It was a purgatory of a brunch shift when I started consider the choices that had led me here. Chef and I had invented an entire family (The Shittingtons) and were busy narrating their adventures to ourselves (The Shittingtons Visit the Grand Canyon) and picking on our 18-year-old dishwasher.
“Oh, hold on!” I exclaimed, laying some bacon that I had cured the week before onto the grill.
“Dick Shittington's Crap.”
The game had taken a turn into working our imaginary family into the titles of books. This was my new life. This was not at home on Manitoulin Island during a halcyon summer, nor was it candles in wine bottles and watching Passolini films. This was not a hallowed university campus or a gap year in Europe. This was not a career in veterinary medicine or researching to cure cancer.
The summer I turned sixteen, a lot of things changed in my life. My mum decided to move back to our hometown on Manitoulin Island, from the city in Southern Ontario we'd called home for several years. Manitoulin is the sort of place where people have never tried an avocado before, where alcoholism runs rampant and where tired farmers retire to their recliners after a day in the field to snooze in front of the television. People read tabloids instead of novels. Camouflage is a legitimate fashion choice.
I loved the scenery and the beaches and the seclusion, but embroiled in a relationship in the city that I was ill equipped to handle and full of the sort of angst that only a 16-year-old can muster, I left. I hitch hiked my way to the ferry, clocked out of my family emotionally and went to go and live with my best friend's family in the city.
I have always been an anxious sort of person. I had full blown panic attacks about the idea of having to go to a baby sitter's in the fifth grade—I thought she would never show up to pick me up from school. If my mother didn't show up from work on time, I was sure she had been in a car accident.
This anxiety carried over into my adult life. I have always had a hard time fostering meaningful relationships with other people, especially those who are meant to be my peers.
Essentially, from the age of twelve onward, I felt a lot of pressure within the school system to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life; the message I received was, “You must pick what career you want, now, so that you can take the appropriate courses and get the appropriate grades, because if you screw up now, you won't be able to fix it.” The narrative I heard was that there were no second chances in life, that nothing was more important than education and that there was no alternative. Always a fantastic student and an avid reader, I began to crack under the pressure of having to choose what I wanted to do for the next fifty years.
In high school, I had already done all of the required reading for classes. Often, this was met with disbelief instead of praise. There was no alternative channel to funnel me into, no advanced English classes, no mentorship. I had a few fantastic teachers who really had my back and encouraged me, but I often found myself cutting classes to go to the Family Thrift Store downtown and read tattered copies of Anna Karenina in Russian, with a Russian English dictionary at my side. My frustration at the lack of challenge, combined with the fear of choosing the wrong courses or failing to obtain perfect grades, combined again with severe social anxiety, and the drama of a failing relationship drove me to the breaking point.
I clocked out emotionally again, this time from school. I went to classes less while picking up more shifts at the burrito place where I had a part time job. I had always worked with horses and taken riding lessons up to that point, so I started browsing an online job site for equine jobs.
As a bit of an Anglophile, I started looking at jobs in the United Kingdom. Somehow, I found one that suited my meager qualifications, applied, and was hired. In a whirlwind two weeks of phone interviews, online shopping for flight tickets, fear and excitement, I became a high school drop-out. Halfway through the second semester of the eleventh grade, I kissed my adoptive family goodbye and got on an airplane to London, my riding boots and helmet in tow.
I spent the next six months working at a fabulous stable just outside of Epsom. I held my breath in awe, riding a liver chestnut named Cromwell, I had my first canter across Epsom Downs, the site of the famous race. I hacked around the English country side with clients and co-workers, worked harder than I ever had before in my life, and supported myself completely independently. I started to work at a nearby racing stable on my days off and enjoyed many good gallops down the sand tracks on the Downs. I learned how to care for ailing horses, how to recondition a racehorse coming back into work, how to do a perfect clip and plaits for a fancy breed show, how to talk to clients and communicate progress and be a professional face of a business. I also gained a vast amount of confidence in myself and my own abilities to learn new skills. I made friends and survived through the drama of sharing a workplace as well as a home with my co-workers.
I navigated London by myself whenever I had spare time and really blossomed with my new friends. We went to quiz night at the Chequers in Walton-on-the-Hill and were known by voice over the phone as we made our reservations for Sunday roast at the Amato. I was well liked by the clients, many of whom I am still in touch with today. I even got to meet William Fox-Pitt, a member of the British Olympic equestrian team.
Ultimately, I was unable to secure an extension on my visa and had to come back to Canada, but I came back more confident and outgoing.
My mum and I reconciled and ended up living together back in Guelph, where I'd gone to high school. As I was managing a horse farm on the outskirts of the city, industriously pedaling my bicycle eleven kilometers each way every day, my friends were applying for universities, touring campuses and attending information sessions. I started to feel self doubt and a lack of worth creeping through, but every time I caught a colic early or was trusted with an expensive, pregnant Dutch Warmblood, I remembered I was doing what I loved.
In time, my self doubt got the better of me and I decided to go back to school for journalism, leaving behind the horse farm. I applied as a mature student, wrote an essay about a book I had read recently and was accepted to college. Easy, peasy!
I ended up dropping out of college, too. My college boyfriend had recently graduated from a prestigious Canadian university with a fancy degree, and I measured myself against that standard constantly. My own self-doubt translated into resentment of his experiences, despite my own accomplishments. Needing a job, I somehow fell into professional cooking.
My biggest regret about not attending university fresh out of high school is missing out on building the same peer group as my friends—newly fledged adults, fresh out of the nest. I walked around the McGill campus on a recent trip to Montreal, wistfully staring at towering stone buildings and libraries. I measured my self-worth against several thousand dollars in debt and a piece of paper. I discounted my own life experience and tenacity and ability to forge my own path.
I had learned to make boudin blanc and crème fraiche, how to butcher down a quail and create beautiful, runny-yolked, crispy deep fried eggs. I had walked into a profession I knew nothing about and picked up skills on the fly. I found a family of brilliant degenerates, well-read with a sharp sense of humor, self-made and no nonsense, in cooks.
Now, I have applied to go back to college for Culinary Management, a field in which I know I want to continue. As an adult with the benefit of on the job experience, as well as life experience, I was able to choose an appropriate program for myself. My mum is proud of me.
And, most of the time, I have no regrets.