Archive for Sunday, March 24, 2002

Teens who forgo college find new classrooms

March 24, 2002


— John Mayer panicked on his first night in Atlanta. He had just withdrawn from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, had a transcript full of Fs and a bill from the school for $50 because he supposedly drew on the wall of his dorm room.

He wanted to make his living playing the guitar and until that night he was sure he could do it. But all of a sudden, doubts emerged.

After shirking college and never taking high school too seriously, Mayer started to wonder if he had made a wrong turn along the way. Had his parents and teachers been right? Had seeking a career in music been nothing but a flight of fancy?

These thoughts, however, lasted only one night.

"One thing you can never prove to someone are your intentions," he says.

The next day Mayer started handing his tape to any club that would listen to it. Regardless of what sort of gigs it landed him, he relied on his "calculated, ice-cold confidence" to push him though the process.

School hadn't worked out, he reasoned, so some other avenue had to.

"I was just so intoxicated by the idea of breaking out," Mayer says. "I felt so oppressed by being in a room with people, 30 strong, facing the same wall and not being able to talk."

Spring is usually a season of excitement for high school seniors as post-graduation plans solidify. But among the giddy almost-collegiates are sure to be a few teen-agers who don't want or need their next step to be onto a campus quad.

Different strokes

John Kelly was one of those students. In 1996 he was a senior at the Boston Latin School. While everyone around him handed in college applications, he kept quiet and did his best to finish off the year.

"I always enjoyed learning," Kelly says. "But I had gotten to a point where I was just tired of school."

Shortly after graduation he realized that if he wanted to sing and act he would have to find something during the day that would let him pay his rent but keep his nights and weekends free. He started working temporary clerical jobs at Boston-area financial companies, eventually learning enough about the business world to land permanent positions.

When he moved to New York two years ago, Kelly, with real-world experience on his resume, had no problem getting jobs in his new field of finance which supports his aspiring-musician alter ego.

He knows he's been lucky.

"Eventually I may have to go to college," he says, "but for now I can perform, which I love, and I can pay the rent."

Mayer, 24, on the other hand, thinks he is getting all the education he needs. He is currently on tour promoting his first album, "Room For Squares," on Columbia Records.

"I went to my own school, let me just say that," Mayer says. "I just made the rules. I made the curriculum and the curriculum changes every day."

But not everyone understood the method to his madness, including his parents, who saved the money to put him through college only to receive Mayer's calls when he couldn't pay for groceries.

"When you're raising a kid, and from the minute his little lungs start moving in and out, you care for him and you do it 24 hours a day," Mayer says. "Then at 16 years old, they say they want to play guitar for the rest of their lives, which sounds like the most careless thing in the world."

Mayer says he's grateful that his parents supported and understood the choices he made.

Preparation is important

A 1999 study by Barbara Schneider, a University of Chicago researcher, and the late David Stevenson, who was with the U.S. Department of Education, supports the notion of at least delaying college.

They found that although more students enrolled in college between 1980 and 1992, the majority of adolescents had "limited knowledge about their chosen occupation and the required education and are therefore not realistic about their lifelong goals."

Schneider and Stevenson also noted that these "misaligned ambitions" were more common with students whose parents had higher levels of education.

But students who constructed a plan that may or may not include college had what the researchers called "aligned ambitions," a more flexible and at times realistic plan for reaching their professional goals.

"This can help an adolescent bring a sense of order to their social world, focus their efforts and highlight the consequences of making particular choices," Schneider and Stevenson wrote in their findings.

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