Steve Jobs’s first story involved connecting dots, and it began with a most unusual promise.
Joanne Schieble was just twenty-three and attending graduate school in Wisconsin when she learned she was pregnant. Her father didn’t approve of her relationship with a Syrian-born graduate student, and social customs in the 1950s frowned on a woman having a child outside of marriage. To avoid the glare, Schieble moved to San Francisco and was taken in by a doctor who took care of unwed mothers and helped arrange adoptions.
Originally, a lawyer and his wife agreed to adopt the new baby. But when the child was born on February 24, 1955, they changed their minds.
Clara and Paul Jobs, a modest San Francisco couple with some high school education, had been waiting for a baby. When the call came in the middle of the night, they jumped at the chance to adopt the newborn, and they named him Steven Paul.
Schieble wanted her child to be adopted by college-educated parents. Before the adoption could be finalized, however, she learned that neither parent had a college degree. She balked and only agreed to complete the adoption a few months later, “when my parents promised that I would go to college,” Jobs said.
Signing on to the hope of a bright future for their baby, the Jobs family settled in, adopting a daughter, Patty, a couple of years later. Little Steve proved to be a curious child, and a challenging one to rear. He put a bobby pin into an electrical outlet, winning a trip to the emergency room for a burned hand. He got into ant poison, requiring yet another trip to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. To keep Steve busy when he got up before the rest of the household, his parents bought him a rocking horse, a record player, and some Little Richard records. He was so difficult as a toddler, his mother once confided, that she wondered if she had made a mistake adopting him.
When Steve was five, his father, Paul, was transferred to Palo Alto, about forty-five minutes south of San Francisco. After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, Paul had worked as a machinist and used-car salesman, and now was working for a finance company collecting bad debts. In his free time, he fixed up used cars and sold them for a profit, money that would go to Steve’s future college fund.
The area south of San Francisco was largely undeveloped then and dotted with apricot and prune orchards. The family bought a house in Mountain View, and as Paul put together his workshop in the garage, he set aside a part of it, telling his son, “Steve, this is your workbench now.” He taught Steve how to use a hammer and gave him a set of smaller tools. Over the years, Jobs remembered, his dad “spent a lot of time with me … teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together.”
His father’s careful craftsmanship and commitment to the finest details made a deep impression. He “was a sort of genius with his hands. He can fix anything and make it work and take any mechanical thing apart and get it back together,” Jobs told an interviewer in 1985. His father also stressed the importance of doing things right. For instance, his son learned, “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back.”
That was a lesson Jobs would apply over and over to new products from Apple. “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through,” he said.
Clara supported her young son as well, babysitting the children of friends in the evenings to pay for swimming lessons. And because Steve was precocious and interested, she taught him to read, giving him a big head start at school.
Unfortunately for Steve, knowing how to read became something of a problem. Once in school, “I really just wanted to do two things,” he remembered. “I wanted to read books because I loved reading books and I wanted to go outside and chase butterflies.” What he didn’t want to do was follow instructions. He bucked at the structure of the school day and soon was bored with being in class. He felt different from his classmates.
When he was six or seven years old, he told the girl across the street that he was adopted. “So does that mean your real parents didn’t want you?” she asked.
The innocent question hit him like a punch to the stomach, planting a frightening thought that had never occurred to him. He ran into his house, sobbing. His parents quickly moved to comfort him and shoot down that notion. “They were very serious and looked me straight in the eye,” he said. “They said, ‘We specifically picked you out.’”
In fact, his parents thought he was very special—exceptionally bright, though also exceptionally strong-willed. Later, friends and colleagues would say that his drive and need for control grew out of a deep-rooted sense of abandonment. But he didn’t see it that way. “Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned,” he told a biographer. “I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special.”
Some of his teachers, however, saw him more as a troublemaker than as a special kid. Jobs found school so dull and dreadful that he and a buddy got their biggest kicks out of causing havoc. Many of the kids rode bikes to school, locking them up in racks outside Monta Loma Elementary School, and in third grade, Jobs and his friend traded the combination to their bike locks with many of their classmates. Then one day, they went out and switched the locks all around. “It took them until about ten o’clock that night to get all the bikes sorted out,” he recalled.
The worst behavior was reserved for the teacher. Jobs and his friend let a snake loose in the classroom and created a small explosion under her chair. “We gave her a nervous twitch,” he said later.
He was sent home two or three times for his misbehavior, but he doesn’t remember being punished for it. Instead, his father defended him, telling teachers, “If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault.”
In fourth grade, he was rescued by a special teacher, Imogene “Teddy” Hill, who kindly showered attention on him during a particularly trying time at home. Impressed by a neighbor who seemed to be making a successful living selling real estate, Paul Jobs went to school at night and earned a real-estate license. But his timing was bad and the demand for housing slumped just as he was trying to break into the business.
One day, Mrs. Hill asked her students, “What is it that you don’t understand about the universe?” Young Jobs answered: “I don’t understand why all of a sudden my dad is so broke.” Clara took a part-time job in the payroll department of a local company and the family took out a second loan on their house. For a year or so, money in the Jobs home was very tight.
Within a few weeks of having Jobs in her class, Mrs. Hill had sized up her unusual student. She offered Jobs a sweet bargain: If he could finish a math workbook on his own and get at least 80 percent right, she would give him five dollars and a giant lollipop.
“I looked at her like, ‘Are you crazy, lady?’” Jobs said. But he took the challenge. Before long, his admiration and respect for Mrs. Hill were so great that he didn’t need bribes anymore.
She returned the admiration, providing her precocious student with a kit for making a camera by grinding his own lens. But that didn’t mean Jobs became an easy kid. Many years later, Mrs. Hill entertained some of Jobs’s coworkers by showing them a photo of her class on Hawaiian Day. Jobs was in the middle, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. But the photo didn’t tell the whole story: Jobs hadn’t actually worn a Hawaiian shirt that day—but he had managed to convince a classmate to give him the shirt off his back.
Calling the teacher “one of the saints in my life,” Jobs said, “I learned more that year than I think I learned in any year in school.” And he credits her with moving him onto the right path. “I’m one hundred percent sure that if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Hill in fourth grade and a few others, I would absolutely have ended up in jail,” he said later.
With his interest in school reignited and his performance seemingly on track, Jobs was tested and scored so high that school officials recommended he skip a couple of grades. His parents agreed to let him skip just one.
Middle school was tougher academically and he still wanted to chase butterflies. A sixth-grade report called him “an excellent reader,” but noted “he has great difficulty motivating himself or seeing the purpose of studying reading.” He was also “a discipline problem at times.”
Seventh grade brought a much rougher crowd of classmates. Fights were common. Some students bullied the wiry kid who was a year younger than everyone else. Jobs was miserable, and in the middle of that year, he gave his parents an ultimatum: He said “if he had to go back to school there again, he just wouldn’t go,” his father recalled. They took him seriously. “So we decided we better move,” his dad said.
His parents pulled together what little they had and bought a three-bedroom home in Los Altos, where the schools were top-notch—and safe. There, presumably, their gifted son might focus on his studies. But in the mid-1960s, times were changing. Jobs would soon have other things on his mind.
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Blumenthal