I can’t say that it was ever my concrete intent to eschew college altogether, but by the time I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth (yet with inexplicable honors in Astronomy), disillusioned and perpetually anxiety-ridden, I knew with all certainty that I didn’t want to see the inside of a classroom again for as long as I could possibly manage. A gap year would suffice, I concluded, and my parents agreed. I would get an internship, do something productive with my time off, but I’d be able to clear my head, recalibrate, take better care of myself (something I’d long neglected), put some effort into figuring out what I really wanted to do with my life and career path before I invested tens of thousands of dollars of my parents’ money in something I was not certain about and would likely dislike with vehemence and not wish to participate in within a matter of weeks or months, as I had in the past with: karate, horseback riding, the violin, classes in art and screenwriting, and a handful of other hobbies and activities that I have either forgotten or conveniently blocked out. This was the logical reasoning behind my decision.
The visceral reason, on the other hand, the real reason, was that I hated school. I hated kindergarten, I hated eighth grade, I hated senior year. Much of my adolescence, and even my youth, was warped by varying degrees of mental illness. (I talk about this all the time, but it’s a subject that I don’t believe we can ever talk about enough.) I was plagued by a depression that drove me to four-hour after-school naps in the dark and a constant nagging presence of death and dying on my mind; anxiety so severe I’d become short of breath and black out, gagging in the car as my mom drove me to school in the morning; an eating disorder that would have me on the verge of passing out in the nurse’s office, sweating and dry heaving in school bathrooms. The physical act of Going To School, Being At School, seemed for some reason to exacerbate all of these problems. I actually applied for a program that would have put me in college at a particular liberal arts school after the completion of my junior year, but was denied. My application was fantastic, they told me, my essays strong, my potential great, but my grades were just so godawful, they couldn’t let me in.
My grades, and mental and emotional stability, improved in my senior year when I switched schools. In retrospect, it became annoyingly clear to me that much of my struggle had less to do with school in and of itself and everything to do with the cutthroat social and academic climate of the public school system in the town I grew up in. But still, when it came time to apply for college, I just didn’t. Admittedly, it was a lazy non-decision for the 17-year-old me to have opted for, but my fear of impending rejection coupled with a blasé attitude toward the furthering of my education made it an easy one. I was never overly confident in my intellectual abilities, or any of my abilities for that matter, but I was told many times over by adults and teachers I respected that I was so smart, smarter than many of my peers, but I just didn’t try, if only I would try. In equal measure, I was also told and began to believe that I didn’t necessarily need to go to college. I didn’t want to be a doctor or an engineer, I just wanted to write, and it had always been my aptitude. I was “gifted.” Which is not to say that I bought in to people telling me I was so great, but I figured that if everyone kept telling me I was so goddamn gifted, why shouldn’t I just try and do it on my own, try and make a career of it, before I enrolled in four years of learning about it? I could always go to college. People long past “college age” do it all the time — I didn’t see what the rush was, and my parents had never been at all the type to pressure me into following a traditional path. So I didn’t.
It’s been a few years now since I’ve been out of school. Do I regret not going to college right away? Well, yes and no. I absolutely regret not having done better in school so that I would have had more opportunities, but because my performance was in many ways a byproduct of my heinous mental state, I refuse to beat myself up over it. Do I genuinely believe that I made the right decision for myself? Emphatically, YES. I have a job, which began as my gap-year internship, that I love absolutely everything about. I sometimes feel heavyhearted about missing out on the social aspects of the 18-22 college experience, but realistically this makes very little sense considering I hate beer and crowded rooms full of drunk people and am generally ready for bed by 11. (Given my aptitude for the party scene in high school, I’d also be very likely to get caught up in some Bad Stuff if I were surrounded by it all the time, but that’s less a testament to why I shouldn’t go to college and more to why I should practice better self-control.) I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of going to college eventually — I have some pretty lofty career ambitions, and it may just take a bachelor’s degree to achieve them. But as for right now, I’m comfortable where I am and with the choices that I’ve made. It may not be the right decision for everyone, but it’s proven to be the right decision for me.
[Image of teenage girl tired of reading via Shutterstock]