For me, attending college early--I was 12 when I began taking classes at Indiana University--was truly a happy accident. I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, going to school normally for the most part until the end of seventh grade. After I spent a year in Montessori kindergarten, the first grade in the unrelentingly egalitarian atmosphere of the private school I first attended had me so unhappy in just a week that my parents had to move me to another school; I ended up at a public school next door and, somehow, mysteriously, emerged from second grade at the end of my first school year. This apparently was the happy whim of my teacher that year, facilitated by our being at a school so small that the first two grades shared one room! For the next few years, what formal advances I made in my schooling were similarly the work of exceptional public school teachers; one went to lengths to arrange extracurricular studies in fourth grade; another advanced me from seventh to tenth grade in math and science; someone else arranged for me to toy with electronics at a neighboring high school. More than from anywhere else, though, I gained the extra mental stimulation I craved on my own, reading voraciously at school, in class and out, at the local libraries, at bookstores when my parents ran errands, and of course at home. When we left Canada at the end of my seventh-grade year, my parents didn't even know I had been placed ahead of my class in math and science. I think this goes to show that a child can advance beyond his or her peers in learning, even by themselves, staying in a traditional setting and without undue unhappiness, if they are sufficiently curious! I seem to have been quite happy at regular school, even without my parents making special schooling arrangements. Plus, I learned a lot about keeping my mental life private when doing so was a good idea, as it sometimes is among youngsters!
The activity in which I did publicly excel and which ultimately led to our coming to the US was music. I started the piano around the age of five and violin soon thereafter and progressed very rapidly--it was clearly something for which I had both natural talent and an immediate love. My parents spared no effort in making it possible for both my sister and me to take private lessons, take part in contests and play concerts from time to time. None of us knew enough about music as a profession for this to be particularly serious or done with great expectations for the future, but they did encourage my interest to develop fully, led by my love of what I was doing, my curiosity and natural ambition. I think this is probably the best course parents can take with a child with such a passion.
One example of the time my parents devoted to my music was their driving me weekly two hours to a small town near Seattle, so I could study violin with a couple who had been willing to take me on when my father was out of work and my parents could not pay for lessons. These teachers decided to leave the US to return permanently to Australia, and that put us on the hunt for a new violin teacher. One of the two had studied with the renowned violin pedagogue Josef Gingold, who since twenty years had been teaching at Indiana University, and the idea of moving there to continue my studies was born in that way. In one of the twists of fate that characterizes the serendipity with which events unfolded for us, my father's unemployment and our lack of family in Canada made it quite easy for him to look for a job in the area--and that is how we ended up hauling ourselves across the continent to a new home in 1984, when I was 12. My studying with Mr. Gingold was the sole reason for the move, and we certainly had no notion of my becoming a college student--which goes to prove that attending college very young can be something to stumble into, and need not be planned far in advance! In my case, everything was motivated by a specific interest. It was finding a mentor for the violin that ultimately drew me into my early college education.
In Canada there is an institution, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which offers a well-known diploma program combining instrumental requirements with music theory and history study. (Secondary piano skills are also required for all students.) This is made possible without physical attendance at the institution in Toronto by biannual examinations administered nationally; students learn the material by private instruction. For a few years before we left Canada, my parents took me twice weekly to private classes for the theory and history, and I did this at an age several years younger than most of the students. I completed the diploma the summer we left for the US, and doing this turned out to be of great importance when I arrived in Indiana. Motivated purely by the desire to have my music theory and history instruction continue--my parents followed their intuition as to what would make a good, well-rounded music education--I took placement exams at the university, and ended up placing out of most of the undergraduate curriculum. With that the door was opened in short order to take college music classes. Evidently their intuitive approach stood my parents in good stead! I was admitted as a special student, free to register for any classes I liked, but formally not an admitted student. However, once I was in the university system, it seemed logical to make the most of the opportunity, and other circumstances conspired to nudge us in this direction as well. In particular, we discovered that the Indiana school system was very inflexible; my advancement in math and science would not be recognized, and it was going to be difficult to get permission to leave the school for musical events. The ultimate tipping factor came unexpectedly as a result of my summer reading; I had read most of the way through undergraduate college and physics texts for fun during our move, and wandered into the IU math department to ask if I could attend classes. When I got permission to take third-year calculus contingent on permission from my secondary school, the decision became easy. Even though my parents quite strongly encouraged me to attend high school normally, being concerned about my opportunities to socialize, I was sure of what I wanted! I decided to finish high school by Canadian correspondence courses and attend college at the same time, and with that decision made, everything fell into place quickly. Ultimately, my high school diploma arrived in the mail a few weeks before I completed my undergraduate requirements, and I was formally admitted and graduated only shortly thereafter.
People are often curious whether I finished high school, and whether I was a normal student at the university. The answer to both questions is yes. While the math department didn't seem particularly concerned as to whether I had a diploma, the music administration was quite adamant about it! In hindsight I don't think it's at all a bad thing that I fulfilled all the requirements. With a child in early college there will always be a few skeptics who worry that something's been missed in one's education. By completing the high school diploma and also taking or placing out of all necessary prerequisites at the college level, there wasn't any doubt as to whether I had earned my degree properly. I strongly encourage acceleration, but recommend against outright skipping educational steps. For the correspondence courses, for example, I did them much quicker than normal, but I did actually send in all of the lessons!
Basically, the philosophy my parents and I had was that the best way to be taken seriously at the university was not to ask for special treatment--aside from initially being allowed to take classes, of course! Having a particular teacher pulling for me was undoubtedly my entree into IU, but from that point on we were methodical in having me play by the rules, and did not try to pull strings. In the process I feel I enjoyed a complete education and evaded the trap of specializing too soon and missing the joys of discovering many other things.
Aside from the mechanics of getting to college and the nature of my academics while I was attending, people also frequently ask me about my social experience. I was very lucky to have my whole family move with me, so I didn’t have to leave with just one parent, and certainly didn't have to live by myself at that age. (I do think however that an arrangement that can work quite well is one in which a child goes to college with one parent, and they remain within driving distance of the other parent and/or family.) Socially, during my undergraduate years I maintained contact with friends my own age both long-distance back in Vancouver and locally in Bloomington, but I didn't try too hard to socialize with the university crowd outside of classes and related activities. When I got to 16 or 17 it was much more natural to spend more time with that group, and I enjoyed myself immensely. My advice here is to leave everything to develop at closer to its natural pace; there's no need to socialize exclusively with the group with which one is studying! I was always accustomed to compartmentalizing my socializing and my education to some extent, and that approach seems to have worked out just fine in the end. For three or four years at the beginning of my college adventure I did sometimes wonder what it would have been like to attend high school, but in the balance, in hindsight I'm mostly glad I missed the experience! I bypassed the worst pressures of high school and yet had no trouble catching up on the pleasures and mysteries of dating and such things when the time was right at university. In a word, I don't think tweaking the social calendar a bit is in the slightest deleterious.
Most importantly: I had a great time, loved what I was learning, and looked forward to each day at the university, as opposed to being ambivalent about grade school or even worse, bored and listless as I'm afraid I might have become had I stayed in high school. I simply enjoyed my rich education a bit earlier, which was very helpful in my professional pursuits--had I waited to a normal age my musical career might well have precluded my completing university, and certainly would have done so at the graduate level. My parents let me follow my creative and intellectual inclinations without pressure, never planning things in excessive detail or much in advance. Early college was thus never a goal in itself but simply the result of a freedom and enthusiasm in letting me follow my dreams. If that pursuit can be made with joy and simply for the fun of learning, with sensible parenting appropriate for a student's age and no hurry to be party to the numerous temptations of college, I think the experience can work out wonderfully. Even if I had the chance, I wouldn't change my own path in the slightest!
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