I was seventeen years old, attending one of the most prestigious preparatory high schools in the country, and halfway through my senior year, I left. My decision to leave would leave my friends, family, teachers and classmates all in a state of confusion.
Let me preface by saying that I do not come from a wealthy family. I am, through thick and thin, trailer park trash. At some points in my life, there were six of us living in a two-bedroom single-wide trailer. During the winters our heating system was the kitchen oven. We would turn it on, prop open the door, and huddle around it like it was a warm fire.
When I found out I was accepted, I was ecstatic. Not only was the school on the opposite end of the country, but I was also on a full ride scholarship. My scholarship provider took care of the essentials, making sure I had a laptop and a flight home for the holidays. On top of that I had a monthly stipend to spend on whatever I wanted. It really was the opportunity of a lifetime.
I remember my first time walking into the dining hall feeling like Harry Potter, in awe at the size and style of the room; all that was missing was an animated sky above our heads. Everyday life reminded me of Hogwarts. We’d go to class in the day, do an afternoon sport, and then the rest of the night we spent studying.
There was something simple about it, but once I got my first job, I realized that there was so much more that I was missing out on. The job was at a movie theatre in Phoenix. I started off as a Team Member, cleaning auditoriums, selling concessions and working the box office.
The work itself was tedious but it was my coworkers that made the whole gig worth it. We were all around the same age and most of the time it didn’t feel like work. In between sweeping up popcorn and finding used condoms behind the screens, there was a lot of teenage gibber-gabber that would make shifts go by quickly.
I would get off of work at one or two in the morning and rather than go straight home, a group of us would always go to Denny’s, where we'd talk for hours.
There was something different about these kids. They had different mindsets than my school friends. First, they didn’t stress about school, they stressed about their parents. They were working to help pay bills and to save for a used car. I started to envy them a little bit because they were teenagers acting like teenagers. They weren’t teenagers preparing to be college students.
I didn’t go back to Connecticut after summer ended. Instead I flew to Paris to study abroad.
Paris was magical. I felt so comfortable there. It was a place that was so new and fresh to me that nothing else mattered. Not my past. Not my future. I was living purely in the present.
Every day I would roam the streets, eat at a new outdoor cafe, and visit historical monuments. Every night I took the Metro back home and passed by the Eiffel Tower. Every night the Eiffel Tower glowed to my mood. Some nights it shimmered flamboyantly and other nights it didn’t scream for too much attention, but every night it glowed, and so did I.
By the time I went back to Connecticut, it had been six months since I had last been there. Within those six months I had worked a job, lived in Paris, and met so many different people around the world. A lot had happened and I was, inevitably, a different person.
As soon as I walked into the dining hall for my first breakfast back on campus, I could feel the difference in me and in the school.
I remember staring at the beloved senior section in the dining hall, feeling like I still wasn’t allowed to sit there. My best friend was a junior and I looked back at the sophomore/junior section, considering for a brief moment about sitting with her. And I just stood there in the dining hall, not knowing what to do and where to go, feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere.
I ate my dinner in silence and listened to the dinner conversations.
“I have so much homework to do.”
“I have a test tomorrow and I haven’t studied at all.”
“College applications are going to kill me. I should probably start on them sometime soon.”
One year prior, I was one of those kids aching over how much homework I had, but now I had a different outlook. Everyone was trained to focus on homework, then college applications, then more homework. Every concern was school-related, and I realized that that just wasn’t normal. Normal was working an after-school job. Normal was driving around the city with the windows rolled down and the music turned up. Normal was hearing a school bell and seeing a flood of students spill into a hallway.
A few weeks passed by and I felt more and more disconnected. It wasn’t just with the school, but it was also with my friends. While I was away, my friends had made friends with other people, and I just couldn’t connect with them anymore.
The place that I had once called home no longer felt like a home to me.
I tried explaining this to Amy, the scholarship advisor I was supposed to go to if I ever needed anything. I told her that I was unhappy and I was considering transferring to a different school.
I was fully aware of what I was asking. Leaving such a prestigious school on a fully paid-for scholarship just five months shy from graduating, I knew it was crazy to even discuss it. I thought I was at least being responsible by asking about my options.
Amy, however, didn’t see it that way.
“What do you mean what are your options? You could either stay… or you could quit,” she said. Her head tilted and her eyebrows raised, like she was throwing me an insult.
I mentioned that there were some students who had left for a bit and had came back a few months later. Amy quickly shot that down saying they had different situations.
I grew angrier because I felt like she wasn’t making any effort to understand, but rather kept insinuating that I was a quitter. In my mind I wasn’t quitting. I just wanted to be somewhere where I felt comfortable, but she didn’t care about that minor detail.
I didn't back down, and in of a moment of frustration, she called me selfish and bitter, and a smattering of other words. We both sat in silence for a moment, both taken aback.
Neither one of us won the argument that day and the conversation ultimately ended with me slamming the door behind me on my way out.
The next person I had to meet with was my Dean. My Dean was always cheery and rosy cheeked, but as soon as I walked into her office, she did not have a smile on her face at all. She was in pure business mode.
I took a deep breath, kept my chin up and reiterated how I was feeling. Her approach in coaxing me to stay was using the glorious reputation of the school. I argued that as long as you put your mind and heart into something, it didn’t matter where you came from.
She stood her ground that I would regret leaving and that I wouldn’t be able to attend a good college and get a good job.
I left her office, not angry, but determined. I wanted to prove her wrong. I wanted to prove Amy wrong. I wanted to disprove the entire value of the school’s reputation. Ultimately, I left the Dean’s office with the absolute intention of never going back.
And I didn’t.
To this day I still don’t have any regrets. Regardless if I would’ve stayed for the remaining five months, I still would’ve gone to the same college, I still would’ve gone back to my movie theatre job and I’d still have the same goals and dreams of becoming a writer and a filmmaker.
You could argue that if that’s the case, I might as well have stayed those last few months. That’s a valid point, but when I think back, I can still feel the loneliness in the pit of my stomach and I can still see me pacing my room like a crazy person. I was unhappy there.
It wasn’t that I hated the school. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s such a great school and I appreciate the opportunity to have gone there at all. I’ll be the first to admit that I was selfish, and maybe a little bit of an asshole, but from all that I’ve experienced in my life so far, all the ups and downs, I think the real learning doesn’t happen in a classroom. The real learning happens out there in the real world.