I want to start this off by saying that I’m fully aware that a college education in this country is a privilege and a gift, and answering the innocent college “what school did you go to?” is a very first-world problem.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m asked all the time where I went to college. It mainly comes from adults (even though I legally am one) or from people I apparently went to high school with but never actually talked to.
I’ve been asked this for the past 7 years. Each time it produces a slight pull in my chest. Some tiny sense of failure. I grew up in a community with a %100 high school graduation rate and college wasn’t a question. It felt like everyone filled out the common app and awaited the news in the mail that dictated what oversized letter they would emboss over every sweatshirt and car bumper.
I remember that joy. I remember getting into a reputable liberal arts college in New England, with wrought iron gates and a coffee shop and promise of something greater. I bought the sweatshirts with a “C” and updated my Facebook status.
I was proud to be going off to school and felt prepared. Until I didn’t. I felt prepared until I got there and couldn’t handle it. Until things slowly fell apart and I came home (well, showed up home) after a few weeks. I didn’t last a full semester.
I felt hopeless, worthless and even more distant than my peers than I already had growing up. I thought it was the end of the world. I took time to get some work experience and enrolled in community college, only to drop out after a few weeks again due to “personal issues”.
As I’d run into people at the mall I worked at, I’d be hit with the question, “where do you go again?”. I can see now that it’s just something people say, not a loaded attack. In a town where everyone goes away to college, it’s a way of starting conversation.
I used to answer by saying, “oh I went to to this school and then dropped out and then this school and then dropped out blah, blah, blah”. Most people didn’t know how to respond and I didn’t know how to reroute the conversation. My discomfort and shame were leaking through me, and others could sense it.
After some time, I learned that I don’t owe anyone anything. I don’t owe people I barely know an explanation for my life. Unless I was looking for advice, I could simply say “I didn’t”.
Enter my golden phrase, borrowed from a friend. My new answer to the million dollar question and now go-to response for any inquiry about my life not taking a linear path:
“I’m taking the scenic route”.
It allows enough space for wonder and usually shuts people up and lets me keep my complicated past to myself. I’ll usually follow up with a positive note about how much work experience I’ve gained or getting married or some of my hobbies.
What I’ve found is that most people are fine with that answer. It just saves me some inner turmoil and serves as a reminder to myself that our lives aren’t meant to fit into some cookie cutter box. Most of ours haven’t.
We all have our shit. There have been times I’ve opened up to a select few old classmates or adults (yes, again, technically I am one) and it’s allowed them to share with me a similar situation and offer a bit of hope.
Those moments are special to me, but they are my choice. I don’t need a fifty-five year old’s opinion on how I should go back to school, or a teenager asking if my parents got their money back.
In a world of over-sharing, we have a choice about the conversations we lead with others.
One of my only memories of college was during one of the first weeks, at that prestigious school that was filled with wisdom and history. I remember walking up brick steps into the auditorium, notebook in hand. Autumn on the cusp. The picture-perfect image of what a college morning should look like.
I was in denial of how bad things were and how bad they’d get.
But I remember feeling this inexplicable hope, like absolutely anything was possible. Anything. I think I left a few weeks later.
For a long time, that memory was piercing. It haunted me. There was a time when I was toying with going back to school because I wanted to feel that way again. I cried to a friend, fearful that I never would experience that pride and optimism at that level.
She told me that I would feel that way again, it just might not be walking up steps at a college. Or at a college at all. It was a simple answer but I held onto it.
Looking back now, I’ve had a hundred of those moments, and none involved brick steps. I cherish them. I’ve gained a comfort with this life I never planned to live, and an empowerment through my own story.
I hope you have those moments too.