College at 7, and a crusade against age restrictions

There is an unwritten code that dictates how one's life is to be led in order to be accepted by society. This code insists: Five-year-olds must start kindergarten; thirteen years of compulsory education is followed by either college or a job. And there are many other age-specific guidelines throughout a person's lifetime. I was not aware such a code existed until recently. I had always led my life at my own pace.

Some of my life experiences have occurred at a much faster pace than what is recommended by the unwritten code. For me, school began at 11 months.

Kindergarten started at 3, not 5.

The traditional one grade a year did not suit my learning style. I wanted to learn as much as I could about everything. I simply could not wait. My wanting to know and discover led to completion of a grade every two to four months.

Now, at the age of 7, I am not going to be starting second grade this fall. Instead, I have graduated from high school with honors through Cambridge Academy, a distance-learning institution based in Florida.

I am a full-time student at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, a syndicated columnist, the author of two books, and a presenter at conferences around the United States.

That is not acceptable.

Some of my life experiences have followed the unwritten code. I live with my mother and participate in many age-appropriate activities, such as Boy Scouts, 4-H, and various sports. Hanging from the monkey bars, rollerblading around the neighborhood, and jumping in puddles are all things I enjoy.

Tracking mud in the house and not keeping my room picked up are things that warrant a lecture on a regular basis. Clubs, sports, and messy rooms are expected from 7-year-olds. In that regard, I have followed the unwritten code.

That is acceptable.

Where age can't count against me

Those who strictly follow the unwritten code have a hard time accepting those who choose to lead their lives at their own pace. For that reason, I have had some obstacles to overcome in trying to pursue my interests. For example, K-12 schools would not accept me in their age-specific system. Age in that setting is not considered a form of discrimination. So I had to look elsewhere to pursue my education.

I found colleges willing to accept me. Colleges have policies that prohibit age discrimination. It was OK to learn at my own pace in that environment. I learned there are many paths leading to a goal. Barriers resulting from age requirements are minor setbacks and easily overcome through determination and belief that anything is possible.

I have found the right educational path for me. A few obstacles needed to be overcome based on my size, like carrying books that weigh as much as I do and opening heavy doors. The discovery of a backpack on wheels as well as handicapped entrances made getting to class easier, and I have found the freedom to learn.

In the end, does it really matter that I have strayed from the "normal" path according to the unwritten code of life? After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

That is what I am attempting to do, and I use the words of Eleanor Roosevelt as my guide: "One of the most important things for young people to learn is the difficult art of being at home in the world. Ahead of them lies the gigantic, but infinitely rewarding, task of learning to know and understand other peoples, and the equally difficult task of helping other peoples to know and understand them.... The greatest and most inspiring adventure of all time will probably be carried out in the next fifty years, the adventure of building a new world."

Each person should be seen as a unique individual with his or her own time schedule for life. However, that is not what happens. Why is it possible for a student to enter college before they can enter kindergarten? Why would I have to attend second grade after I had successfully completed a college course? Why are students held back, despite testing results, to simply stay with students of their same age?

I learn from people of all ages and backgrounds based on common interests. All students should have the same opportunity. For this reason, I started Project FAD, Fix Age Discrimination (www.justinchapman.com). Its purpose is to promote equality for humanity through the elimination of laws that are arbitrarily based on age, and to amend laws that fail to list age as a category protected from discrimination.

Some of the other goals of this project:

* To eliminate the minimum-age requirements for voting.

* To place all children in grades according to their abilities, not their birth dates.

* To give individuals the freedom to participate in activities regardless of age.

* To have an education system developed worldwide that is self-paced, values individual differences, and develops a lifelong love of learning through community activities as well as academics.

This project is now expanding with the creation of an advisory board, and I hope it will become a nonprofit organization by the end of the year.

Discovering my own path

The unwritten code of life should be based on natural progression, independent of age. Everyone enters this world at various heights and weights and should be free to establish his or her own standards.

What is "normal" is different for each individual. Is it really necessary for everyone to be the same? Yes and no. Everyone should have the same status, rights, and opportunities. That is where the similarities end and diversity begins.

Each day, I find myself discovering my own path through uncharted territory. Everyone and everything in the world should be appreciated and has a lesson to teach, if you take time to listen. I follow not the "normal" code of life. I have the courage to be me. I am Justin.

Life is quite an adventure. Sometimes you just need a different perspective.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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