On June 21, my daughter was among the first to walk down the aisle at James Madison High School's graduation, a valedictorian whose diligence paid off in the highly competitive Fairfax County school system. "Like a chip off the old block," people told me, making what would seem to them a reasonable assumption.
They didn't know my story: I was once a high school dropout. At 17, bored, frustrated, neglected by the schools and obsessed with other interests, I walked away from high school and never graduated.
It used to be hard for me to acknowledge that publicly, and to this day some colleagues and bosses from the early part of my career still don't know about it.
I didn't want to tell them. When you hear "dropout," you don't exactly think: brain surgeon, astronaut, Nobel Prize winner. I'm not any of those things, but I have had a successful career as a writer and editor. Still, for a long time I thought people would figure that because I wasn't a high school graduate, I was a failure, or not smart, or only fit to push a broom, not a pen.
Out of curiosity, I went on the Web the other day to look for statistics on high school dropouts, and there was the stereotype: People who drop out fare poorly in life. They get lousy jobs. A disproportionate number go to jail. They make poor choices.
And, I'll concede, many do. So it was my secret, and only my closest friends had to know -- until, well, recently, when I started talking about it openly. In fact, I had written about it only once before in my 25 years of being paid to write, in a column in a Florida newspaper. Now, with my daughter's success, my satisfaction with my career and having hit middle age, I'm finally comfortable acknowledging that it is a part of who I am. Or, you might say, who I was.
It's also time to give something back. Maybe a kid the schools have forgotten -- or maybe a school or a teacher, even -- will take something positive from my story.
In the early 1970s, I was a troublemaker in an urban high school in southwest Ohio. I tested poorly and assumed, like my teachers, that the problem was me, not the tests. I was one of many who could not say "I never inhaled."
I also skipped school. A lot. I had ways to keep my parents -- an aluminum siding and roofing salesman and a bookkeeper -- from finding out. My sister and I colluded to write down the same fake phone number on forms the school required the first day of class, so when an assistant principal couldn't find either of us, he also couldn't reach our folks.
All the skipping led to bad grades, and because my school grouped students based on their test scores and grades, I was assigned to dumbed-down classes. There it was, the height of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the shootings of students at Kent State. Yet debate on topics of the day was strictly the province of advanced classes. For the rest of us, school droned on without engagement, boring as could be. I clowned around, talked in class, got kicked out of class, avoided class and found more interesting ways to occupy my time.
Music was my salvation. In my bedroom, with a cheap AM-FM radio and red and blue light bulbs for ambiance, I practiced bass guitar for hours on end. At age 15, I became good enough to join a rock band with college kids. It provided new friends (some of them still close), spending money and an alternative to humdrum -- and at a city school, sometimes dangerous -- student life.
Eventually, my lackluster academic performance (and an assistant principal who'd been hunting me for skipping detentions) caught up with me. In the 11th grade I transferred to an experimental "school without walls" -- a school utterly lacking in structure. It was the kind of place where cool teachers used the "F" word, and where highly driven students could thrive in self-directed cerebral pursuits. As for me, I was infinitely more interested in such discoveries as James Brown's wicked use of rhythmic counterpoint. And the school provided a way to meet more musicians. Academics just didn't excite me like the world I was discovering in music.
I knew I was drifting. I tried taking a couple of self-paced, workbook-style courses at a city school for troubled teens. I whipped through them in weeks but figured I was too far behind to graduate. So I stopped going. The spring I should have been graduating, I got a job driving a cab instead.
Soon, I wound up in Los Angeles, drawn there by music and friends and aspirations of fame as a rock musician or record producer. Stalled dreams carried me back home to Ohio the next year. Working a series of menial jobs and playing at night in bands, I recognized at age 19 that I needed other options. So I drove over to a branch campus of the University of Cincinnati and asked: If I promise to get a GED -- a general equivalency diploma -- will you let me enroll?
The answer was yes. Though music kept calling me back to L.A., I earned my bachelor's degree four years, two colleges and many bars and clubs later, supporting myself in part by playing in bands.
Still, I didn't want to tell people that I had been a dropout. My bachelor's degree is from a small public university in the West that most folks have never heard of, and in my mind it didn't seem impressive enough to make up for the GED. Finding a job without connections or a hot-shot diploma was difficult enough without advertising a credential that announced: "I was a screwup."
So I kept the GED off my resume and, when asked, I'd say that I "went to" such-and-such high school. Personnel offices only verified college, anyway. But let's not kid ourselves. I wasn't telling the whole story. And even though I started having some success reporting for newspapers, working for a textbook publisher and, eventually, writing full time for an Ohio magazine, I felt lacking -- an intellectual impostor. I was working around people who were writing novels at night and had a keen understanding of literature and the writing craft.
I know journalists like to talk about those legendary reporters who never graduated from high school. But that's lore, not reality. Applying for newspaper jobs, I always found myself up against people with far more impressive academic credentials than mine. I felt like I needed to catch up. So I went back to school in 1984, this time to earn a master's degree in journalism and public affairs at American University. I taught magazine writing there as well, and freelanced and took out loans. My wife and I lived poor as church mice.
Then one day, when a professor asked me to talk about myself before a group of undergraduates, I told them without hesitation: I was a high school dropout.
It shocked them, and it still surprises people 20 years later. I dress in suits and own a house in the suburbs and have two teenage kids and look like any other white-collar nerd (partly because I'm no longer capable of growing a decent mop of hair). I have credentials that gain me entrance into the White House and the Capitol. I write about complicated subjects in ways that I hope ordinary people will understand.
And I am more certain than ever that my pitiful test scores and grades in high school, and my lack of academic confidence, were a measure of the system's failure as much as mine.
Not once did a teacher or administrator recognize any spark or talent, and if it hadn't been for my own determination, I very well might have fulfilled their low expectations in life. To this day I worry that schools are ill-equipped to deal with troubled or bored students, and too quick to consign them to mediocrity.
In Washington, people commonly ask where you went to school, and you hear "Harvard" and "Cornell" and other Ivy League names. With relish I tell them where I went and how my GED got me there.
They have their pedigrees. I have mine.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Stephen Koff is the Washington bureau chief of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Plain Dealer magazine.