In the winter of 1969-70, I was a sophomore at Uni High, a lab school for smart kids on the campus of the University of Illinois, and I was flunking math.
Everyone knew it, too, due to an episode in which Mr. Sanders, the math teacher, had grabbed the paperback I was reading in class, hurled it across the room, and yelled “It’s bad enough that you’re flunking! The least you could do is pretend to pay attention!”
During my first couple of years at Uni I’d only made a few friends. I was a quiet kid and didn’t socialize much, so a lot of my classmates didn’t know me well. After the book hurling incident, I imagine most of them assumed I’d be gone soon. That is, until the next time, a few weeks later, when I was again publicly singled out in class by a teacher.
This time it was Charlene Tibbetts, the English teacher. She had finished grading our latest papers. The assignment had been to write an essay describing a hypothesis about why some phenomenon occurs, and present evidence for or against the hypothesis. Pretty mundane stuff.
Mrs. Tibbetts told the class, “Most of your essays were very good. But there’s one that really stands out.” And then she added, “It’s by David Woolley.”
This set off an immediate chorus of “DAVID WOOLLEY?????” as people turned to me with “you gotta be kidding” looks on their faces. Because, of course, I was the one that was supposed to be flunking out.
Mrs. Tibbetts then proceeded to read my work aloud to the class. It began, “When I was a very young rooster, my father was king of the barnyard…”
Because, you see, I hadn’t written an essay at all. Instead, I’d written a story, narrated by a rooster who spends his time coming up with various hypotheses about what he needs to do to make the sun rise in the morning. I’d fulfilled the purpose of the assignment, but not in the form that was expected. And it was, I have to admit, a pretty good story. Still reads well today.
That moment in English class was the turning point of my high school career. From then on, I was known as a creative writer. A classmate asked me to write a script for a funny skit in the school talent show that spring. I not only wrote the skit, I also acted in it, and it was the hit of the evening. The next year a few friends and I started a satirical school newspaper called “The Gargle” which became wildly popular among both the students and faculty and wound up eclipsing the official school newspaper. I wrote and acted in more silly talent show skits, pulled a legendary prank in the school library, and closed out senior year as Master of Ceremonies for “Class Night,” the annual big-deal event where members of the faculty handed out awards to overachieving students and the graduating seniors put on skits lampooning the faculty, at the climax of which we released a final special edition of The Gargle, very nearly causing a riot in the mad rush to grab copies.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, no, I did not flunk math. I managed to pull it together and end the year with a B in that class.
What’s the point of all this, besides “yippee for me?”
The point is that when I took a little risk and turned in a story instead of the essay Mrs. Tibbetts had asked for, she not only accepted it, she celebrated it. Many teachers, in many schools, would have slapped down any such attempt to step outside the lines.
Her reaction made all the difference for me. I was encouraged to act on my creative impulses rather than squelch them. That served me well for the rest of my time in school, and on into my career. My creation of PLATO Notes a few years later — and its sparking of the world’s first online community — came about because when I was given an assignment to create a bug-tracking system, I took the opportunity to do it in a way that enabled online discussions about anything.
At a class reunion in 1997 some of us began talking about what made Uni High such a special place. I was reminded that for me, it was that independent thinking and unconventional solutions to problems were honored there. In the weeks after the reunion some of us carried on our discussions by email. When the idea came up that we pool our resources and give some sort of gift to the school, I suggested that we do something that would highlight and sustain this aspect of what made Uni High different. I proposed that we fund an annual award for students who had shown spontaneous creativity. Thinking outside the box. Extraordinary acts in ordinary circumstances. I suggested we call it the Wylde Q. Chicken Spontaneous Generation Award for Coloring Outside the Lines.
My fellow alumni loved the idea. So did the school administration. We raised $10,000, one of my classmates designed and built a large Wylde Q. Chicken plaque to hang prominently in the halls of the school, I created a web site, and we were off and running.
Just yesterday we gave out our 15th annual award to a girl who, instead of writing a standard essay about a novel that had been assigned reading in English class, turned in the first three chapters of her own novel, adopting the style and themes of the original novel but moving the action forward in time by 70 years and weaving in contemporary characters and world events.
Coloring outside the lines is alive and well at Uni High. I just wish it would be celebrated in every school, everywhere. The world needs creative thinkers and people willing to step outside the bounds of what’s expected. How else are we going to get out of all the seemingly intractable problems we’ve gotten ourselves into?