Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Buccaneer Scholars Unite!

I just started reading James Bach’s Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar.

Buccaneer scholar is Bach’s term for someone who takes responsibility for their own education rather than having it handed to them by the authorities.

The book is an odd mix of autobiography and How To guide. The autobiographical bits have remarkable parallels with my own life right down to our reasons for learning harmonica and the kids we saved from certain death (I came across mine floating face down at midnight in the pool at Corton’s Holiday Camp with not another soul around).

A sampling of coincidences …

We both learned to program in BASIC from a book before we even had a computer to type them into. I used to write programs during French classes in a book under my desk and then type them in when I got home. I typed mine into a Zx81; James into an Apple II. I graduated to Z80; James to 68000.

James left home and school at 15. I waited until I was 16. We left for about the same reason – school was boring and we felt we weren’t learning anything. It took me several years though before I bluffed my way into my first programming job. I would’ve done it much earlier except I didn’t know it was an option.

Unlike James, I loved taking exams as a kid. It was a chance for me to excel at school without actually doing any work. In England, at that time, the only thing that counted towards your final grade was the exam at the end of the year, so I was pretty much able to do zero work for the rest of the year and still come top of my class. Sadly for them, American kids don’t have that option.

I should clarify what I mean by zero work. Like James, I was incredibly driven to learn. Apart from teaching myself to write software, I read a lot of books; just not the ones my teachers wanted me to read. My dad got me a college textbook on organic chemistry for my 14th birthday. I read that several times.

Also like James, I excelled at antagonizing my teachers and was constantly in trouble at school. I also had an episode of failing exams on purpose.

The Navy had a very strict policy on throwing people out if they weren’t able to keep up academically. We had an exam every week or two for the four years of my apprenticeship. If you failed one, you were put on a Commander’s Warning; two got you a Captain’s Warning and so on as you worked your way up the hierarchy of shame. Each warning came with ever-increasing ceremony (picture a military court) and ever more impressive certificates of failure.

I got very good at getting exactly 49% (50% was a pass) but, on a surprising number of occasions, when I got my paper back, it had been altered by the teacher to give me a couple of extra points and a passing grade.

When I received the final warning signed by the Commander in Chief himself, my Divisional Officer scribbled on a note “This beautiful certificate is even more impressive than the one you’ll get when you graduate”.

One more failure and I was out. But I blew it. I was so disenchanted with how low the academic standards were in the Navy that I wanted to know if I could still pass a proper exam. A friend of mine was taking A-Level Maths and I went and asked if I could take it too.

The education officer explained how it was a two-year course and no one had passed it in ten years and failures reflected badly on him and it was impossible to do in six weeks and it was a waste of his time and blah blah blah. Somehow, I conned him into letting me take the exam without taking the classes.

A couple of days after I got my Commander in Chief Warning, I was pulled out of class and told to go see the Captain. I was not told why, but I assumed that I had failed my fifth and final exam and that the end of my career in the Navy was imminent. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Captain had called me out of class to give me my A-Level result personally. I had got an A.

It took them a couple of days to figure out that I was the same dude who had been failing all those exams. When they did, I was told in very plain terms that I would not fail any more exams or there would be serious consequences. In a couple of days though, I had hatched my new scheme: I would become an officer and exercise an officer’s option to resign…but that’s a story for another day.

An Officer and a Gentleman

Back to the book.

I am about three-quarters through it already. I’m enjoying it immensely but it’s hard for me to recommend it.

If you are the kind of person to quit school at 16, you probably did that already and you probably don’t need James’s lessons on how to learn.

If you are not that kind of person, you probably think of people like us as reckless fools. You are probably better off taking the establishment path to a proper education anyway.