My friend George came by to visit today. The last time I saw him was 15 years ago when I was visiting Anchorage, and we only talked for about 10 minutes. The last time I’d seen him before that I was 15 years old.
So today was the first time I really sat down and talked with him in about 24 years.
The conversation was great. I mean, really great. ‘My dinner with Andre’ great. We had lunch and hung out at the office and talked for about another 4 hours about people, software designs, relationships, travel, big ideas, and life.
At this point, besides my wife Lisa, I can think of only a handful of good friends that I’ve connected that easily with.
Enriched Intensive Studies Institutes
One of the things that George mentioned, that I haven’t thought about in a long time, was the Enriched Intensive Studies Institutes (“EISI”).
EISI was incredibly hard to get into. As I recall, you had to be in the top 1% of the country on the usual battery of scholastic aptitude tests, maintain a very high minimum GPA, and be referred by one or more of your previous teachers.
The basic idea is that the course would focus on one subject in great depth for about six months and then move on to something else. All of the high schools in the Anchorage school district participated, and the classes would meet towards the end of each institute to compare experiences and findings and participate in group activities. Subject matter included the human brain, the judicial system, and comparative religion. Once a topic was announced students would work together with their teacher to come up with possible ways to explore the subject matter. Students could choose each semester to count the class as a social studies or science credit.
We all had to go through a lot of hoops to get into the program. My 8th grade science teacher gave me a D for my science project entry (my first space systems design work – fuck *you*, Mrs. York) and decided to drop me from the list of fellow gifties she referred for the program.
The next year, my friends started the program, and I started hearing about what a wild and mind blowing experience everyone was having. Friends would tell me about it excitedly, and then get confused and ask me why I hadn’t joined the class, too, as it seemed right up my alley.
When I explained that I’d been barred from the program I usually got surprised and sympathetic responses. A few friends were so upset by it that they eventually complained to the teacher, who took a look at my transcripts and agreed to interview me.
After talking with me and evaluating my transcripts the teacher, who’s name was Jay, agreed that there had apparently been a serious mistake and that I definitely belonged in the program (fuck *you*, Dame York). He started the process of getting me accepted and had me enrolled in the program within a week.
Meet Jay Berkow
The quickest but probably least fair way to describe Jay physically would be to point at a picture of Gallegher, a watermelon-obsessed comedian who was prominent in the 80s. Jay had the same long hair, receding hairline, mustache, and hat.
In terms of personality, he was brilliant, sensitive, caring, and insightful.
Life in EISI
EISI was as interesting, and as cool, as my friends had implied. The first institute I was involved in was about Self. A lot of that series focused on self-hypnosis and meditation, group dynamics and creativity. We read Siddharrtha. We told chain stories. We went through a particularly difficult exercise in which we were supposed to imagine that all but one if us were to be killed, and we had to debate amongst ourselves to pick who would live (surprisingly, the person that I felt was best suited to live had picked *me* as the person that *he* thought should get to live.
Startling exercises in creativity
We participater in many creativity exercises in addition to our regular subject matter. Sometimes these were simple chain stories, on which we would work our way around the class, attempting to keep a story with numerous random inputs alive in a consistent and frequently humorous manner. Sometimes we would get schooled by the masters.
On one occasson our teacher wheeled in an immense VCR (it was 1984) and played us a tape of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which none of he had ever seen.
We would watch 10 minutes, and then the tape would get stopped and we would be asked to imagine what would happen next.
We were totally wrong, 100% of the time, and always completely floored by what did happen.
Other topics we studied included law and comparative religion.
Being in EISI was a strange experience – the serial, in-depth study of different subjects reminds me of the great polymaths of natural philosophy. The basic message was always “here’s something new to you – it’s *interesting* and you’ll be able to handle it.”
We were highschool freshmen but the understanding was that we were all bright and creative and could handle whatever came our way.
Looking back as an adult
As adult it is clear to me that we were expected to be able to meet numerous and wildly disparate subjects with the same high degree of zeal. EISI was the first gifted program that not only challenged us, but also engaged us.
I take it as a foregone conclusion that most of my peers in that group could get a PhD in pretty much any field that interested them.
I also feel that the program encouraged a breadth of study and interests outside the sciences that I have only seen in a few other people, such as my friends Dan McShan and Mike Lee.
I don’t know if there are still program like EISI in Anchorage of any other parts of the world, but I sincerely hope so.