Steve Jobs: Problem Child Turned Visionary

The Early Years

From a young age, Steve Jobs' mother had taught him how to read, which was a double-edged sword. Although it allowed him to excel academically, it also led to boredom and troublemaking once he started school.  Steve Jobs reflected, "I was kind of bored for the first few years, so I occupied myself by getting into trouble."

Jobs' mischievous tendencies were further fueled by his resistance to authority, which he attributed to both nature and nurture. "I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it," he explained. "And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me."  Jobs' experiences at Monta Loma Elementary, and his realization that the education system was failing to inspire curiosity and creativity, would later inspire his approach to innovation at Apple. He believed that curiosity was the key to unlocking new ideas and creating revolutionary products that could change the world.

At Monta Loma Elementary, Jobs found ways to alleviate his boredom by playing pranks with his friend Rick Ferrentino. "We'd get into all sorts of trouble," he remembered. "Like we made little posters announcing 'Bring Your Pet to School Day.' It was crazy, with dogs chasing cats all over, and the teachers were beside themselves." In another instance, they convinced kids to reveal the combination numbers for their bike locks, then switched all the locks, causing chaos that took until late at night to straighten out.

By third grade, Jobs' pranks became more dangerous. "One time we set off an explosive under the chair of our teacher, Mrs. Thurman. We gave her a nervous twitch," he admitted. Despite his disruptive behavior, Jobs' experiences allowed him to develop a rebellious spirit that would define him throughout his life.

Not surprisingly, he was sent home two or three times before he finished third grade. By then, however, his father had begun to treat him as special, and in his calm but firm manner he made it clear that he expected the school to do the same. “Look, it’s not his fault,” Paul Jobs told the teachers, his son recalled. “If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault.” His parents never punished him for his transgressions at school. “My father’s father was an alcoholic and whipped him with a belt, but I’m not sure if I ever got spanked.” Both of his parents, he added, “knew the school was at fault for trying to make me memorize stupid stuff rather than stimulating me.” He was already starting to show the admixture of sensitivity and insensitivity, bristliness and detachment, that would mark him for the rest of his life.

As Steve Jobs entered fourth grade, the school decided that he and his mischievous friend, Rick Ferrentino, should be separated into different classes. Luckily for Jobs, his teacher for the advanced class was a woman named Imogene Hill, known to her students as "Teddy." Jobs later reflected that she was "one of the saints of my life." After observing him for a few weeks, she decided that offering a bribe was the best way to handle him. Jobs recounted the incident: "After school one day, she gave me this workbook with math problems in it, and she said, 'I want you to take it home and do this.' And I thought, 'Are you nuts?' And then she pulled out one of these giant lollipops that seemed as big as the world. And she said, 'When you're done with it, if you get it mostly right, I will give you this and five dollars.' And I handed it back within two days." After a few months, he no longer required the bribe. He simply wanted to learn and to please her. Hill reciprocated by gifting him with a hobby kit for grinding a lens and making a camera.

Jobs felt that he learned more from her than any other teacher and credited her with keeping him out of trouble. "If it hadn't been for her, I'm sure I would have gone to jail," he said. Hill made Jobs feel special, and he knew that she cared for him deeply. "In my class, it was just me she cared about. She saw something in me," he explained.

It wasn't just intelligence that Hill saw in Jobs. Years later, she would show off a picture of the class taken on Hawaii Day. Jobs had not followed the suggestion to wear a Hawaiian shirt, but he is front and center wearing one in the picture. As Jobs put it, he had "literally been able to talk the shirt off another kid's back." Hill recognized Jobs' unique ability to persuade and inspire others, which would become a hallmark of his career as an entrepreneur and innovator.

The middle school years were particularly difficult for Jobs, as he was socially awkward and found himself surrounded by kids a year older than him after skipping a year. To make matters worse, he attended Crittenden Middle School, which was located in a neighborhood rife with ethnic gangs. Violence was a daily occurrence, and knives were often brought to school to show off. The situation reached a boiling point when a group of students were jailed for a gang rape, and a neighboring school's bus was destroyed after beating Crittenden in a wrestling match, according to Silicon Valley journalist Michael S. Malone. Jobs was frequently bullied and eventually gave his parents an ultimatum in seventh grade: to transfer him to a different school. Despite their financial struggles, his parents eventually scraped together enough money to move the family to a nicer district. "When they resisted, I told them I would just quit going to school if I had to go back to Crittenden,"

Jobs was fortunate to have parents who were able to accommodate him, and a teacher who helped him turn a corner.  When he said he would have ended up in jail, that is likely because he incorporated the path he was on that would lead to Crittenden Middle School.

n ninth grade, Jobs began attending Homestead High School, a massive campus with pink, two-story cinderblock buildings that served thousands of students. “It was designed by a famous prison architect,” Jobs quipped. Although he had few friends his own age, he found himself drawn to some seniors who were immersed in the counterculture of the late 1960s. “My friends were the really smart kids,” he said. “I was interested in math and science and electronics. They were too.

As he grew older, his pranks began to involve electronics. He once wired his house with speakers, but since speakers can also be used as microphones, he built a control room in his closet where he could listen in on what was happening in other rooms. However, when his father caught him eavesdropping on his parents’ conversation, he demanded that Jobs dismantle the system.

At this time, Jobs spent many evenings visiting the garage of Larry Lang, a nearby engineer. Lang eventually gave Jobs the carbon microphone that had fascinated him, and he introduced him to Heathkits, kits for making ham radios and other electronic gear that were beloved by the soldering set back then. “Heathkits came with all the boards and parts color-coded, but the manual also explained the theory of how it operated,” Jobs recalled. “It made you realize you could build and understand anything. Once you built a couple of radios, you’d see a TV in the catalogue and say, ‘I can build that as well,’ even if you didn’t. I was very lucky, because when I was a kid both my dad and the Heathkits made me believe I could build anything.”

Between his sophomore and junior years at Homestead, Jobs took an electronics class taught by John McCollum, a former Navy pilot who had a showman’s flair for exciting his students with such tricks as firing up a Tesla coil. McCollum’s little stockroom, filled with transistors and other components he had scored, was a favorite of pet students, to whom he would lend the key. The classroom was in a shed-like building on the edge of the campus, next to the parking lot. Jobs remembered, “This is where it was, and here, next door, is where the auto shop class used to be.” The juxtaposition highlighted the shift from the interests of his father’s generation. “Mr. McCollum felt that electronics class was the new auto shop.”

McCollum believed in military discipline and respect for authority, but Jobs didn’t. Jobs’s aversion to authority was something he no longer tried to hide, and he affected an attitude that combined wiry and weird intensity with aloof rebelliousness. McCollum later said, “He was usually off in a corner doing something on his own and really didn’t want to have much of anything to do with either me or the rest of the class.” He never trusted Jobs with a key to the stockroom. One day, when Jobs needed a part that was not available, he made a collect call to the manufacturer, Burroughs in Detroit, and said he was designing a new product and wanted to test out the part. It arrived by air freight a few days later. When McCollum asked how he had obtained the part, Jobs described—with defiant pride—the collect call and the story he had told. “I was furious,” McCollum said. “That was not the way I wanted my students to behave.” Jobs’s response was, “I don’t have the money for the phone call. They’ve got plenty of money.