What If You Didn’t Get Out In Time?

A few days ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Why I Dropped Out of College.” There was more response to that post than any other I had written yet, and a few hours after I published it I received an e-mail from a former New College classmate.

He wrote the following:

“Maybe this question is unintentionally angry (its definitely intentionally despairing), but its one I have meant to ask for a while. I have followed your writing project since you first posted it here. Your most recent post finally reiterated a question I’ve been meaning to ask? I am a person with a comparatively normal educational experience- that is, one who has a youth utterly and seemingly irrevocably deformed by public institutions from infancy to adulthood, enforcing my consumerism and utterly crushing an individuality and creative abilities. I did spend four years at [New College of Florida], read hundreds of ‘academic’ papers, composed a pretty big one, and then left with no ‘job prospects.’

For the millions (billions?) of people who were fatally schooled, ruining our minds and bodies, what hope is there at all? It comes off as fatalistic, possibly even maudlin, but I doubt its an anxiety you haven’t encountered already in others.”

The question kicked me in the gut a little bit. I struggle to imagine what my life would be like if I had been forced to attend traditional K-12 education. The small taste that I got (first grade, applying for the IB program, taking the SATs, drama at a local high school) was artificial and bitter, like cake frosting made with butter flavored shortening and too much red dye.

I know that many people have positive or neutral educational experiences in the traditional school system. But for many others, traditional school is a crippling, even paralyzing experience. I suspect that it would have been for me.

So what can you do? If you are forced unwillingly and miserably through primary school and secondary school and then (either willingly or begrudgingly) complete college, only to learn that you’re no better off educationally and economically than someone who went to the public library a lot, hung out around knowledgeable adults, and offered to work for free doing something they loved, what is left? What do you do next?

I think that the first thing you must do, before any progress or growth or forward motion can occur, is grieve. Grieve for the loss of so much time, your most valuable and limited resource. Grieve for the anxiety and the frustration and the despair to which you were needlessly subjected. Grieve for the gaslighting that you endured at the hands of those who told you that you must do this and you musn’t do that in order to have a successful future, until you came to believe them and doubt your own intuition.

Think about what happened to you, and write about it, and cry and scream and remember and repeat. Thrash around, scream at people, see a therapist, be unbearable. You are entitled to it. You have suffered a loss.

In the unschooling community we say that there is a process called “deschooling” that occurs when you quit school. It looks a bit like cocooning- not much happening on the outside, but a lot happening on the inside. I think that something similar needs to happen when you finish school for good. We typically provide this guideline for deschooling: one month for every year you spent in school. So if you attended high school and then college, you probably need at least sixteen months (since you graduated or since you realized you were pissed off) to grieve and deschool.

Eventually I imagine that you will get bored with yourself and your depression and anger. I know I did after I dropped out of college. When I started to get excited about the question “What’s next?” I knew I had hit a turn in the road.

So what happens after that? You might want to read some books like these:

1. The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
2. The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith
3. The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
4. Better Than College by Blake Boles
5. Summerhill by A.S. Neill
6. How Children Learn by John Holt
7. Nurturing Intelligences by Howard Gardner
8. Drive by Daniel Pink
9. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Some of them (especially the Gatto) might make you mad again. That’s okay.

Next, do what you can to get your body, your social life, and  your finances in a good place. Sleep regularly, drink water, eat fewer bagels, do yoga, quit smoking, whatever. Cultivate a wide circle of friends who are fascinating, knowledgeable, and excited about life. Make sure that they are people you trust and in front of whom you can be vulnerable. Create a budget, stop buying crap, and evaluate your expenditures. Ask yourself whether the way you are making money is making you happy. If the answer is no, can you do something else right now? If not, make a list of the things you need to do to make money in a way that makes you happy, and then start doing the things on the list.

Finally, start paying attention to the things that make your heart beat a little faster.  Realize that you haven’t missed out on directing your own education- you’re just doing it kind of late. Figure out your Myer’s Briggs Type and take the Multiple Intelligences test in the Howard Gardner book.  Remember what things made you forget about time when you were a kid. Making sailboats? Searching for banana slugs? Reading Nancy Drew? What things make you feel that way now? Reading Chekhov? Baking bread? Looking at internal combustion engines? When you figure it out, move slowly but obsessively in that direction.

If you like baking bread, get the first recipe you can find and bake some immediately. The results will probably suck, and you will probably know what you need to do differently next time. Watch some youtube videos of people kneading, order The New Laurel’s Kitchen and try again. Then visit a bakery and ask to watch for the day in exchange for doing dishes, and find a pizza stone at Goodwill. Try again. Get a serrated knife. Try a more complicated recipe. Invite your friends over to eat pizza that you’ve made and ask for positive and negative feedback. Start reading baking blogs. Slowly buy equipment. Find an apprenticeship in a bakery. If at any point you decide that baking isn’t your thing, put it aside and try the same learning process with another subject. You can always pick it back up again later.

Work on forgiving everyone who forced you to go to school or bullied you while you were there or shamed you about your performance or told you to quit talking. Realize that they endured the same things that you did, that they are as broken as you are, and that you are not as broken as you think. The time you lost to school is a sunk cost. Your choice is whether or not you let it ruin your future, too.

I imagine that the friend who initially wrote to me might have been searching for a more theoretical discussion. Pragmatist that I am, I’ve answered the question in the form of a list of “Action Items” that may or may not be helpful. I don’t claim to have the answer, the prescription, or the panacea, but if I were to counsel the parallel universe version of myself about how to fix her life after she graduated from college, this is what I would tell her.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “What If You Didn’t Get Out In Time?

  1. cris


  2. Marina

    This, 100%.

    The only thing I would add is that I find research around resilience inspiring as well. The research I’ve read has mainly been focused on children who have lived in extreme poverty or abusive situations, looking at why some people are completely crushed by their past while others are able to become successful anyway. I’d encourage anyone who is depressed about the opportunities they haven’t gotten or that have been taken away from them to look at building some of the factors that have been shown to increase resiliency into their lives.

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