Former dropout and wild child L. Todd Rose, an unconventional learner, is blazing new trails at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has written a book about his journey, called “Square Peg.”

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

A wild Rose in bloom

6 min read

Former dropout is blazing unconventional trails at the Ed School

When L. Todd Rose dropped out of high school, he had a 0.9 GPA. He had a pregnant girlfriend, was living in small-town Utah, was making less than $5 an hour, and was subsisting on welfare checks.

You wouldn’t guess that now about Rose, who is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education. He pokes fun at his windowless office, a scant, boxy room, lit with unflatteringly buttery bulbs and a corner table. It looks like the kind of room in which you’d interrogate a criminal. And Rose knows it. He almost became one.

There was that incident in seventh grade, which established Rose as a force in his small-town community. While the art teacher turned his back to the class, Rose fired off six stink bombs at the blackboard and earned a suspension — one of many. Those stink bombs, along with his forays into petty vandalism, and pushing his sister from a window, are luridly outlined in Rose’s new memoir-cum-educational manifesto, “Square Peg: My Story and What it Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, and Out-of-the-Box Thinkers.” The book was co-written with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Ellison.

But square peg is putting it mildly. Throughout his adolescence, Rose’s uncontainable behavior also got him bullied, which prompted him to act out even more, to fail in school. But redemption was around the corner. It was on a golf course.

“Golfing is dirt cheap in Utah,” recalled Rose. “And so I was golfing with my dad, who’s the first high school graduate in our family. My grandfather only had a third grade education. And my dad had decided to go to college when we were little kids. He went from being a mechanic to being a very successful mechanical engineer — he designs airbags. The big ah-ha for me was that I saw the awesome power of education to change lives and circumstances. It was obvious that everything that we had was due to my dad choosing to get an education. So that was the catalyst for me to go to college.”

Rose married his girlfriend, and his first son was born. He enrolled in night classes at Weber State University and graduated, pre-med, with a degree in psychology, with a 3.97 GPA.

Graduate school beckoned. “I originally wanted to be a neurologist,” said Rose, whose first time flying in a plane was to interview at the University of California, Berkeley. “I didn’t even know where Harvard was.”

Harvard interested him, but there was the matter of the $120 application fee. “That was a lot of money! I mean, we were eating a lot of Ramen noodles at the time …”

Rose tossed aside the application, but his wife knew better. “She told me, ‘If you don’t apply, you’ll always wonder.’ So I applied to the Ed School, and I got in.”

“We packed up everyone,” and drove cross-country, said Rose, whose second son was born while he was finishing college. “We were such hillbillies,” he said, laughing. “It was such a shock to get here. We ran out of money on the way, and I didn’t know there was such a thing as toll roads. So we wrote checks for $1.25 throughout New York … of course they all bounced.”

The Rose family’s first week in Cambridge included a car wreck that injured their younger son. “We were at Children’s Hospital one day, and the next day I was at new student orientation, and everyone’s introducing themselves, and they’re like ‘I went to this fancy prep school’; ‘I went to Yale’; ‘I went to Europe to find myself.’”

Rose was yet again the square peg.

“We had no money, and I was cutting my hair myself, and it went so bad that I just shaved it,” he said. “And I’m in this orientation, and I say, ‘Can you pass the syllabuses?’ and everyone just looked at me!” Rose recalled. “But I’ve done my research — ‘syllabuses’ is technically correct!”

His biggest challenge at Harvard was overcoming “the holes in my education.” Studying calculus, for one, and — after a professor’s particularly harsh (but accurate) criticism on a paper — learning how to write well. “I didn’t want to ask for support in the writing lab from my colleagues,” said Rose. Instead, he sneaked away to the undergraduate writing lab one day a week when the lab took walk-ins, and worked with “this sophomore, she looked about 16 years old, but was amazing!”

Rose decided to write “Square Peg” because “I wanted to use my personal story to tell the bigger idea that there’s a better way to think about behavior and learning than we have in the past. There was always this weird gap between what I was learning about learning, and what my experience was like. So the things that I did to make myself successful, going from failure to success, didn’t map to these theories.”

This “better way” is what Rose is all about now. With the help of Parisa Rouhani and Walter A. Haas, two Harvard graduate students, Rose founded Project Variability, a nonprofit dedicated to rethinking, essentially, the way the world works.

“We’re supposed to be the country of individual opportunity and second chances, and that matters a lot to me. I’m a big believer in the American dream, but we have to make it real, instead of just talking about it,” said Rose. “There’s this emerging new science of the individual. Instead of studying averages, you study individuals and then aggregate … But what we were noticing is that it was never taking off because you need lots of data, but now that’s completely possible with digital stuff. We have this once-in-a-lifetime chance to reimagine the very foundation of our digital society, from education to the workforce in a way that will allow us to nurture the broader spectrum of talent that we need to be competitive in the 21st century.”

With the backing of prominent leaders in the sciences, in Silicon Valley, and in Hollywood, Rose is readying to unveil his plans for a $100 million cultural campaign at San Francisco’s AT&T ballpark in April, along with the development of key demonstration technology.

As for his injured son? He’s fine now. Rose’s wife is earning her doctorate at Lesley University, and the two have grown quite accustomed to Cambridge life.

In 2009, the Improper Bostonian even named Rose one of the smartest people in Boston. “But,” he admitted, “I’m still that same little kid.”