Attending Seven Universities

People often wonder how a high school dropout could possibly be a university professor. Joy Tlou is the answer. He was a soft spoken but fiercely determined admissions rep from the University of Iowa. I had a huge crush on a girl from Iowa City whom I had met at a music camp so Iowa was quite obviously my first choice (I’m trying to be funny here, but the fact of the matter is that there are lots of students who are first in their family in college who make huge decisions based upon trivial facts like this). Joy worked out a deal with admissions so that I could start class at Iowa while working towards a GED. Unfortunately, the trouble I had in high school didn’t end at Iowa. I failed theory and econ and my violin teacher wasn’t the type to push his students. I flailed around (though I did get my GED) and ended up transferring to DePaul, back home. No better luck there. I finally ended up transferring to Peabody, where I was determined to stop tormenting my mother and actually finish, which I managed to do in three years by taking massive credit loads in the mid 20s most semesters. I had no idea I couldn’t do it so I just did. I double majored in performance and education because no one stopped me. The best part about Peabody was that I could slip into anonymity. I was not even close to being the most talented, outspoken or weirdest person there. There were brilliant, eccentric people all around me. They inspired me, pushed me to be better and made me question if I had what it took to make it. I was under the radar and for the first time, happy. Peabody was also kind to me. When my mom had surgery and was out of work for several months they extended a large amount of extra scholarship money to me. I’ll never forget that and someday, I’ll pay them back. Maybe I’ll endow a scholarship there called “The Least Likely to Succeed Award.” I thought of another name for it, but it wasn’t family friendly.

Next Time: Not Getting Into Any Conducting Schools/Schools Four and Five/When I Was Told Over and Over to Quit

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

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