My life as a highschool dropout
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, April 18, 2001)

No book on sex is complete without an account of those who don't get any, and no discussion of formal education should omit the many citizens who mostly lack it, such as I. The other day, while testifying as an expert witness in a copyright case, I was asked about my education. "Completed Grade 11 in high school," I replied. The lawyer cross-examining me raised his eyebrows and, just to be sure, asked whether I had any further education. No, I said. As he moved on to his next question, my mind floated back to 1950, when I was 18 years old and concluding my career as the most dismal academic failure I had ever met.

If this delicate subject comes up, kind friends treat my high school life as mildly comic, a cute eccentricity. I don't discourage that interpretation, but nor do I agree with it. It was, in fact, horrible. One history teacher called me the best student he had ever taught but in the same breath made it clear he didn't expect me to go anywhere, educationally speaking. How right he was. When finally I made my escape, I had some of the worst marks in Malvern Collegiate, which may have been the least-demanding high school in Toronto.

Failed Grade 10, repeated it, then passed Grade 11 (in only one year!), then failed again in Grade 12. But I wrote the Grade 13 provincial exams in history and English without taking the courses, and passed them. It has since occurred to me that if only there had been a school that taught nothing but history and English, I might be a high school graduate today.

None of this should be considered a complaint; things didn't work out badly. But it appears now that I was living with a condition whose name was then unknown, attention deficit disorder. Since the mid-1990s, ADD has become a suspiciously fashionable diagnosis. Any idea that so quickly invades our collective consciousness, accompanied by convenient drug therapy, should be scrutinized with care. Even so, ADD demands to be taken seriously, and there is no question I displayed, floridly, a crucial tell-tale sign.

Aside from a tendency to be easily distracted, my most obvious ADD characteristic was an acute version of something that remains merely chronic in most adolescents: I didn't feel like paying attention to what I didn't feel like paying attention to. It was considered laziness at the time, and part of me still thinks of it that way, but its extreme form falls within the ADD spectrum.

Experts in ADD try to state it gently. Dr. Sam Goldstein, a University of Utah child psychologist, says that people with ADD "do not respond well to repetitive, effortful, uninteresting activities that others choose for them." Dr. Gabor Maté of Vancouver, in his engrossing book, Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, says that among people with ADD, "Active attention, the mind fully engaged and the brain performing work, is mustered only in special circumstances of high motivation." Dr. Maté's discovery that he himself suffers from ADD, even though he made his way through medical school, makes his book especially persuasive.

The ADD mind can't arouse itself when it should be attending to a subject it finds uninteresting. In those circumstances it is (Dr. Maté says) "immobilizingly difficult" to marshal the brain's motivational apparatus. Immobilized: That was me when confronted by chemistry, irregular French verbs, geometry and many other mandatory subjects. Anyone could see they weren't that hard and had to be conquered, but I couldn't manage.

Still, I was a long-time heavy reader, and my reading was slowly growing serious. I could write a little, and I could type like the wind. Though poorly co-ordinated, I performed better in typing than in any other subject. A student of ADD could easily explain. I wanted passionately to be a newspaperman and had seen newspapermen typing fast, so I simply bulled my way through, emotionally motivated.

I had been working part time in the sports department of The Globe and Mail during summers and weekends, and the sports editor agreed to take me on, at 18, as the lowliest sports writer. My older colleagues, some stern and some friendly, generously assumed the responsibility of making me reliable enough to remain employed, screaming when necessary. Thirty months later, the paper shifted me to the news pages, at my request, and my education grew more interesting. Whatever law I learned, for instance, was acquired sitting as a reporter in courtrooms. Jury trials were best, because you could hear the same legal principles explained three times, by judge, Crown attorney and defence lawyer. Covering City Hall was even more rewarding. Many aldermen had little idea of what was going on, so the city solicitor had to explain to them the subtleties of "enabling legislation" and "legal non-conforming use" and many other concepts. A man of infinite patience, he did this so slowly even I caught on.

Meanwhile, I was pursuing private studies elsewhere. My art education was obtained in galleries and the studios of artists, my literary education in books, magazines and ferocious arguments. Later I became a reviewer of books and read somewhere that literary critics are people who conduct their education in public. In my own case, this was true in a more than usually literal sense.

Once or twice I've been asked whether I missed much by failing to go to university. The answer is yes and no. I missed all those subjects a university teaches best: classics, ancient history, the sciences, philosophy. But on the other hand, I wouldn't have studied any of them. I would have picked modern literature, modern history, political science, maybe even journalism -- all, in my opinion, subjects you study best at your own pace, according to your own inclination and more or less on your own. At 18 I wasn't nearly smart enough to choose the really useful subjects. That's one of the flaws I long ago noticed in the education system: All the truly vital decisions are made by people too young to know exactly what they're doing. Maybe I should be grateful to ADD for saving me from folly.

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