The title is rather misleading and it could easily result to misunderstandings.
Let me elaborate: The cases where a “bad pupil” turned out to be a genius when they grew up are scarce.
As scarce as the cases of rag-to-riches people are. But they do have their charm because they maintain the hopes of the people of lower classes and, subsequently, the entire system.
The 99% of those who are born rich remain as such. Respectively, most people who are born poor will remain poor.
The people who were born in the swamp and made it to the stars are very few indeed. They are the exception that (as we were taught in school) proves the rule.
We live on a planet where the financial inequality grows day by day, to the extent of genocide.
Personal success stories sell like hot cakes and are spread widely (consider Zuckerberg).
Because –since we are trapped in our egocentricity- we’d rather dream of wonderful future for us and our children instead of a society of equal opportunities.
We are conditioned to believe that we can conquer happiness and freedom in an unfree world, a world where the Morals are boiled down to “me, myself and I” and “win, at all costs”.
Don’t get on my case for utopian humanism, but I do believe that we will never be free as long as there is even one unfree man. We will never overcome our bulimia as long as there is a single man who is starving to death.
I wrote this intro to let you know where I stand, that I’m not a proponent of the motto: “the worthy people make progress, the unworthy ones go to waste”.
All you have to do to convince yourselves that it’s not the worthy ones that go up the ladder is to watch the Greek parliament holding a conference. I am pretty sure that a lot more geniuses were drawn into the swamp of mankind than those that floated.
Therefore, this is my homage to these unknown and wasted people of this world and I move on (at last, you must be thinking) to telling you the stories of the people that endured and stood out, to the surprise of their teachers.
A genius that never made it to finish school, because he was not interested in doing do, was Wilhelm Wagner.
He was the ninth child of a policeman who died six months after he was born. It seemed that life destined him for the gutter but he didn’t think so of himself.
When he was eleven years old, he composed a massive drama where, as himself said sarcastically: “Forty-two people died in the course of the piece”.
In school, he stayed in the same class and he was indifferent to anything else than music. He dropped out by the age of sixteen. But he was permitted to enroll at Pastor Wetzel’s school and become, in the future, the “Napoleon of Music”.
An abysmal failure in school, a “zero of the first magnitude” was Gerhart Hauptmann. He stayed for two years in the same class before he dropped out at the fourth class of high school.
And yet he pulled off to become one of the most successful (financially, too) German writers.
The sixteen-year old George Bernard Shaw voices his detestation about school:
“The entire educational system is a unique fraud. After ten years of education, people cannot use properly even their mother tongue”.
He also dropped out school when he was fifteen years old, but he acquired a wide education as an autodidact. Because, as he used to say: “I cannot learn anything, unless I’m interested in it”.
Franz Kafka was surely benefitted from school since it was the place when he learned to…be scared!
“School”, he wrote “teaches very little compared to the time involved”.
He criticized more severely the leveling that was the educational system’s goal, ignoring personal skills and astuteness.
He wrote: “As far as I could see, everybody in school strived to uproot every special trait like individuality, peculiarity, anything that distinguishes a man from another”.
And that’s how Kafkaesque universe came into being.
Charles Baudelaire was not just a bad pupil, but also an offender.
He wrote: “Afterwards…High school in Lyon…beatings, rows with the teachers and the other inmates, severe depression”.
In the end he was kicked out from school due to insubordinate behavior.
“I believe”, he wrote when he was 33 years old, “that my life was cursed right from the start, and always will be”.
André Gide was so scared to go to school that he was feigning faint.
Hermann Hesse dropped out school when he was an adolescent due to mental disorders. It was literature that prevented him from committing suicide which he discovered when he was 18 years old and since then he never ceased writing until his death.
Of particular interest is the school behavior of Bertolt Brecht who was born a natural doubter.
He held in contempt and derided all school procedures, refusing every positive influence from there.
This is evident from an essay that the adolescent Brecht had written. The topic was “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland).
Obviously Brecht didn’t abide with this. He wrote: “The saying that is sweet and fitting to die for the Fatherland can only be understood as propaganda. To depart this life must always be hard whether in bed or in battle and surely all the more so for young men in the blossom of their years. Only simpletons can be so vain as to speak of an easy step through the dark gate…”
They wanted to expel him because of this, but a teacher “defended” him by saying that “this schoolboy’s mind had been disturbed by war”.
Brecht finished school by cheating on the final exams (“survival is everything” he used to say) and his mind went on giving birth to disturbing figments.
Charles Darwin was not a bad pupil but early on he had revealed an inclination for something else. He was an obsessed collector of plants, insects, coins and minerals.
His father had told him: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family“.
He showed no skill about foreign languages or any other lesson and no one expected something spectacular from him.
His endeavors to study medicine or theology came to naught. All logic pointed that Darwin would be “a common young man, perhaps below average”.
Until, by happenstance, he was invited to Beagle for an excursion around the world. The twenty-three year old Darwin found himself on Galápagos Islands and thus Adam took the form of an ape, disproving the existing world view with his book.
Karl Marx, Fiodor Dostojewski, Edgar Allan Poe were also average pupils.
I guess some teacher would have told his wife: “Dig this! That Fiodor, who doesn’t know the first thing about orthography, became a writer! What’s the title of the book? Crime and Punishment? I guess nobody can make head or tails out of it”.
And what about the most important cinema actor?
In school, Marlon Brando was not just a bad pupil, he has a troublemaker. The then director of his school remembers that young Marlon had detention almost every afternoon.
In order to make him a man, his father sent him to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a military school in Faribault, Minnesota.
Marlon, as expected, not only did not comply with the rules, but he wreaked havoc on the Academy. He came up with a wide variety of devilments but he was expelled only when he placed a bomb (a small one) at the door of a teacher.
When he came back home, his indignant father landed him a job that fitted his attitude and skills like a glove: ditch-digger!
But the bell rang, time for recess. Don’t run in the front yard and don’t smoke behind the gymnasium.
Next, we’ll learn about some people who never went to school but they changed the world like Charlie Chaplin, as well as about students who were excellent and changed the world, too, like Marie Skłodowska who became widely known with her husband’s surname: Curie.
Absent students will be expelled permanently!
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Translated by Alexandros Mantas