Will he save the world?
Some people might scoff at a 17-year-old's plan to end world poverty by 2050. Those people haven't met Steve White.
By Michael Kruse and Erin Sullivan
Published May 29, 2007
BROOKSVILLE - Steve White is fair-skinned and red-haired, and he wears black, baggy T-shirts and black Nike high-tops and blue jean shorts, always. One afternoon earlier this month, he sat in the corner of a classroom at Central High School and asked the members of the philosophy club he founded the only question that really, truly matters. The meaning of life. What is it?
Somebody said it was to take up space. Somebody else said the meaning of life was to find the meaning of life. A few of the others said they didn't even know where to begin.
"The meaning of life, " junior Andy Carothers said, "would be just to make more of yourself."
"So the meaning of life, " junior Andrew Schuster asked, "is to just keep going?"
Steve rephrased the question.
"Every day you have to wake up and decide to do something with your life.
"Why do you live?"
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Steve White: His parents met in a bar on Long Island, and he was born July 10, 1989, at the old Brooksville Regional Hospital, by emergency C-section, with the umbilical cord coiled around his neck. He spent the first 10 days of his life in All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. He wouldn't always roll over at the right times when he was a baby, and he was a bit glassy-eyed, and he didn't like to play marbles with the other kids when he was little, so in the second grade his parents had him tested.
They wondered: Maybe he's slow.
No, they were told. He's not slow at all.
On Wednesday, Steve graduates from Central, where last year less than a third of the students went on to four-year colleges. In August, he is headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of the Class of 2011, which had an acceptance rate of just 12 percent - an all-time low at a school that is one of the world's best.
Lots of amazing, promising, inspiring kids are graduating this month from high schools around the Tampa Bay area. They want to be surgeons and accountants and chemical engineers.
Steve? He wants to end all the poverty on the planet by 2050.
Some might say that's impossible, and maybe this makes him naive, and maybe he's just too young to know that some goals are too big.
His history teacher, Hank Deslaurier, says Steve is the most remarkable student he has had in his seven years at Central. His English teacher, Ann Wolfe, says Steve's the best student she's had in 37 years. "He's above us all, " Wolfe said. His guidance counselor, Ruth Owen, thinks Steve is going to be the next Bill Gates, using his gifts to amass great wealth, and using that to make the world into something better than what it is now.
- - -
Steve doesn't want anybody to know any of this. He doesn't want people to even know his name.
"I'm not particularly bright or insightful, " he wrote on his blog on Xanga.com. All he grants is this: "I try."
His heroes are the poor, the thoughtful, "everyone who ever made the right decision at least once, " he wrote.
His interests range from math to ethics to economics to computer science to public policy to psychology and sociology and theoretical physics.
The books in his room, where he sleeps on a small twin bed, include Hamlet and Huck Finn and Freakonomics and Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty and The Future Is Ours: A Handbook for Student Activists in the 21st Century. He gets frustrated. There's so little time.
His Web site, which he started in October, is www.endpoverty today.com.
His mother, Diane, is a nurse, and his father, Bob, fixes computers, and neither has a four-year degree. They pick him up from school in a white minivan and live in a plain stucco home - but in that home, there are newspapers, and debates at dinner, and speeches on the TV.
Steve went to Spring Hill Elementary, West Hernando Middle and then Central, and last week after an awards ceremony he went up to Deslaurier and told him thank you.
Thank you for what? Deslaurier asked.
Thank you for teaching me, Steve said.
Steve also, and he does want people to know this, plays a lot of NBA Jam and stays up late to watch basketball games on TV and roughhouses with his older brother, Eric, in the living room or the pool. He picks the ends off his french fries and wipes Cheetos dust onto the tops of his socks. He eats hamburgers, tacos, vanilla Yoplait yogurt, the hot dogs on the rollers at the 7-Eleven and the nachos at the movies and very little else.
He has this thing about those nachos.
Every time he goes to the movies, he really doesn't want to talk to the person behind the food counter, because he's shy, he says, or at least he is unless he's around the philosophy club or the academic team, but he also really, really wants the nachos, so always there is this moment where he stops and weighs this equation in his head.
And he always gets the nachos. Always.
"No one knows exactly what they should do with their life, " he wrote this month on his blog on MySpace.com, "but everyone is searching for an answer. But no one has time to wait for a final answer, so in the meantime we implement our life's purpose as clearly as we understand it.
"We use our voice."
This is his plan:
"I plan on majoring in economics and minoring in math and philosophy. I want to work at the Poverty Action Lab in college and help solve the major economic issues related to suffering as an adult: how to catalyze economic growth, help to distribute aid effectively, how to open trade, how to get politics to work for the poor, how to get people to act on their compassion."
He visited California when he was 10, and North Carolina when he was 12, and Boston, to see MIT, just last month, and other than that he's been nowhere but Florida. In the last year, though, Steve has organized a faculty-staff basketball game at Central that raised $1, 400 for antimalarial nets for dying children in Africa; he has spent a night in a cardboard box in Orlando as part of a large event called Displace Me that hoped to raise awareness of suffering children in northern Uganda; and he sold enough fair trade chocolate to earn a trip this summer to Ghana to see for the first time what he hopes to help eradicate in his lifetime.
- - -
This month, at the philosophy club meeting, Steve told the other students that he didn't know the meaning of life - just two things, for now, for sure.
One, he said, is to keep trying to figure out how the universe works.
Two, he said, is to think, every time he wakes up, about what he's going to do that day that's going to mean something.
A few days later, he was sitting in the evening at the kitchen table at his house, and he said that every year 1.7-million people die from tuberculosis, and 1.5-million people die from malaria, mostly kids, and 8-million people die because they're just that poor. And that he doesn't understand why this country's priorities seem to be Iraq and the war on terror.
"If 9/11 happened every day, that's malaria, " he said. "That's 3, 000 people every day."
The money being spent on the war, for instance, he said, should be spent on things like decent, secularized education in places that don't have it right now. Farmers should get money to make more food, which could go to free lunches at schools, which would make more people go to those schools, which would make those people better educated, which would . . .
This isn't about bake sales, Steve said.
It's not about charity.
It's about money. Major money. The ability to make it, or collect it, or both, then distribute it in ways that make a difference.
"There's lots of goodwill in the world, " he said. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of good action, and that's the great problem."
But every problem has a solution. Steve believes that more than he believes in just about anything, and solutions come from information, and information and then the power to use it come from places like the place he's headed to in August.
The meaning of life.
"Hopefully we can get it right, " Steve White said, at his kitchen table, here at the end of high school and the beginning of everything else, "and hopefully I can be a part of it."
Straight from Steve
Here are some of his blog posts from the last couple years:
May 8, 2007 (MySpace.com): "... money, happiness and education simply cannot be the basis for going to college, least of all a school far from home (literally and metaphorically). Money is useless in life. Happiness will come and go regardless of wealth or education; seeking happiness means, more than anything else, seeking contentment and friendship. Education can be obtained by anyone willing to study, to read, to ask questions, hunt down answers and work hard.
"So why go? Why make an attempt in the first place? To please our peers? To make our parents proud? To make a useless surplus of wealth? To gain respect from strangers? To party, get drunk, and avoid working for as long as possible? To think we're better than we really are?
"Classes, clubs, internships provide two things. Research, studying, labs, reading assignments, problem sets, and networking provide the same two things. A voice and a direction."
April 15, 2007 (MySpace.com): "The saddest thing in the world is not all the suffering, it's not poverty, it's not that people do not care, or that people are evil. People are fundamentally as good as they can be. People do care and the world is always suffering less, poverty is disappearing before our eyes.
"The saddest thing in the world is how much could be done, how much we want to do as individuals, and how little we do as a global society despite those intentions."
March 16, 2006 (Xanga.com): "Why would a person personify an idea only to fear what it has to say? Why would one cower in the face of a line of thought? . . . Yet we are reduced to a helpless mess of tears and anxiety when logic speaks to us. Then we start to run. We run anywhere, to anything that will shield us from the truth. If we have an urge to claim the evil of an object we make the assertion through any possible means, throwing perspectives here and there with no regard to the logical, the illogical, truth or untruth - without regard to our underlying assumptions. In the future people will be forced to confront the reality that certain trains of thought lead to places we do not wish to go, but the only commandment of the search, it would seem, is that we must follow the train of thought to conclusion - from stop to stop, whether it be Harlem or Prague, the ghetto or a penthouse. Thus, it would seem, man should focus less on finding an answer, and more on following the method; man should accept challenges and wrestle with them - these idea-people that one has constructed, and defeat them, understand them, find their conclusion which is their death.
Nov. 26, 2005 (Xanga.com): "One must listen to learn; and one will never learn from running from the truth."
"I just had a revelation. I need to sort things out and talk to some people. And I need some books - lots of books."