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Correction Appended: March 24, 2003
For John, then 10, the transition to California went badly. The family settled in the hills of San Anselmo, a picturesque little town in affluent Marin County, about 20 miles north of San Francisco. But John never quite found himself in these new environs. He moved from school to school: he spent fifth grade in one private school and began sixth in another. Midway through that year, he transferred again, to a public elementary school. He was skinny and "sickly," a classmate's mother recalls, and he frequently missed classes. It turned out John was suffering from an intestinal disorder, a particularly embarrassing affliction for a preteen that meant frequent trips to the bathroom. In 1993 the family pulled John out of yet another elementary school and opted to teach him at home.
For two years John was virtually a shut-in. He studied with a tutor and rarely ventured outside to play. Family life too became strained. His parents' marriage was on the rocks; although divorce would not come until 1999, his father would later say the effective separation occurred six years earlier. Amid all of this, John decided to drop his father's surname and use his mother's maiden name, Walker. By autumn 1995 John's health had improved, and he re-emerged into the world, entering Redwood High School as a freshman. He spent five months there, long enough to rate a mug shot in the school yearbook. (He was "invisible," a former classmate says.) But in January he switched to an independent-study high school, Tamiscal, and suddenly seemed to be in a hurry, though even now it's hard to know what was propelling him. After two years, at the age of 16, John earned his high school equivalency and was done with academia.
For diversion, John would often turn to the Internet. There, using phony names, John could be cocky and even at times condescending. He developed a taste for pop music, particularly hip-hop, and in 1995, at the age of 14, he posted a rap song on rec.music.hip-hop. In it he refers to himself as John Doe, boasting, in the posturing typical of the genre, that he is "Hip Hop's Christ." ("I'm much more than merely a master, in fact I'm faster than the last flash flood disaster.") The lyrics slam many of the biggest names in hip-hop. In this world, the quiet, self-effacing boy was in control.