Top 5 Juvenile Delinquents who Solved World Problems
Teachers always told you to behave. If you followed their instructions, they said, you would learn and you would succeed and maybe you would even achieve greatness. They told you this, not because they wanted you to succeed, but because they wanted you to obey. It makes their jobs easier.
That's why they probably never told you about these highly effective, history-changing punks who wouldn't sit still.
#5 Louis Braille
The Braille writing system has opened doors of literacy to millions of blind people for nearly 200 years now. It must have been invented by Benjamin Franklin, right? Or some kindly old man who felt sorry for the blind and wanted to help them?
Nope. It was invented by a teenager who couldn't see but who could piss off adults royally.
Louis Braille was a student at Paris's Royal Institution for Blind Youth when he learned the French military had tried — and failed — to create a tactile writing system. Officers in the field sometimes received written orders at night, and if they lit up a lamp to read, it could be seen for miles, giving away the unit's position. Tactile writing would have been invaluable. Eventually the military gave up, however, concluding any such writing system would simply be too complex for humans to use.
At 15, Louis Braille was either smarter or more persistent than Napoleon's army. He developed what we now call the Braille writing system. He used it for taking notes in class, and he taught it to his friends.
He tried to teach it to his teachers as well, but the teachers (all sighted) refused to learn. In fact, they were annoyed that their students could now read and write without the teachers' help and could pass notes to one another that the teachers could not read.
The adults banned Braille writing throughout the boarding school. Students who were caught reading or writing were denied meals and were subjected to corporal punishment.
How He Changed History
Louis Braille and his fellow blind students found tactile writing so liberating they refused to give it up, no matter how much punishment was thrown at them. Students entering this school learned Braille writing the same way students today learn responsible birth control: from other kids. Braille writing was passed down secretly from one class to the next.
Eventually Braille writing leaked beyond the walls of the school. When the worn down school officials realized they could not stop blind people from reading and writing, they gave up punishing students so they could instead grab credit for what the students had accomplished, promoting their school as the place where Braille writing had originated. That's like Ed Rooney taking credit for Ferris Bueller's exposure to art and fine dining.
"That's right, Mrs. Cleaver. Our students are so successful, one got a parade!"
#4 Carl Friedrich Gauss
Often, teachers give students busywork and then claim it's educational. But when they want to punish a student, they drop all pretense and just make the student do something grueling like write a sentence over and over.
10-year-old Carl Friedrich Gauss pissed off his math teacher so badly that the frustrated teacher got creative. He ordered little Carl to add up all the whole numbers from 1 to 100. This was in 1787, long before the invention of adding machines. Even a top mathematician would have needed a good half-hour to complete this task and check his answer. Gauss's teacher must have smiled proudly, thinking he'd created the impossible task that would finally break this willful boy and make him sorry he'd ever annoyed an adult.
Carl Gauss produced the correct answer in less than 30 seconds.
How He Changed History
10-year-old Gauss spotted something all the mathematicians before him had missed. 1+100=101. 2+99 also equals 101. So does 3+98 and 4+97. There are 100 integers from 1 to 100, so there are 50 pairs of numbers, each pair adding up to 101. 50 x 101 = 5,050. That's it. 5,050 is the total. Simple.
Gauss not only earned a place in the Smart Ass Hall of Fame, he changed mathematics. Today, whenever mathematicians want to add up a series of numbers, they use the formula this unmanageable boy created to outwit his punitive teacher.
#3 Jesus of Nazareth
In the Biblical Cannon, there are four gospels that describe the life of Jesus. Two of them tell us nothing about his childhood or adolescence. One tells us about his birth, then hurriedly skips ahead to his 30's. Does it sound like they were hiding something?
The remaining gospel, the Gospel According to Luke, tells us only one story about Jesus's adolescence, but it's a doozy. If you never heard it, there's a reason: many preachers avoid discussing it in church.
When Jesus was 12, Luke tells us, he ran away from home. Mary (his mom) and the rest of his family hunted three days before Mary found him in the temple rapt in discussion with religious scholars. Luke tells us the scholars were amazed by Jesus's wisdom, but Mary was not. The Virgin Mary bitched out Our Lord for making her hunt three days.
And Jesus apologized and promised to be a good boy from then on.
Just kidding. Instead of apologizing, Jesus mocked his mother's failure to find him more quickly.
How He Changed History
Historians say Jesus inspired what is now the most popular and powerful religion on Earth. Christians say he did even more by taking death head-on and blazing a trail for people to go to Heaven.
Unlike the other entries on this list, Jesus did not make his contributions to history until he'd been on Earth a good 30 years. Since some believe Jesus was God, we won't dare guess whether 30 years is enough time for an eternal God to reach maturity.
What we do know is that, even in his last years on Earth, Jesus acted like a stereotypical rebellious teenager.
Jesus famously threw a temper tantrum in the temple, kicking over tables and scaring the shit out of The Man.
Turning water into wine? School dance chaperones struggle to keep students from reenacting that miracle with the punch.
There were more than 100 gospels written. Early church leaders chose only four gospels to include in the Biblical Cannon. The others were discarded, and most have been lost to history. Presumably, these church leaders chose the four most respectable gospels to represent their sacred faith.
If the four most respectable described Jesus disowning his parents and spiking the water at a wedding, we can only imagine what was described in the rejected gospels. Maybe something like this:
And after they did drinketh the wine, Jesus and His apostles stood in a line and did urinate in a like direction. And lo, when the apostles saw that Jesus's stream reached 77 cubits, they fell to the ground in amazement. And where the urine had landed, they now found carved in a stone, "Suck it, Pontius." But they did not understand this teaching.
#2 Claudette Colvin
You've probably heard how the Civil Rights Movement began when one black woman in Montgomery, Alabama bravely refused to move to the back of the bus. Here's what your teachers didn't tell you: that woman was 15 years old, and her name was not Rosa.
When teenager Claudette Colvin was ordered to the back of the bus, she responded with language that Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Taylor Branch refuses to record. (We won't repeat it either, so if you want to know her specific foul words, you'll have to read the children's book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.) She was arrested.
In response, some locals in the burgeoning civil rights movement (including NAACP-volunteer Rosa Parks) urged a boycott of the busses. The majority of local civil rights activists, however, decided a better strategy was to pussy-out. Some thought a rebellious teenager was unlikely to draw public sympathy. Most, however, were simply embarrassed that a 15-year-old girl had done what no adult had been brave enough to try.
Colvin was ignored, but Rosa Parks later imitated Colvin's example, and since Parks was an adult, she was viewed as an "activist" rather than a "juvenile delinquent," and the local civil rights leaders proudly built a boycott around Parks.
How She Changed History
The Montgomery Bus Boycott is now remembered as the first victory in the civil rights protest movement, and it launched the public career of boycott-spokesman Martin Luther King.
The boycott ended in victory because this economic pressure forced the bus company's CEO to wrestle with his conscience and finally conclude the protesters had been right all along.
Just kidding. The bus company obeyed the law, and the city leaders fought bitterly to preserve their local bus-seating ordinance, preferring to see public transit go belly-up rather than to budge on segregation.
Discrimination on the busses ended only because the courts finally stepped in and overturned the ordinance, ruling segregated seating unconstitutional. They delivered this ruling in a lawsuit that did not include Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King but did include Claudette Colvin among the plaintiffs. Colvin, in fact, was the star witness who persuaded the judges that discrimination was hurting innocent people and that it needed to end.
Today, Ms. Colvin probably throws a shit-fit every six hours as another person on TV praises Rosa Parks as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. Serious historians know, however, that the Civil Rights Movement had a teenaged mother. And her name was Barbara Johns.
#1 Barbara Johns
History's Most Rebellious Teenager
In 1951, Barbara Johns attended a shitty, all-black public high school in Farmville, Virginia because the town had no black public high schools that were luxurious. (Farmville, apparently, was not yet drawing royalties on the video game.) Adults had failed to get better funding for her school, so Johns, 16, took her school over.
On April 23, Johns had an accomplice trick the principal into believing a few of his students were truant and getting in trouble. The principal tore off on an Ed Rooney quest, and while he was gone, Barbara Johns forged the principal's signature on a memo telling all the teachers to immediately bring their students to a special assembly.
Now here's where teenaged rebellion goes off the scales.
If you've ever noticed how many dim-witted students successfully cheat their way through high school, you won't be surprised to learn that every teacher at her school fell for the forged-memo trick. After the teachers brought all their students to the auditorium, Johns took the stage. She announced this was a special student meeting to discuss what they should do about the school's poor conditions, and she invited the adults to leave.
You might think teachers would enjoy getting some time off while letting the students take over their main job function of bitching about how little money they get. But some teachers are more concerned about their authority. A few tried to rush the stage. Johns promptly took off her shoe, pounded it on a bench threateningly, and ordered the teachers out. Other students stood with her. And the teachers fled.
Johns and her fellow students now controlled their school, and they shut it down, demanding better conditions.
How She Changed History
In 1951 (four years before Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat), student strikes were unheard of, and the Civil Rights Movement still consisted mainly of a few lawyers and volunteers trying to convince the public that blacks were kind people deserving more charitable treatment. Some worried that news reports of angry black teenagers seizing control of their school, physically menacing adults, and making demands on the government, might make blacks look threatening.
The NAACP sent lawyers to negotiate with these out-of-control hooligans. Eventually, they struck a deal. Johns and her fellow students agreed to resume classes. In return, the NAACP agreed to file a lawsuit on behalf of the students.
That lawsuit eventually reached the Supreme Court. It was merged with four other lawsuits clumped under the collective name Brown v. Board of Education. Here, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that racial segregation was unconstitutional. This ruling, the first substantial victory for the civil rights movement, was the foundation for nearly every victory that followed. It was this ruling that inspired Claudette Colvin to inspire Rosa Parks to inspire Martin Luther King to inspire George Wallace to go so bat-shit crazy that he inspired Neil Young to inspire Lynyrd Skynyrd to write "Sweet Home Alabama."
Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Rock Movement are forever indebted to a young woman who made Legs Sadovsky look like an obedient schoolgirl.