Last week I Skyped with a group of eighth graders from my old middle school.
When my former principal from this middle school got in touch to ask if I'd be willing to speak with his "personal finance" class, it became clear how much had changed since I was a student there. Now, every student is required to take computer tech and business courses; every student is issued a laptop or an iPad and, judging by the Thank You emails many of them sent me the day after our Skype talk, their own school email addresses.
During my middle school days I remember getting excited by the new Spanish class added to the curriculum. I remember not being allowed to wear backpacks and lugging heavy textbooks through the halls.
"I was never very good at school" I told the class, to a somewhat uneasy laugh from my former principal. I hoped he didn't immediately regret asking me to Skype in, but I think he understood (or perhaps he remembers vividly). I had a hard time growing up in a midwestern suburb, spending forty hours per week learning how to memorize and regurgitate other people's ideas. Following textbooks and other forms of prescribed lessons never came easily to me. It felt less like growing than simply rolling on.
The questions began with "So you really used to be a student here?" We quickly moved on but something about the question and the way it was asked stayed with me. There seems to be greater focus these days in early education on the idea of paving one's own path. Growing up, I was always jealous of my friends who went to schools in big cities. I remember reading stories about famous inventors or public figures and thinking Sure, but they didn't grow up in Libertyville, Illinois. They didn't go to Oak Grove. For this student, seeing the possibilities that can stem not just from his hometown but from his very own middle school, is why classes like "personal finance" for eighth graders excite me.
We continued with questions: "How did you raise the money?," and an explanation of the crowdfunding process and the various rounds of individual backers letters. Then the necessary matters, "What colors do the headphones come in?" and "When are you going to be on Shark Tank?" needed to be addressed. I was surprised by the insight some of their questions showed: "Who helped you and how did you find your support?" and "When do you know you have something that will inspire?" I've fielded questions at countless tech panels over the past couple years, but speaking with eighth graders genuinely interested in startup business -- eighth graders encouraged to think about "personal finance" who are given their own middle school email addresses -- has me considering with new light the notions of individuality and personal agency that come with creating a business.
I will always have a tender spot for the Thank You emails I received from these students the following day. One in particular asked me "How do you know when you have that big idea... that it is going to work?"
What I told her was: "You know you have a good idea when someone much smarter and more talented than you uses it in a way you never thought possible."
I hope that someone ends up being an eighth grader from Oak Grove.
From One Ear To Another,