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How an Anchorage teen motorcyclist finished Columbia University at age 18

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published May 17, 2016

Zoe Danner in her Columbia University graduation robes. Anchorage resident Danner is graduating from Columbia this spring, at age 18.

Zoe Danner will graduate from Columbia University in New York City this spring at 18. With some regret.

She rode her motorcycle to New York at age 16 after having finished her high school requirements in Anchorage a year earlier. Then she finished her Ivy League education in three years instead of four.

"Now, looking back, I'm kind of sorry," Zoe said. Going to college so young was hard. "But that being said, I'm not sure there were that many options for me."

Zoe was born with amazing brains and amazing drive. In Anchorage schools, she didn't fit in. While her future is dazzlingly bright, her story shows that society doesn't adapt well to students who learn at different paces.

No one knows where Zoe's drive came from, not even Zoe. Her parents, Lars and Dawn Danner, say they have no such traits and never pushed her.

The trouble in school started in first grade in Girdwood. Zoe hated it. She was devouring Harry Potter and other big chapter books and wanted to do multiplication at an age when most kids are learning to read and count.

She moved on to the highly gifted program at Rogers Park Elementary, but skipped fifth grade there. Attending sixth grade at 10, she was noticeably younger than the other students.

"All my friends would talk about our little sixth grade crushes, and it wasn't really something that I necessarily understood," she recalled. "I wanted to be part of it, which was a little bit confusing, because I didn't, at that point in time, see the point of it."

In the highly gifted program at Romig Middle School, Zoe was taller and younger than the other students, socially out of step due to her age, and impatient academically. When she went to the hospital with appendicitis, she found out that she enjoyed working on her own. And that she didn't have to eat.

Zoe learned to starve herself without anyone noticing. She had loved cooking but now gave herself tiny portions. She exercised excessively. She lost a lot of weight. Doctors took time to figure it out. Anorexia became a struggle until she reached college.

Eighth grade was also when Lars realized his daughter was on a whole different journey from the rest of us, one the educational system isn't equipped to support.

"I hadn't expected this until she was at Romig Middle School," he said. "We were trying to make some adjustments to the curriculum that Zoe asked for, and the principal said to me, 'I don't think we can meet your daughter's needs.'"

Dawn began home schooling Zoe, turning the kitchen counter into a chemistry lab while she went to West High School for Russian, calculus and swimming. When she enrolled at West for 10th grade, she was already close to finishing her graduation requirements. That year she completed them with a schedule of mostly advanced placement classes. West had little left for her to take.

Zoe stayed in Anchorage one more year, enrolled in the Early Honors program at Alaska Pacific University, which is designed to give talented high school seniors college credit. Zoe was two years younger than the other high school students and much younger than college students in their 20s. Many of them made it clear they didn't like going to class with a 15-year-old.

It was another tough year, partly saved by her scooter.

Zoe had fallen in love with a Vespa when she was 10 years old. To get the money for one, she created a business sewing stuffed dragons and monster mittens and selling them at the Girdwood Forest Fair. She followed her business plan diligently for three years. She bought the scooter at 12, too young to legally ride it.

But, while living in the dorms at APU, she used it to roam around Anchorage. She loved the freedom but now admits she wasn't ready for it. She was overstressed with college applications and unsafe on the roads. The adult partying in the dorms made her uncomfortable.

After Zoe was admitted to Columbia she wasn't sure she wanted to go. She called her father and said she might decide to be a biker instead.

"The panic in his voice was palpable," she later told a student journalist. "We worked out a compromise, which was that I could drive my motorcycle down to New York and hopefully that would satisfy my motorcycle-riding desires."

The other part of the compromise was that Lars would go with her. Zoe accepted the deal because she had no choice, but on the first day of the ride, when Lars' motorcycle broke down on the Richardson Highway south of Glennallen, she ditched him.

Lars eventually caught up and the trip began mending some wounds.

Zoe recalled, "I had spent the last year much more detached from my parents than I had ever been in the past, and my dad and I before that had always been very close, but this was an opportunity for us to reconnect, and for me to reassure him of the fact that I had matured a lot and I was ready to forge a new path, no matter how cheesy that sounds. But also to reassure him that he would always be there for me and I still had things to learn from him."

Zoe rode from Chicago to New York on her own. She ended up loving college and getting healthy. Now she plans to become an international human rights attorney.

I asked what she would tell her younger self if she could go back in time to middle school.

"My main piece of advice would have been for me to not take everything so seriously," she said. "I think I would have done just as well and ended up in a very similar place if I had slowed down and really taken the time to consider what my interests were, and pursued those seriously, rather than doing as many things as I could in as short as amount of time as possible."

I asked, "Would Zoe of the past have listened to that?"

She said, "No, absolutely not. She was a very headstrong person."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. An interview he did with Lars and Zoe Danner about their motorcycle ride will appear on the Outdoor Explorer radio show on Alaska Public Media on May 12.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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