Becoming Steve JobsPosted by Anna Wong on
When Steve Jobs passed away, I was admittedly surprised by the public outpour surrounding his death. Not only from people who knew him personally, but also from my friends, who told me how much his life influenced theirs. “My iPhone is the first thing I pick up in the morning and the last thing I touch before I go to bed,” they declared.
I decided to read his bio. 12 pages in, I read a passage that will likely be my take away from the 571 page tome. Turns out Steve was quite the rebel when he was young. Fortunately, he attended schools that accommodated his childish behavior and rebellion rather than criminalizing it.
"I had a good friend named Rick Ferrentino, and we'd get into all sorts of trouble," he recalled. "Like we made little posters announcing 'Bring Your Pet to School Day.' It was crazy, with dogs chasing cats all over, and the teachers were beside themselves." Another time they convinced some kids to tell them the combination numbers for their bike locks. "Then we went outside and switched all of the locks, and nobody could get their bikes. It took them until late that night to straighten things out." When he was in third grade, the pranks became a bit more dangerous. "One time we set off an explosive under the chair of our teacher, Mrs. Thurman. We gave her a nervous twitch."
Not surprisingly, he was sent home two or three times before he finished third grade. By then, however, his father had begun to treat him as special, and in his calm but firm manner he made it clear that he expected the school to do the same. "Look, it's not his fault," Paul Jobs told the teachers, his son recalled. "If you can't keep him interested, it's your fault."
I work at an organization called the W. Haywood Burns Institute. Our mission is to protect and improve the lives of youth of color, poor youth and the well-being of their communities by reducing the adverse impacts of public and private youth-serving systems to ensure fairness and equity throughout the juvenile justice system.
What does this work have to do with Steve Jobs and his story?
If Jobs were attending a typical urban public school today, chances are high that he would have been suspended, expelled, or at the very least, put on a track aimed at failure rather than success. In Oakland, California—where I live—the schools primarily serve poor youth of color. When students act in the manner that Jobs did, they are typically labeled with attention deficit disorder, medicated, or charged as delinquents. Even students who do not misbehave are rarely recognized as gifted or talented. This is not to say Jobs’ behavior didn’t merit some sort of response from the adults in his life. Here is what happened to little Steve.
“When it came time for him to go into fourth grade, the school decided it was best to put Jobs and Ferrentino into separate classes. The teacher for the advanced class was a spunky woman name Imogene Hill, known as "Teddy," and she became, Jobs said, "one of the saints of my life." After watching him for a couple of weeks, she figured that the best way to handle him was to bribe him. "After school one day, she gave me this workbook with math problems in it, and she said, 'I want you to take it home and do this.' And I thought, 'Are you nuts?' And then she pulled out one of these giant lollipops that seemed as big as the world. And she said, 'When you're done with it, if you get it mostly right, I will give you this and five dollars.' And I handed it back within two days." After a few months, he no longer required the bribes. "I just wanted to learn and to please her…”
Most people can relate to the idea that we all come to crossroads in our lives. We make decisions that take us in one direction or another, but when we are children, decisions are made for us. In the case of Jobs, he was given a sense that he was special. His father challenged the school to engage him to his full potential. His teacher, Teddy, became one of the saints of his life because she learned what it took to motivate him.
This approach should become the norm in our schools and in every child-serving system. Not just for the exceptional Steve Jobs of the world, but for all children. Even if their faces do not fit our biases about where potential lies. For too many students, today’s schools resemble prisons more than they do learning laboratories.
The vast majority of brown and black children who fill juvenile detention are driven to the juvenile justice system from other youth-serving systems, like foster care and schools, who neglect to provide appropriate support or services. Once in detention, we spend over $200 per night locking them in a place that, research shows, has a negative impact on their long-term life outcomes. Not only is this morally unacceptable, it is fiscally unsustainable. Instead, we should be working to ensure youth are learning, employable and connected to their families and communities. We should be rerouting resources to their schools and communities so that they are places of opportunity rather than places where some young people of color succeed “in spite of” their surroundings.
The 2010 census shows that 12 states and D.C. now have white populations below 50% among children under age five. At current growth rates, seven more states will flip to “majority minority” among small children in the next decade. As a society, we cannot afford child-serving systems that do not support every child to reach their full potential.
Every child should have the opportunities that Jobs had to become the person that he became. He says, “I learned more from [Teddy] than any other teacher, and if it hadn’t been for her I’m sure I would have gone to jail.”
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