It all started with a piano...

PianoTrying to pinpoint the exact time and circumstances when I started taking my education seriously isn’t easy, but I think I’ve narrowed it down to several memorable incidents.

My parents decided to homeschool my two brothers and me when I entered the fifth grade. Leaving the school where I had made friends meant going through a period of adjustment. I no longer had a group of peers surrounding me; I now had my two brothers. Instead of getting involved in sports, I took music lessons. And rather than having a teacher to walk me through my studies, I had to learn the art of self-direction.

In a way, you could say that I started to get serious about my education for the first time when my mom got out the “rod of reproof” because... (ahem) ... I was just being lazy. My parents were very diligent in recognizing and dealing with bad attitudes and disobedience in my brothers and me. Although this loving correction by my parents didn’t necessarily ignite my thirst for learning new things, I learned to discipline myself to accomplish my studies even when they weren’t fun or exciting. Without the important discipline of just “sticking with it,” I might never have taken the opportunity to try things that I came to enjoy.

Then one day when I was 10 years old something happened that profoundly changed my attitude toward learning. My parents bought a piano. It certainly wasn’t much to look at. The finish was a dull brown, many of the keys were chipped and ragged, and the tuning was so far out that it sounded like an old saloon piano. However, its rough condition was no match for my mother’s optimism and work ethic. Over the course of several months, she painstakingly stripped the old, peeling varnish from the woodwork, reapplied a beautiful coat of stain and clear coat, and placed new key covers on each of the keys.

When it was finally completed and moved into our dining room, the change was unbelievable. I can still remember how she stood there and tapped out the melodies of “Heart and Soul” and “Daisy, Daisy” while I stood in hushed amazement. Then she looked at me and said, “Here Dutch” (that was my nickname back then), “I’ll show you how to play this!” And so it began.

Because of the dedication and vision of my mom, I started taking piano lessons from a lady that I would grow to respect and appreciate more than words can describe—Mrs. Rosella Thompson. Upon first entering her house, I remember thinking that she looked like another elderly strict instructor, and that I wouldn’t enjoy this “chore” of learning the piano very much at all. However, within just a few minutes, she had won her way into my heart with her kind spirit and enthusiastic encouragement. I remember how her praise of my diligent practicing sent my spirits soaring, how I would stay up late at night to practice this newfound mystery of music. For that was what playing the piano had become for me—a secret message was contained in the cryptic lines of music before me that, when deciphered, revealed an exciting message. I was thrilled with the waves emotion that seemed to pour forth with each stroke of a well-played composition! Now instead of having to make me study, my parents had to tell me to quit because I would practice for hours into the night.

Interestingly, my love for learning the piano seemed to carry over into my other studies as well. I realized that each subject, in its own way, had a mystery to be solved, and I learned to enjoy facing a difficult subject and working through it until I had solved its mystery.

Another thing that made life interesting was that my family began a house-building project when I turned eleven. My dad was the foreman, and the rest of us were the crew. Many were the times that Dad would come home from work and make us rebuild something that wasn’t quite right, but finally, after three years, our new house was completed!

Was I handicapped by not going to a traditional school like many of my friends? I don’t think so. I emerged from my elementary and high school years with experiences and skills that many never have the privilege of learning. I was an accomplished pianist, had learned the basics of construction, and was accustomed to self-directed study. On top of that, my brothers and I grew to be close friends.

When I graduated from high school in 1999, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had the choice of going to college and studying for who knows what or taking up an apprenticeship in a field that sounded like something I would enjoy. I decided to give the apprenticeship a try, and for the first four years I ate it up!

When given the opportunity, I signed on as an apprentice at a print shop in Chicago. My first duties there were the basic chores of cleaning up the work areas and loading machines with paper. Then, as I demonstrated safety and ability, I was given more meaningful tasks. Each day I felt like I was growing and learning new things—how to set up the different machines, how to work in the most efficient manner, and how to produce a quality print job that I could be proud of at the end of the day. The sense that I was developing and expanding my knowledge every day was fulfilling. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last forever. I eventually arrived at a plateau in my learning and became discontented with the day-in and day-out, same old routines. I started to question if I wanted to work in a print shop for the rest of my life and wondered if there were something that I would enjoy more.

The second time I started to see the value of an education had finally come. I was in that scary season of life—trying to decide what I wanted to do for a career. I thought about studying to be an engineer, but after doing some research, I abandoned that idea.

It then occurred to me that I had worked on several computer projects without being bored. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I found myself staying up late at night to solve challenging computer problems. Often my research would extend far beyond the scope of the original problem because I found myself fascinated with the world of computer languages. This experience opened my eyes to what I wanted to do. I concluded that what I would enjoy would be to work with computers and design programs for people. I researched the Internet and interviewed several friends to find out what I needed to do to become a software engineer and realized that I needed to go back to school if I was serious.

Shortly thereafter I enrolled in school to pursue a bachelor of science degree in computer science. I am pursuing this degree with a seriousness that I wouldn’t have had if I had gone to college directly from high school, for I now have a goal that I know I want to reach!