“If I am lost, it’s only for a little while” were the lyrics blaring from the blown-out sound system in my busted-up Jetta as I cried my way to a graduation brunch in my honor. It was May 2011 and I’d just placed the punctuation mark of a bachelor’s degree at the end of my six-year undergraduate career. The song was Band of Horses’ “Monsters,” the college was UMass Dartmouth, and the tears were tears of terror: Am I actually qualified to do anything, or be anything? Am I anything?
In addition to the existential crisis behind my post-graduation tears, I was suffering a top-notch hangover that had been brilliantly exacerbated by the dorm fire alarm which, for no reason anyone was ever able to discover, blared from 7am to 9am on that (again, very hungover) Sunday morning in May when my friends and I were preparing to walk across that stage to snag an expensive piece of paper from some obscure, local politician who was likely the highest-tier celebrity available considering the prestige of the university from which I earned my B.A.
But I’m years from being bitter about all that.
Obviously not: returning to get my master’s for the second time now (second return, not second master’s) has reinvigorated the shame and bitterness I now realized I have always felt toward my own education.
And why is that?
Well, to begin, I’m a high school drop out. In spite of my whiteness making me likely to earn more than brown and black peers with three times that education level, the stigma of not finishing high school is a somewhat colorblind one. And I’ll admit, I’ve leaned into it to an extent: I swear constantly, I’m gratuitously tattooed, and I never shy away from declaring my dropout status when, in mixed company, an offhand comment is made about those of us who didn’t make it across the stage at the end of twelfth grade.
But I’m also an intellectual and an accomplished professional. I say this not for the sake of the aforementioned mixed company whom I’m occasionally inspired to persuade, but for myself. Because in spite of working very hard to do something very difficult – and doing it well objectively but also compared to those I’ve learned aside – I do not feel accomplished by any of the academic milestones I’ve passed. Which is a bunch of bullshit, but not bullshit without a discernible origin.
When I quit high school, friends’ parents told them I was a bad influence, and peers expected some kind of rebellion from me. I, on the other hand, just wanted to sing along to Les Miserables and read books, but found myself smoking Marlboro reds and drinking beer in the woods instead. Or, in addition to – there has never been a period in my life when I did not frequently listen to show tunes and read books. But to an extent, I allowed myself to be the piece of trash the people assumed me to be. A different, but still relevant manifestation of stereotype threat. And again: bullshit.
The bullshit did not end with drop-out stigmas. I enrolled in community college at age 16, at the start of what would have been my junior year and before I’d even completed my high school equivalency exam, because I recognized that taking a semester off from being a student at age 16 was a treacherous choice to make. (Thanks for raising me right, Mom!)
It was a big deal, yet at no point was I intimidated by being a high school student at community college; quite the opposite. It was hard to take pride in my academic journey when constantly hearing from teachers and students alike that community college is basically just “13th grade,” with courses easy enough for those for whom “real” college wasn’t an option and degree paths that would lead toward “manageable” work, like home health care or construction (you know, the easy stuff).
Once I finished my first semester of “easy” college, I took and passed the high school equivalency exam with what I take no shame in calling flying colors (98th percentile, #nothumblebrag). I was able to retroactively apply the credits I earned that first semester as a non-matriculating student, and that equivalency degree is hung on my living room wall, dated December 21, 2005. Above it, dated May 2008, is my associate’s degree.
In case you are a high school dropout like me and are having a hard time with the timelines: I dropped out at the beginning of eleventh grade and finished my associate’s degree one year after I would have graduated high school. Fine. Not Harvard Law, but fine. And I worked full time while earning that associate’s, paid my own bills (while living with my mom, so “bills” were limited to car insurance, car payment, and gas), and kept my grades up. More about that in the next paragraph.
After community college, in a further effort to prove I wasn’t a moron, I went on to get a bachelor’s degree. I had come to the vague conclusion that I needed to be a teacher, and I knew that being a teacher required at the very minimum a 4-year degree. So I did some research – similar to the research I did when dropping out, which was essentially a Google search and a couple of phone calls – and discovered that my community college GPA (a 3.6) guaranteed me admission into any 4-year state college that had room for me. I applied to UMass Amherst, UMass Dartmouth, and UMass Boston. All three said “Sure! Come on in! We don’t care that you’ve never taken the SAT or an AP class, we don’t care that you don’t have a high school diploma; you kicked some ass at a community college – which is hard to do even with a high school degree! – so yeah! You seem like a good person to give us money for a few years while you hopefully learn things.”
And I did do that. The money, and the learning.
I settled on UMass Dartmouth, and use the verb “settled” because Amherst and Boston were objectively “better” schools, but were also (because of their betterness) more expensive, and in areas that were more expensive to live. However, although UMass Dartmouth may have been designed in an architectural style literally called Brutalism and it may also be the Alma Mater of the younger of the two Boston Marathon bombers, it’s a college. Students go there, teachers teach there, and I learned important things about being an adult there.
And most importantly, above my equivalency and associate’s degrees, at the top of the shrine to myself is a degree from UMass Dartmouth dated May 2011. To reiterate the timeline: dropped out in 2005 at the beginning of 11th grade; associate’s degree conferred in 2008, a year after I “should have” finished high school; awarded a bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in 2011, which means: I walked across the stage at my second college graduation with folks who finished high school the year I was supposed to. So I wasn’t even behind anymore.
In fact, I felt ahead. When I launched into the final year of my bachelor’s degree I was invigorated. I felt, rightly so, like I could accomplish anything I needed to in order to live the life I wanted. So I made a few promises to myself, with an (erroneous) expiration date of my 30th birthday: get a master’s degree, buy a house, marry a person, and pay off the student loans I’d accumulated in my 6 years as an undergrad.
Lofty goals, and ridiculous ones – especially for someone who’d, without acknowledging it, proven that timelines and milestones are not mutually inclusive. In fact, they’re not actually relevant to one another in the grand scheme of a life lived well.
But therein lies the rub: a life lived well is a life lived productively and efficiently in this crapitalist society we all love so much. And with my 30th birthday only 8 months away, not a single one of those self-proclaimed benchmarks will be achieved.
Last November I asked the best person who’s ever existed to marry me and he said yes, so even though we won’t be able to file our taxes together by my imaginary deadline, I’d call that a success. And I’m 70% through a master’s program which is easily the most challenging academic undertaking I’ve ever attempted because it is online (read: no support from teachers, minimal community with co-learners) and I’m a full time teacher (read: I have no time or energy to ever do anything for myself). I won’t be done by the time I’m 30, but I will finish.
And I will feel good when I do, because I will have continued to move – forward mostly, but of principal importance in my own direction. As for the loans and home-ownership, I’ll chalk those goals up to naivete and file them under “someday.”
The bitterness and bullshit? I’ll attribute that to the monsters – within and without, who explicitly and implicitly led me to believe that anything I’d ever done was anything less than good enough. Monsters will always abound, but at this point in my life I am wise enough to know that if I am lost, it is indeed only for a little while, and that’s not cause for tears.