Return to the Beehive
(C) 1999 Scott Aaronson

Above the front doors of Council Rock High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania is an array of interlocking hexagonal windows. The building’s exterior is otherwise unremarkable for a suburban public school—it’s large (accommodating 2,600 students), brick, and three stories high. But the interlocking hexagons puzzle. Whenever I look at them, they suggest to me a beehive, and this in turn evokes the social universe of the school: buzzing with activity, gossip, ritual, yet inwardly focused, magnifying its own affairs a hundred times in significance. During my one year as a student at the high school, I was a solitary bee in a social colony: awkward, isolated, younger than my classmates. Thus the life of the beehive, with its inside jokes and weekend beach trips, its transitory relationships and glittering fall dances, was for me mere secondhand knowledge. Once I entered college, I flattered myself that I’d transcended the beehive, that I now had more important things to think about: programming projects, graduate school, approximation algorithms for NP-complete problems.

Yet sometimes I was haunted. Would I have been happier, more emotionally adjusted, had I not skipped three grades? Did skipping rob me of three years of growing up? I thought back to Hong Kong International School, where I’d sat in a room full of administrators and told them why I wanted to leave eighth grade. I told them about social studies class, where we read the front-page articles from USA Today aloud, pausing to define such troublesome words as ‘distinct’ and ‘priority.’ And about science class, where we learned that Genesis, Native American creation myths, and the Big Bang theory were all equally true in their unique ways. And about my homeroom teacher, who wishing me to socialize, had banned me from reading books during free period and specifically from bringing math-related books to school. I told the administrators that I wanted to skip to ninth grade, in the more academically focused high school, and this I did. After the intoxication of my first skip, I didn’t ruminate about the second or the third. When my family returned to Pennsylvania the following year, I enrolled in eleventh grade at Council Rock, sneakily counting my ninth-grade credits from Hong Kong as tenth-grade credits. The following year I absconded to a program for high school seniors at Clarkson University in upstate New York, and the following year, armed with college credits and a G.E.D., I came to Cornell.

So that was my life. How would it have been different had I endured a year of USA Today and remained with my age-mates? This was like asking what would have happened if Oswald had missed Kennedy: it’s impossible to reason reliably about a counterfactual. There are too many unknowns. In my mind I knew this, but still in the marrow of my bones I wondered. I decided, therefore, after my first spring semester at Cornell ended, that the only way to allay my anxieties was to revisit the beehive and confront what could have been.

As I navigated the narrow, dimly lit, locker-lined corridors of the high school, a warden stopped me and asked to see a hall pass. I was startled—by what authority did this strange meddler halt my freedom of movement? Then I remembered where I was.

"But I’m not a student here," I protested.

"Ha! I’ve heard that one before."

"Would you like to see my Cornell ID?"

After explaining the purpose of my visit, I continued on. Ascending a flight of stairs I passed by Mr. Henderson, the advisor to the student newspaper. I said hello; he just waved silently. Mr. Henderson was wont to be silent. I recalled him sitting quietly at a table, thoughts buried in his beard, as the newspaper staff wrote an editorial lambasting the school board for cutting the budget and for ousting a popular superintendent. An hour after we distributed the papers to the teachers’ mailboxes, the administration, fearing the school board’s reaction, demanded that we recall the papers. We knew we had no legal standing: the 1988 US Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier gave school districts broad control over the content of school-sponsored student publications. And so Mr. Henderson, the editors, and I went downstairs to the mail room, grabbed the piles of newspapers out of the cubbyholes, and tossed the piles one by one into a cardboard box. Thwap, thwap, thwap—the sound of censorship. Weeks later, after the debacle was covered in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the administration relented and let us redistribute the papers. But the damage was done: Council Rock had shown its attitude toward dissenters.

At the end of the second-floor hallway was a tall, narrow mirror, placed there for God knows what reason. Looking into it, I imagined that the I in the mirror was a simulacrum who was just finishing eleventh grade, who had never left the beehive. What was life like for him? Had he succumbed to the mind-numbing repression of the place, or had he managed to surmount it and enjoy the social benefits of staying in high school?

I continued around the corner to the library, where Alex had instructed me to meet. There I found many old classmates from seventh grade milling about, researching their multimedia presentations for social studies. Some of them recognized me; we said hello and caught up on old times. One of them told me that Alex was in the adjoining computer lab.

As I headed there I heard the unmistakable voice: high-pitched yet confident, articulating melodiously even the driest technical instructions. "Now go to Save As," Alex was saying. "You need to choose a different format."

"Alex, Aaaalex," whined a girl at the other end of the lab. "Could you show me how to put a sound file in my presentation?" Alex bounded over.

I learned from one of the students that the social studies teacher had assigned Alex to teach the class that day, as she had on other occasions. I had had some earlier inklings of Alex’s newfound power, from emails and phone conversations, but only now did the reality sink in. In the four years since we attended seventh grade together, Alex had metamorphosed from computer geek to computer deity, from caterpillar to monarch butterfly.

A minute later I watched a girl with long blond hair sashay Alexward, complaining loudly about how she had such a huge library fine to pay. Hearing this, Alex sauntered insouciantly to the head librarian’s computer and, after a few swift keystrokes, announced, "You don’t anymore!" The girl hugged Alex gratefully.

The head librarian, who was standing several feet away, pretended not to notice. And understandably so—for Alex was the overlord who almost single-handedly kept the computers running, not only for the library but for the entire school district. Once, a pair of $50,000-a-year consultants puzzled for months over why the district’s web server was consistently crawling. Alex was called in and within ten minutes determined that the consultants had activated only one of the server’s two Pentium II processors. Alex was the Kurtz of Council Rock: while the district’s technology bureaucrats idled, his ‘unsound methods’ fixed the broken machines, won the programming and robotics competitions, and kept the students and teachers online. Through his computer skills, Alex had created for himself a clearing in the suffocating jungle of high school.

At last Alex noticed me in the lab and welcomed me to the school. I looked at his face: his complexion was lighter than mine, his hair longer, his cheekbones narrower. But still I wondered: was this my simulacrum? Was this the life I could have led, had I remained in the beehive?

Alex and I headed downstairs to a meeting of the Lyceum, a raucous philosophical discussion club of which I’d been a member in eleventh grade. It was a special end-of-year meeting to which alumni (and I, the non-graduating non-alumnus) were invited. The meeting’s discussion subject was abortion, I think—but it didn’t matter, because within fifteen minutes the Lyceum-goers had ascended so high atop a tower of digressions that the original subject was but a speck on the ground.

Overseeing the anarchy was a teacher whose class I would have taken had I not gone to Clarkson. After the Lyceum ended I spoke with him; he asked me how I liked Cornell, how I was holding up in the Ithaca weather, what I was majoring in. Then he added icily, "I sure hope you’re being challenged there," and walked away. The remark made me reflect on how various people had reacted to my grade skipping. Hostility was rare; much more common was curiosity. "Doogie!" a classmate once exclaimed, when my age came up during conversation. "So you can’t even vote yet?" he asked.

"No, not yet."

"And if you were a chick and I had sex with you, it would be statutory rape?"

"Well…I guess so."

"Quick: what’s 378 times 942? What’s the population of Iceland?"

I wanted to disillusion my classmate, to tell him that I wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought I was. I wasn’t William Sidis, who entered Harvard at eleven and became a math professor at sixteen—or Norbert Weiner, father of feedback control, who entered Tufts at ten—or Michael Kearney, who recently earned a master’s in chemistry at fourteen—or Colin Percival, record-holding calculator of the forty trillionth bit of pi (it’s a zero), who began his math major at Simon Fraser at thirteen. I wasn’t even a shadow of a footprint of these illustrious accelerants. I’d escaped from the jail of high school before my sentence was up, not because I was smarter or more diligent than the other inmates, but simply because I’d found the jailer asleep with his keys dangling.

And if that made me an impostor in teenage prodigy land, then perhaps others ought to follow my fraudulent course. For at the typical K-12 school, students are herded by age into classrooms to be ladled their warmed-over curricular gruel as they gambol from one useless cooperative learning exercise to the next. The intellectual freedom and excitement that are commonplace in colleges are all but unknown. And that’s why, leaving social development aside, the best route for many students is the route that leads most quickly to college.

I wanted to tell this to my classmate, but no words came out. I could write down the reasons why I’d skipped, but couldn’t vocalize them. So I descended from mumble to whimper to silence, and let my classmate continue to believe that I was Doogie.

The Lyceum-goers headed to a nearby restaurant called Goodnoe’s for dinner and ice cream. Around the dinner table, they eagerly exchanged wallet-sized photos from a recent school dance. There it was: photographic proof that Guy A had sported a suit, Girl B had donned a dress, and together they’d joined the buzzing swarm for an evening of swaying back and forth. I pictured the photographer molding each couple into precisely the same pose, as if mass-producing plastic figurines. After they finished with the photos, the girls took turns performing some rite with the paper wrapper of a straw: if it fell off their fingers to the left, then they’d find true love; if it fell to the right, then they wouldn’t (or was it the other way around?). I sat across from a girl named Erica who had skipped a grade as well, though that was about all we had in common. She knew karate, frequented Renaissance fairs, and believed that two people could inhabit the same dream. She said "anyhue" for "anyhow," blurted out "needle and thread!" whenever someone began a sentence with "so," and zealously transcribed any comment she thought funny in a quote book to immortalize later on her home page. Even though we were two feet apart, these aloof antics made me feel as if we were typing back and forth in an Internet chat across hundreds of miles. Erica had found her own ways of coping, I concluded, with the stultifying numbness of high school.

After the last scoop of ice cream was eaten, the Lyceum-goers hugged their goodbyes and dispersed. What had I gained from my visit to the beehive? A few tidbits of information but, more importantly, a jolt to long-dormant synapses—a reminder of what it was like to be a high school student. Once I entered college I could bask complacently in my new freedoms, without pondering what it took to procure those freedoms at age fifteen. But walking through the halls of Council Rock reminded me. In Walls: A Journey to Auburn, Kenneth McClane writes that if you are in prison, then "the life you hope to create requires, above all else, that it be lived within these walls, for these walls do not go away." In my high school, it was the halls that did not go away: long, dark, barren but for endless rows of lockers, they evoked some labyrinthine transport system for cargo or for livestock.

And what of the vaunted social life of the beehive? I enjoyed the company of my old classmates, identified with them in the same way that an escaped inmate might identify with former prison buddies or a runaway slave with those still enslaved. But just as the escaped inmate wouldn’t wish to be imprisoned again for social reasons, so too would I not wish to be sentenced to three more years within the dark halls for the sake of dances, parties, and weekend trips.

But the question of Alex remained. How did he flourish in high school? I thought back to seventh grade, when Alex and I co-founded a computer bulletin board for our junior high (of which we were the primary users), and coined a Latin name for the ruffians who tormented us both: Intellectualis minimus, plural minimii. Once, a gaggle of minimii surrounded Alex in the computer lab, having struck a fertile vein of teasing ore: his pants were on backwards. Had I been the one thus surrounded, I might have fled the scene terrified. But Alex was unperturbed. He laughed, ambled to the bathroom, righted his pants, and returned to the lab. The incident reminded me that, in some ways, Alex was my opposite: rarely excitable, impervious to the taunts of the minimii, capable of pursuing worthy ends even within an insipid system. That he thrived in the beehive, that he’d created his clearing, didn’t make it much more probable that I would have. Alex was not my simulacrum, nor I his.

Summer ended, and I returned to Cornell for my second year. I had much to anticipate: I was to live in a ‘self-governing intellectual community’ called Telluride, serve as an officer of Cornell’s Association of Computer Science Undergraduates, and work on artificial intelligence for a robotic soccer team. For the moment at least, I felt that I’d never again pine over the years at Council Rock that I could have spentthat I had confronted my inner bee and squashed him.

Postscript. I've learned from current students that, to cut energy costs, the Council Rock High School administration has recently made the halls even darker.

(Note: I’ve used pseudonyms in this essay.)

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