School: Then & Now

When I was seventeen years old, about a month into my senior year, I dropped out of high school. This isn’t something I really hide, and it’s far from something I’m ashamed of. In fact, I think that dropping out is a major reason why I am the person I am today. It was the right choice for me. High school was, for lack of a better term, a living hell for my sad adolescent self. To make up for all the lost time I spent fucking off as a sophomore and junior, I would not have been able to graduate my senior year without taking on tremendous amounts of extra work . This was simply too much for me, and I elected to take the option that had always been in front of me, but suddenly felt like the only way out: I dropped out in October of 2015.

If you had told that freshly dropped-out me that I would be as happy and excited to continue my academic journey as I am now, I would never have believed you. Today, if you’d care to join me, I wish to take you on a journey through my history, from my high school struggles and working during my gap years, to now, a semester out from transferring to UMASS Amherst. This is a long one, so strap in folks.

Part 1: We don’t need no education.

It is important that I define exactly what about high school made it so increasingly difficult for me as I progressed through adolescence. As a child, I was “gifted” or whatever you want to call it. I got good grades without trying, and the adults around me liked to remind me frequently just how smart and capable I was. My main fault in elementary and middle school was, simply put, that I was a little shit. I raised hell in class, fought with other kids, didn’t do homework I found “useless” and my disciplinary record was far from clean. In middle school I was diagnosed with some depression & anxiety issues, but it wasn’t until I entered high school that this all began to come to a head and I could feel myself slowly deteriorating. It was also around this time that my parents separated and began the process of divorce. Being a teenager, I was completely caught up in a wide variety of now-irrelevant personal problems, so this was the backdrop to what became my horrid high school years.

With regard to my education, the biggest problem I faced was my complete and utter apathy towards the school system as a whole. I considered it stupid. I wanted to be creative and channel my passion into something I found productive, not something the world thought I had to do. It was around this time that I stopped caring about my classes and my grades. I would cry and scream and throw tantrums every morning, desperately trying to avoid going to school. When I did go, the only thing I cared about was seeing my friends in the few minutes before school began. As soon as the bell rang, I wouldn’t go to class. I would hide in a room no one ever went in just to get away from it all. I would camp myself on the floor of the art wing hallway and cry. No one ever noticed me there, or if they did, I was well-known enough as a lost cause that people didn’t bother to stop and help.

In general, people did try and help, though. Teachers reached out, but I never accepted their assistance. Nothing they said could get through to me. All the logic they could come up with was simply refuted by the thing I so vehemently believed: school was useless, and frankly, I believed that I was above it. I tried switching to the school’s night program for a trimester, but that didn’t work. My family considered homeschooling, but what was the point if I couldn’t see my friends? All of this was backed by a never-ending veil of deep-rooted depression– I was too depressed to care, yet I knew I wasn’t living up to my potential, and that made me even more depressed. It was that, at the heart of it all, that caused my depression to worsen and worsen until I simply couldn’t take it anymore, and dropped out of high school.

Part 2: Welcome to the machine.

The month or so following the decision to drop out was probably the most depressed I have ever been in my life. It wasn’t until my dad convinced me to get a job at the Dunkin’ Donuts by his office that I found a reason to live: work. I started off only working a couple nights a week, but by the end of my year and a half long stint there, I was working 30-40 hour weeks more often than not. Dunks had become a huge part of my identity. It was the only place I went. My coworkers were the only people I saw. For the first few months, I actually loved my job, but that love quickly faded into stress and anxiety. There was always drama at the store, customers could be cruel, and it was starting to hit me that I was now trapped in the capitalist machine.

It was in January of 2017 that I was told by an acquaintance of an opening at a TD bank branch. Interested in the idea of a pay raise, and a career in which I could move up instead of being stuck for life as a “crew member,” I decided to apply. I had extremely low expectations, so when my interview went well and I got the call saying I got the job, I was completely over the moon. I wasn’t as hopeless as I thought! A bank wanted me! That was way cooler than working at Dunks for the rest of my life, right? Wrong.

Somehow, against all odds, working at TD was exponentially more difficult on my mental health than working at Dunks was. Within days of starting there, I knew that the place was going to be an absolute storm of chaos, and it was. I loved almost all of my coworkers and became rather close friends with a couple of them, but the branch was always busy and understaffed, so there was nearly always tension between us. The year I worked there was a lonely one; the only people I hung out with outside of work were my platonic life partner Nico and the couple of coworkers who I got along well with. By the end of 2017 I was again exhausted, miserable with my position in life. I knew for certain by then that banking was not for me, and even though I was making far better money than I ever had at Dunks, I still felt just as trapped within the confines of the corporate machine. If anything, the banking industry was worse in that regard. Every corporate event was a tactical farce used to butter up the employees and convince them to make more sales. I was terrible at sales, and given that it was part of my job description, I was frequently being told to step up my game, but it went against every fiber of my being to do so.

These years, even despite the bitter sadness I often felt, were better than high school. Why? Two reasons: personal growth and circumstantial change. Let’s follow up on those.

Part 3: A hunger still unsatisfied.

It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve, the dawning of 2018, that my eyes were opened to the potential I still had. I met Laurie, Joe and Pen, the people I still live with today. They convinced me that the money I made suffering through my day job was not worth the emotional price I paid for it. Where I had formerly believed I was trapped in the corporate cycle, I went home able to visualize a future for myself that didn’t involve slaving away over things I didn’t care about for 40 hours a week. I enrolled in Northern Essex Community College as a Psychology major, which was… well, let’s just say I am no longer a psychology major.

Why did no one talk me out of that?

It wasn’t until I moved to central MA and attended an open house at the community college I currently attend that I began to latch onto my passion. I discovered an environmental science program and loved the idea of it. For a semester, I took classes dedicated to that before I switched to the school’s Natural Resources Degree (NRD), which I am currently a few credits away from completing.

It’s hard sometimes not to remember the past, and for the first couple years of college I struggled not to feel like I’d been marked with a scarlet D– for delinquent, dead-end, dropout. College, though, is nothing like high school for me. You make your own schedule, are in control of your own life, and are able to pick out the path you want to take of your own volition entirely. My mother was right, after all; she always said I would thrive in college, but I never believed her. For the first time in my life, I found in college the kind of intellectually stimulating environment high school could never be for me. Everyone in my major knows each other, and we all get along because we have common interests. After a few years in NRD, I realized that out of all the fascinating topics I studied, my favorite part was plant science. I loved everything about it; plant anatomy and physiology, ecology, pathology, horticulture. I suddenly realized that I had finally found something I love, something I could see myself happy doing for the rest of my life. That’s what I, to this day, plan on studying at UMASS when I transfer.

Now, that’s not to say that my success in college is completely circumstantial, that all along it was just the format of high school that doomed me. My evolution in character since I was a teenager plays just as much of a part in why I have taken to school better than I did then. A strong example of that is my Functions & Modeling math course from fall of 2018. The course was fucking hard. There’s no kinder way to put it. While I liked my professor and respected him as a person, he was relatively new to teaching and this came out in both his lecture style and the content of his exams. The semester was extremely rough on me, if only because of this course alone. Every day during class I had panic attacks and left. Every day after class I called my mom crying. I would tell her it feels like high school all over again. I felt so helpless, like it wasn’t even worth trying. Every time, she reminded me that this wasn’t high school, and I wasn’t the same as I once was. She was right. In the end, I busted my ass every day trying to learn the concepts and it paid off: I was one of only eight people out of the thirty that passed that course with a C.

Since high school I have matured past the idea that I either can do something or can’t, and that’s the end of it. In high school, I told myself I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it, and that was simply the truth of the matter. That, inevitably, is how I ended up so deep in a hole that I couldn’t pull myself out. The new me, this college me, knows that that’s bullshit: I can do it, I will do it, and my destiny is in my own hands.

I guess if there’s anything I want people to get out of this long, rambling post is that if you’re thinking of going back to school, it’s not too late. Whether it be getting your GED, getting an associates/bachelors for the first time in your 60s, or even returning to school for a graduate degree, it’s not too late. Your past doesn’t define you, and your future is waiting to be written. Go ahead and write it.

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