Life advice from a high school dropout

The other day, I had a Skype conversation with my niece's daughter. She's a smart kid but bored silly with high school. Her parents want her to go to college, but she's pretty sure she has no interest in that.

Like John Wayne said in True Grit, "She reminds me of me."

I never believed in talking down to children, and anyway I'm not sure someone 17 years old is a child, so I told my grandniece that college is overrated. It's wonderful for some, sure, but many people who have no need for a college degree got one anyway, and that's just a waste of time and money and effort.

Let me tell you about my three brothers. One went to college, and turned his degree into a solid career in academics. He'd always wanted that degree, worked hard for it, loved the subject he studied and taught, and wouldn't have wanted his life to go any other way.

Another brother went to college, earned his degree, and now makes bricks and drives for Uber. I don't think he had the same passion for college. He went mostly to smoke pot and meet girls and have a good time, and he did all three. Nothing wrong with that.

My third brother didn't go to college. He became a petty crook instead, and made more money than the other two, probably put together. The drawback, though, is that he spent a good chunk of his life in prison.

Different strokes for my different brothers, but they each did what they wanted. I love that, love 'em all, and the criminal brother eventually became a law-abiding citizen, so I'd say all three were successful.

My dad wanted me to go to college, but no, no, and no again. I didn't even want to go to high school. It's a crazy situation, high school — organized chaos, tedious classes, teachers who can't teach and a few who can, and students who run the same gamut you'll see all through life — some are smart, most are boring, some are astonishingly stupid.

I was truant about as often as I was in school, skipping thousands of classes, and at least hundreds of complete school days. For the most part, I spent that time in the family garage reading comic books, or at the library reading real books. Sunny days I was often at the park, reading.

My parents and school officials didn't know what to do with me. "He isn't stupid, he just refuses to put any effort into school," said one note from a teacher, and that note was one of the smartest things I'd heard from any teacher. She hit the nail right on my head. I'm not lazy about things I care about. I'm lazy about the things she cared about.

I was frequently suspended from school — for skipping school. Ponder the dingbattiness of that: "Due to repeated unexcused absences, Doug has been suspended from school for three days." Oh, punish me more, please.

Finally, I ended the charade by dropping out of high school, and everyone told me my life would be ruined. "You'll end up working as a ditch-digger," said my old man, but he was wrong. It's been 45 years since I walked away from high school, and I haven't yet dug a ditch.

I ain't rich and never will be, but I've made ends meet, found a wonderful woman, and had a pretty good life. I absolutely do not regret quitting school. I've always been employed, doing clerical work for the most part — reading and writing and arithmetic are all you need for that kind of job, and that much education I had by fifth grade.

Let me pause briefly to offer a sincere thank you to all the teachers who taught me those skills, but I didn't learn much in school after fifth grade. That's mostly my fault, not the schools', not the teachers', not the system's. I don't do things when I don't see the point, and I never saw the point of whatever they taught.

And I don't see the point in pressuring my grandniece to go to college. It's her choice, not her mom's.

So to this smart 17-year-old kid I said, "You want to do something? Do it. You don't want to do something? Don't do it. That's the glory of living in a free nation."

We talked for ten minutes, and she nodded a lot as I spoke, but I don't know whether that signifies agreement or a medical condition. Maybe she had an earbud and was listening to music instead of me. If she was listening, I hope she heard me saying that whatever she chooses to do will be the right choice, by definition, because it's her choice.

Her mom is furious with me, to which I say, Oh, well. My life story isn't a secret in the family, and my grandniece told me that her mother had suggested that she should talk to me about high school and college. What did she think I was going to say?

Obviously, my advice isn't for everyone. If you're planning to become a doctor or lawyer or an engineer like my old man, or if you have a passion for learning and want the college experience, then you need to pull good grades in high school and try to get into a good college and yadda yadda yadda. If that's your path, I wish you well, and wave as you walk off toward your destiny.

Follow your heart, that's all. Despite everything the churches and mosques and synagogues teach, there's no evidence that any of us have anything beyond this one life to live. It's a good idea, then, to spend your one life doing things that make it worth living.

Republished: 8/3/2023   


  1. Is your entire family, you excepted (or maybe not, I know your self-deprecating sense of humor), completely retarded?

    How could they know you, ask you to speak to this girl, and be mad at what you said? It's fucking stunning. Like they've never met you.

    1. I suspect I was supposed to be a bad example, a scare story. "You could turn out like Uncle Doug if you're not careful."

    2. If there were a god, she'd protect the troublemakers. That's what Uncle Doug could teach a gentle niece.


    3. Hey, I love that, thanks. Of course, there's no god so we troublemakers are on our own.

    4. Which, of course, is why we need to watch out for one another. There might be a god, but I think she plays Mahjong on Tuesdays and Thursdays and busies herself caring for unseen forest creatures on the weekends. I rarely feel on my own. My few post/pre Covid friends are fellow troublemakers. My Uncle Sid was a 90-year troublemaker. I was raised on robbery.


    5. Leonard should have a word here:

      Maybe there's a god above
      As for me all I've ever learned from love
      Was how to shoot someone who outdrew ya
      But it's not a cry that you hear tonight
      It's not someone who claims to have seen the light
      No it's a cold and it's a very broken Hallelujah

      Yeah, yeah I know, but I loved it when I heard it with that horrible Casio keyboard in 1984 and wrenching repetition hasn't dulled my ardor. I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From a Room when they were released and I never stopped. It wasn't all great and some of it was bad, but enough was sufficiently brilliant to land Leonard in heaven. But his clay lies in a plain pine box in French Canada, although his songs contain a hint of the eternal.


    6. "Raised on robbery" sounds far more interesting and educational than my Methodist upbringing. Uncle Sid sounds cool too. Ask the unseen forest creatures if you see them, what's going on with comments here? Can't comment in Firefox or Chrome, but it looks like I might be able to post these invaluable words via Edge, the browser nobody wants.

      Hitting 'publish' with fingers crossed.

    7. And now for something completely different, have you heard and enjoyed Elton John's interpretation of Cohen's "I'm Your Man"?

    8. Disco Cohen had never occurred to me before. Not to my taste, but I appreciate the effort.



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