Students at my high school sold more than just candy in the halls – I paid my peers cash for knock-off earbuds, phone chargers, and sometimes homework answers.
However small these entrepreneurial pursuits were and despite their legality, the student entrepreneurs who roamed the hallways of this seemingly ancient building represented a unique culture of entrepreneurship that was cultivated from a mix of youthful spirit and innovative education.
Culture bled out of the walls at this 100+ year old high school. When I worked the summers with the school’s technology department, I would use my lunch breaks to explore every inch of the building – from the retired rifle range in the basement to the high tower gazing out at Chicago’s enormous skyline. This school’s culture was rich, not because of its age, alumni, or architecture but because its teachers embodied a fiery passion that helped it constantly evolve.
The name Daniel rings in my mind whenever I think back to the culture at my high school. Daniel was a grade above me and on more than a few occasions, I paid him about $5 for a set of knock-off Apple earbuds. In fact, I had lost and re-purchased earbuds from him so often that I built up a credit record and he frequently let me purchase earbuds on an IOU-basis before my allowance came in.
It was not long before our teacher began to discover this illegal, knock-off sales operation thriving within the borders of his 900 sq ft classroom. After observing the operation for some time longer, the evidence was collected, and the prosecutor, our teacher, had a variety of sentences he could recommend Daniel, the defendant, be subject to. Detention? Suspension? Expulsion?
None of the above. The class that I shared with Daniel was a business one and so Daniel’s prosecutor had some business acumen that contributed to his prosecution decision. One day, filled with rage, the prosecutor cornered Daniel in the darkest spot of the classroom and ancient legend says that he demanded a 50/50 profit share… or maybe that is just what I would have done. In reality, our teacher greeted Daniel with interest and excitement. He inquired about how Daniel maintained the operation and after hearing Daniel out, he invited him to give a presentation to the class.
Eventually, Daniel delivered his presentation to our class of 25 students and by his last slide, I was ready to source some seed capital and identify knock-off vendors on Alibaba to begin my copycat operation. Any ordinary teacher following the rules printed in our 100-pg student handbook would have sent Daniel to the den of the deans to be handled, but our teacher was not ordinary – he valued smarts, passion, and results. Our teacher recognized that Daniel showed promise and passion in his venture and opted to deliver praise, instead of detention.
My conversations with peers in college have taught me that this passion and open-mindedness generally exist within very few teachers. However, my own experience shows me that it exists within many teachers, at Maine East High School. This story and many similar ones have stayed with me throughout my higher education and professional experience. This culture of passion and non-traditional thinking has made me into the person that I am today and I hope that our future, as a society, produces a similarly innovative culture of education, for all high school students.