Kaczynski’s father, Theodore R. “Turk” Kaczynski, was a self-educated freethinker living in a conventionally Catholic working-class community. In his autobiography Kaczynski claims, and a close friend of Turk’s confirms, that Wanda tended to be fearful that their family would be perceived as different. Although nonconformist, the Kaczynskis wanted to be perceived as conforming. Thus, Kaczynski records, although the Kaczynskis were atheists, his parents instructed him to tell people they were Unitarians. The tension created by the family’s efforts to look good to the neighbors increased significantly when, in the fifth grade, Kaczynski scored 167 on an IQ test. He skipped the sixth grade, leaving his friends behind to enter a new class as the smallest kid in the room.
From then on, according to Kaczynski and also according to others who knew the family, his parents valued his intellect as a trophy that gave the Kaczynskis special status. They began to push him to study, lecturing him if his report card showed any grade below an A. Meanwhile, Turk seemed—to Kaczynski, at least—to become increasingly cold, critical, and distant.
When Kaczynski was a sophomore, the Evergreen Park High School administration recommended that he skip his junior year. His band teacher and friend, James Oberto, remembers pleading with Kaczynski’s father not to allow it. But Turk wouldn’t listen. “Ted’s success meant too much to him,” Oberto says.
Two years younger than his classmates, and still small for his age, Kaczynski became even more of an outcast in school. There was “a gradual increasing amount of hostility I had to face from the other kids,” Sally Johnson reports Kaczynski as admitting. “By the time I left high school, I was definitely regarded as a freak by a large segment of the student body.”
Apparently caught between acrimony at home and rejection at school, Kaczynski countered with activity. He joined the chess, biology, German, and mathematics clubs. He collected coins. He read ravenously and widely, excelling in every field from drama and history to biology and mathematics. According to an account in The Washington Post, he explored the music of Bach, Vivaldi, and Gabrieli, studied music theory, and wrote musical compositions for a family trio—David on the trumpet, Turk at the piano, and himself on the trombone. He played duets with Oberto.
These achievements made Kaczynski a favorite of his teachers. Virtually all those with whom I talked who knew him well in those years saw him as studious and a member of the lowest-ranking high school clique—the so-called briefcase boys—but otherwise entirely normal. His physics teacher, Robert Rippey, described him to me as “honest, ethical, and sociable.” His American-government teacher, Philip Pemberton, said he had many friends and indeed seemed to be their “ringleader.” Paul Jenkins used Kaczynski as a kind of teaching assistant, to help students who were having trouble in math. School reports regularly gave him high marks for neatness, “respect for others,” “courtesy,” “respect for law and order,” and “self-discipline.” “No one was more lavish in praise of Kaczynski than Lois Skillen, his high school counselor. “Of all the youngsters I have worked with at the college level,” she wrote to Harvard,
I believe Ted has one of the greatest contributions to make to society. He is reflective, sensitive, and deeply conscious of his responsibilities to society. … His only drawback is a tendency to be rather quiet in his original meetings with people, but most adults on our staff, and many people in the community who are mature find him easy to talk to, and very challenging intellectually. He has a number of friends among high school students, and seems to influence them to think more seriously.
Kaczynski was accepted by Harvard in the spring of 1958; he was not yet sixteen years old. One friend remembers urging Kaczynski’s father not to let the boy go, arguing, “He’s too young, too immature, and Harvard too impersonal.” But again Turk wouldn’t listen. “Ted’s going to Harvard was an ego trip for him,” the friend recalls.