#2139 The rules only apply to other people


I was always the naughty kid in my class at school. Well intentioned and good natured, but naughty all the same. I was the guy who’d run around the room, talking to anyone who’d listen and doing anything I could to make my classmates laugh. My teachers used to write on every one of my report cards, “Isaac disrupts his fellow students’ learning environment.” It wasn’t my fault, I just had too much energy for the classroom and I could never understand why I wasn’t allowed to just do what I wanted to do. Needless to say, my academic record was less than stellar. I’d flourish under teachers who had the patience to deal with me, but flounder under everyone else.

My first and second years of high school were a write-off, my third year I was lucky to have a string of good teachers and I achieved excellent results, my fourth year was an abject failure, and my final year was much the same except for classical studies, where I scored 84% in the final exam. I had plenty of teachers tell me I’d never succeed in life because I could never apply myself to anything, and other teachers who no doubt held celebrations when I was finally out of there.

So I left school with no formal qualifications above Fifth Form Certificate. No Sixth Form Certificate, no Bursary, no University Entrance. I went to work at Christchurch’s top hairdressing salon, and slaved away for 12 hours a day, five or six days a week, for six months.

My girlfriend at the time – who lived in Auckland – was an incredibly intelligent and highly ambitious girl who’d left school after sixth form to study law. She told me that I was far too clever to be wasting my life away shampooing hair in Christchurch, and advised me to go to university.

Now I was faced with a dilemma. I had no University Entrance and the rules state that if you don’t have University Entrance, you can’t gain entrance to university. So here’s what I did: I called up the dean of Arts at Canterbury University and told him who I was, what I did, and why I thought he should let me enroll. He told me to come in the next day for a sit down chat. The next day we sat down, talked for 15 minutes, and he approved my application for first year Arts. I did one semester at Canterbury University, then transferred up to Auckland to finish my degree (BA in Film and Sociology). And I never failed a paper.

This experience taught me several things: 1. Don’t ever let something silly like rules hold you back; 2. If you want to get something done, call up the person with the power and authority to do it, and if you plead your case well enough, it’ll probably get done; 3. Sometimes you just need somebody to slap you in the face and say ‘Stop wasting your life away’; and 4. The school system doesn’t work very well for people with high energy levels, a natural disregard for authority and a serious lack of personal discipline when it comes to getting work done – ie teenagers.

Finally, if you’re a teacher, never tell a kid they’re not going to amount to anything. It’s such a jerk move.


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  1. anabels says

    My approach to the students who don’t apply themselves is to tell them they are better than that! I’ll tell you in a month how well it works! Agree structured education doesn’t work for everyone!

  2. Jenny says

    Fascinating, Isaac. I admire your chutzpah! However, I presume that the Dean of Arts was aware that you had gained a scholarship grade in Classics, in your final year at high school and had also done very well in your third year. Had you failed everything in your final year, I’m sure even you would have been declined entry to Uni.  Totally agree with all your lessons from this experience, and particularly with your final point that no-one, and especially teachers, should ever tell someone that they’re not going to succeed. What utter arrogance! Show me the crystal ball.

  3. Fashion Westie says

    DOWN WITH JERK MOVES! I was told the same thing…I need to stop procrastinating and get. on. the. phone.

  4. Grant says

    I read recently that many of the great architects never studied architecture – they just ‘did it’. Sir Christopher Wren was an English and Latin tutor who didn’t design anything until he was in his mid-thirties.  You make the path by walking.

  5. Rebeccah says

    I have kept a card I received in my last year of high school from my English teacher. At my school any student who achieved over a certain mark got a congratulatory card from their teacher. Mine reads: Dear Rebeccah, I knew you could do this, I just didn’t think you would. Take care, Mrs Lean.
    The old backhanded compliment!

  6. isaaclikes says

    The backhanded compliment has been getting men lucky for centuries. Mrs Lean was onto a good thing!
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

  7. Sarah says

    hindsight is a wonderful thing. I think the slap in the face worked well because it came from a hot/brainy girl, as opposed to a parent/teacher. i think i may secretly employ one to get my talented/lounger son off the sofa. 

  8. isaaclikes says

    Yes, both my parents are extreme over achievers and their pep talks never seemed to work. I’m sure you’re right.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

  9. Syl says

     I actually think most unis do take Isaac’s sort of case on a genuine case-by-case basis and weigh up all factors… My sister had a similar situation, where the last year of high school she completed was fourth form, so she had absolutely NO pass results from 5th-7th form. Her school difficulties had been due to a series of horrible family tragedies, which she didn’t want to feel like she was cashing in on. But after a couple of years unemployed and a couple of years working her butt off in a manual job, she realised how badly she wanted to go to uni. She is really smart, and had developed a strong work ethic, but  just had zero to show from her whole high school career – no certificates, no good reports, not even a very good attendance record. Like Isaac, she spoke to the Head of the uni department she wanted to attend, and they relatively readily accepted her to the programme after an in-depth interview and reading a recommendation letter from her work supervisor. She’s in her final year at a great uni and has also never failed a paper!

    Just wanted to tell that story to show that if you are determined enough and prepared to truly put yourself out there (I know it was tempting for my sister not to go to uni at all because getting accepted involving laying her whole life out in front of someone), you can get what you want. It might be hard or even painful, but you can do it. Also, the NZ school system is not a great predictor of success.

    Thanks for these stories of late, Isaac, they are awesome!

  10. Jenny says

    Syl, thanks for sharing that inspiring story about your sister. I’m delighted to learn that there is still a human face behind the bureaucratic veil, something I’ve always loved about NZ, but which is increasingly disappearing as we become more and more influenced by other much larger and more impersonal societies, such as the US.

  11. emma says

    I really admire how you went after what you wanted and didn’t let a little (yet seemingly huge) thing like lack of university entrance stop you. I will remember this the next time I feel like giving up too easily! Holla.

  12. Katya says

    Thank-you so much for this! :) I just finished high school last year and  I can relate to parts of this and it’s inspiring, because there is always more than one way of doing things. It’s frustrating when teachers only see one path. There is always more than one way especially if you want something enough.

  13. Louise says

    I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. I have a huge amount of admiration for the way you go after what you want. This post is fantastic and I’m going to force my 18 year old brother to get out of bed and read it – then I’m going to steal Sarah’s idea and get one of my hot friends to deliver the much needed slap in the face!

  14. says

    I started my senior year of high school at the local public high school, but after a quarter of struggling in all my subjects, I transferred to an alternative school. When I wouldn’t have graduated easily or maybe at all from the public school, I was done with high school at the alt. school THREE WHOLE MONTHS earlier than all my peers. I consider that a success! 

    In my opinion, it’s not necessarily all teenagers who don’t function well in regular school systems. I have friends who do fabulously in that setting. They take AP classes, play sports, and are generally incredibly happy people. I wasn’t one of them, though! The first extracurricular I did was in my senior year, after transferring schools, and even though I took some AP classes at the public school, I did miserably in them. Also, I absolutely hated my life the whole time I was at the public school!

    It all comes down to different types of people & different learning styles. I’ve been told I’m highly gifted & very smart for most of my life, but the public high school system just couldn’t harness that energy! 

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