The Early Entrance Program (or, I Was A Teen-age Genius Lab-Rat)

The Early Entrance Program (or, I Was A Teen-age Genius Lab-Rat)

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott

So a friend of mine asked me over on Facebook what life was like in the UW Early Entrance Program. I don’t talk about this much, mainly because I don’t want people to think I’m bragging. My wunderkind days are long behind me. But the experience itself is worth writing about, although I’m — not really sure where to start. All I knew was that my answer was going to be too long to post there, so here we are, and here we go.

The EEP was a curriculum designed to provide the equivalent of four years of high school in just one year, to fast-track you right into the UW proper. They only took about a dozen students per year, all between the ages of 12 and 15. Me, I was 15, so I just barely squeaked in, on my second year applying.

By then I’d already spent one year in high school — I’d skipped eighth grade to get there — and I desperately wanted out. (For one thing, my fellow students in the “advanced” English class in high school made fun of me for . . . having a large vocabulary? Okay, sure.)

Since the EEP was highly competitive to get into, they were really only interested in serious, hardcore academics who held their scholastic endeavors as their highest, most important goal. I was able to get in using my greatest talent, which is to say, charming people and telling them exactly what they want to hear. (I also tested well, which helped. But I was never the model student that I claimed to be, or that they wanted me to be.)

My parents didn’t push me into this, by the way, not at all. They suggested it to me when they found out about it, but they also made it clear that it was completely up to me to go after it or not, and that they would absolutely support me in whatever decision I made. I know this wasn’t the case for a lot of the other EEPers. (Yes, that’s what the staff called us. EEPers! Isn’t that cute? And maybe just a liiiittle bit dismissive? Anyway . . . . ) I know that some of the others were definitely there because of parental pressure, but that wasn’t something I had to deal with, and I will always be insanely grateful for that.

Now, I can’t speak for what the program is like now, of course, or even what it’s been like for most of its history. Just what it was like the year I went, with the faculty they had at the time.

So. What was it like?

It was a fucking crucible.

Take a dozen of the brightest students from all over the state. Poorly socialized loners, for the most part, none of whom had ever had to work very hard to get an “A” in their life. Kids who were used to being, academically speaking, Very Large Fish in their respective little ponds. Shove ’em together in a little building at the edge of campus with a sign out front that prominently reads, “DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY LABORATORY,” in case they don’t feel freakish enough already.

And to run the place, gather together a faculty who . . . . well . . . .

Here. If I had to give you one anecdote to explain the problem with the place, it would be this:

There was, in our little building, a large room set aside as the Student Lounge. One afternoon, a bunch of us were running around in there, making a lot of noise, you know — playing, right?

One of the teachers came in, looked at us in annoyed disgust, and snapped, “You’re all acting like children!”

I don’t think I actually said it out loud, but my immediate natural reaction was, “But — we are children.”

None of the teachers ever, ever seemed to quite grasp that. They seemed to fully expect that our maturity and our emotional development would match our intellectual development — that we were (or should be, at least), effectively speaking, miniature adults. Which was fucking insane. Our brains literally hadn’t finished forming yet, for Pete’s sake, not to mention that we were going through puberty.

How this could have escaped their attention is completely beyond me, but it did. They were all fascinated by the idea of these “gifted” students that they were studying, but entirely ill-equipped to deal with the reality of what we were like. I’d go so far as to say they weren’t interested in what we were like — just what they thought they could shape us into.

Not everyone makes it. I believe it was pretty common in those days for at least one or two students to drop out before that first year is over. I know we lost a couple, and there was one student in my year who left for a couple of months for a stay in a mental-health facility.

The curriculum was designed to break us. I don’t mean that they meant to leave us as broken individuals, although in some cases they certainly did; I mean this in the sense that you would break a horse. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me point out that the same teacher I mentioned above gleefully bragged to us, more than once, about the fact that there had been students who had bad enough physical stress symptoms from his classes that they had been hospitalized. 

Yeah. I’ve never had as strong a love-hate reaction to anyone as I did to this man. I wanted him dead and I just as desperately wanted him to like me and approve of me.

Anyway, for the most part, our emotional needs and our health aside, this approach was . . . largely good for us, and kinda what we needed? It was really hard to suddenly be getting C’s — and D’s and F’s — for the first time, for most of us. A lot of the students in my class would be in tears when papers and tests came back. But being forced to realize that while we might be special, we certainly weren’t unique, was a wake-up call I think we all probably needed. We were being graded on a curve against other students who were as smart as we were — or, horror of horrors, smarter! — and we were really being pushed and challenged for the first time. Which was good. Mostly.

But I still think they didn’t need to push us quite that hard. They were supposed to be preparing us for college, and maybe some of us went on to have the kind of rigorous, grad-school-bound academic career that they were preparing us for — and they made it pretty clear that if you didn’t plan to go on to grad school, then in their opinion, you were wasting your life — but for the most part, when that first Transition Year was over and we got out onto the “real” college campus — we found it much, much easier than anything we’d just gone through, and never again faced that kind of scrutiny, or pressure, or difficult material, or high grading standards. Which, for me, and for a lot of the others, meant that we didn’t take the rest of our college careers at all seriously, and just kind of blew it off. I never graduated. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

(On the other hand, while I never got my degree, and didn’t have much use for most of my classes — being at the UW meant I had Internet access back in 1987, and that I was around at the beginnings of the World Wide Web, and so it accidentally gave me a huge head-start on my eventual career in web application development. So there’s that.)

And while they were supposed to be preparing us for college, they kind of dropped the ball on, in any practical sense, actually preparing us for college. Like helping us figure out how to choose classes, or maneuver the college bureaucracy, keep track of credits, plan out your major, anything. They just wanted us to be intellectually ready and seemed to assume we’d figure out the rest on our own. I mean, sure, you could go to them with questions if you had them, but they were perfectly content to just kick you out of the nest when they were done with you and let you either fly or fall. I rarely went to them with questions about how to navigate all this shit because I didn’t even know what questions to ask, for the most part.

But anyway, I’ve talked about one teacher in particular, but what about the rest of the staff?

Well, without naming any names — there was the program director, our distant monarch, who had started the program with her husband and seemed at a bit of a loss how to deal with all of us now that he was gone. We rarely saw her, except for those occasions when she would summon us individually to her office to lecture us about living up to our true potential.

Much like our English teacher, who we each had a mandatory one-on-one conference with every week, which was basically like spending the week knowing you were going to have to go to the Principal’s office. Authoritarian, overbearing, and a ridiculous stickler for things being done exactly her way — she drilled us over and over again, writing out her long list of punctuation rules from memory, and we were docked points if we didn’t have them exactly the way she phrased them. Boring and aggravating at the time, but to this very day you could wake me out of a dead sleep and show me a sentence and by God I’ll be able to tell you exactly where you misplaced a comma.

There was our physics teacher, who was such a stupefyingly boring lecturer that I’m having difficulty remembering what he even looked like and I had literally almost forgotten about him entirely until I sat down to write this, but who did give us some pretty fun lab assignments and experiments, so that almost (but not quite) made up for it.

There was our French teacher, who literally spent the entire first semester teaching us the sounds of French — what letters indicated what sounds, and precisely how to pronounce those sounds, how to hold your mouth and so on, teaching us what a “voiceless bilabial fricative” was before he would teach us a single word of the language and what it meant. Since I had taken French already in my one year in high school, I was bored to death at the time, but now I can still pick up any French text and read aloud from it with a pretty high degree of accuracy, and understand maybe . . . a quarter of it? So that’s an interesting party trick, at least.

There was our math teacher, and good Lord do I ever mean “teacher” in the loosest possible sense. He was a brilliant mathematician, but practically hopeless at explaining anything about math that he considered obvious, which was practically everything. He would write down a long equation on the chalkboard and say, “Now, from this, we can obviously derive this,” and write down another equation that looked completely different, and there were two or three of us who would nod and think, oh yes, of course, that makes perfect sense, and the rest of us would be like, wait a minute, what the fuck? And then he’d have to spend most of his lecture time explaining concepts he’d expected us to grasp immediately, and we were frustrated, and he was frustrated, and I don’t know if he ever got a chance to get through all the material he wanted to in his allotted hour.

He was a lousy instructor, but a pretty fun guy to be around, actually, and of all the teachers, he was the one who treated us the most like he thought we were people. He got along with us really well. Arguably too well. Midway through my year, he was quietly, privately asked to resign, for exactly the reason you might think a charismatic young teacher of underage students might be asked to resign. If you know what I mean. And I think you do.

At least he wasn’t fired, unlike our poor student counselor, who was “let go” late in the year — with absolutely no explanation to us forthcoming from the rest of the faculty, no matter how much the angry students — or even our angry parents — demanded one. It was an internal matter, we were told, and absolutely none of our business. I never did find out what happened for a fact, so I can’t say this for certain — but I have it on good authority from multiple reliable sources that he was fired simply because they found out he was — *whispers* — g-a-y. Not that I’ve ever heard even a rumor of any impropriety between him and any of the students. Just that fact alone was reason enough to fire him. Again, this isn’t something I can confirm. But it was the 80’s, and that sort of thing did happen.

Most of us, myself definitely included, had considered him a friend and a confidant, and he had been the one person there who seemed genuinely invested in our development as human beings, not just as scholars. He was someone we could talk to, who would always listen — not just about school, but about everything. And to have him taken away from us without explanation like that — well, it was a betrayal. There’s no other way to put it.

And for me, it was the last straw. This pretty much cemented my distrust of any supposed authority — authority in general, and definitely theirs in particular. We had all gone into the program with the understanding that they wanted to study our long-term academic progress and our lives over the years to come, and I have never answered so much as a single survey nor gone to a single reunion, because fuck those people.

Now, from everything I understand, the program is much, much different today — there has been a complete staff turnover multiple times by now — and I gather that now they take a more rounded, humanitarian approach, and they seem to turn out some pretty happy, well-adjusted kids. So if you have children you’re considering placing in the program now — I’m not trying to warn you against it! I have no reason to think there’s anything wrong with the program today, despite the fact that they burned their bridges with me years ago. I’m just saying that if you had been considered enrolling in 1986, and you didn’t, then, well, you probably made the right decision.

But . . . if I had my life to live over, knowing what I know now . . . . would I still make the same decision? Would I still have entered the program?

Well, yeah. Fuck, yes.

I don’t know how I would have made it through another three years of high school. Academically, emotionally, or socially. I don’t know how the rest of you managed it. I just couldn’t face the idea, but dropping out wasn’t an option — that was laughably unthinkable to me — so it was this or nothing, as far as I was concerned.

And while I may have had my issues with the staff — you know, maybe one or two — we students had something absolutely miraculous.

We had each other.

That was where I formed my first real, solid friendships, some of which last to this day. This was the first time I was around people who I thought actually understood me, who I could relate to. We were kind of going through hell, all of us, academically and personally. But for the most part, we had each other’s backs.

That experience, being with those people — that’s what made me who I am today. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.