Leaving High School At 24
I’ve hated writing for as long as I can remember. When I was four years old, I failed to finish a story about a girl named Sally who absolutely adored her yellow raincoat. Not only was this a foreshadowing of many incomplete works to come, it’s my earliest memory of feeling accomplished — a feeling I still experience after adding a sentence to a draft I haven’t touched in weeks.
It was confusing to hate writing, yet love storytelling. Surely the dynamic shouldn’t exist inside a theatrically bland person who was much less eloquent off-paper. I had to write, because how else would anyone know of Sally’s struggle to keep her yellow raincoat clean and pretty while allowing it to protect her from the mud and rain?
I was fourteen when I learned that even writers by profession could loathe the craft. American novelist Kurt Vonnegut said in a London Times Online 2007 interview: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” For years I attributed an otherworldly affinity to persons like Carolyn Keene, who churned out book after book about her titular character, Nancy Drew. It turns out she hated the task so much she hadn’t even bothered to exist.
That was it then. Writing sucked. Several adults reinforced my decision to divorce with declarations that there was no money in it for anyone barring a select few. As a writer, you were either a millionaire, or riddled with debt and a drinking problem. Their tone assured me I would most certainly be the latter.
It wasn’t my thing, but that was more than fine. I was a decent enough student in high school — I was going to be a lawyer, then a veterinarian, then a doctor, then a lawyer again, and finally, a computer scientist. I had all the dreams and bullheaded ignorance of a teenager who got passable grades without studying. Sure, I didn’t study now, but I didn’t need to. I would study when I was in university. I would be on the dean’s list. I would have scholarships rolling in. I would show everyone just how far you could get with minimal effort. Here now, I’ve graduated and completed the first year of my computer science program, and sure it hasn’t gone as well as I’d hoped, but my average is just that. And now I’ve dropped out.
I wish I could say that I dropped out because of my grades (it would have made for a better story) but the truth is I didn’t have enough money for school. Student loans, you say? Well, I have a crippling fear of debt, but this isn’t about that. No, this is about me sitting at home a month into my new life as a self-proclaimed failure wondering, where can I possibly go from here?
I googled ‘work from home’.
It was only supposed to tide me over until I managed to find something offline. I browsed transcription jobs on one site, and pointedly skimmed past the postings for content writers. There was no way I was going back to that. I wasn’t that good at it, my vocabulary wasn’t all it could be, I rambled during non-technical pieces, I was never entirely sure when to use semicolons; in short, a disaster waiting to happen. A month later I kicked myself into trying a small gig. If it didn’t work out, well, it would only confirm my suspicions, so I would still be the winner in that scenario. Ha.
The client left five stars, I wrote it off as a fluke, and it was only after the ninth order that I began to concede I may not be completely horrible at it. I still hate writing. It’s the bane of my existence. Now, I just make a living off it. If you haven’t seen my bio, I’m from Jamaica, an island in the Caribbean. Here, a job is something that you get dressed up and leave the house for. I remember telling my aunt that I was working online, and her response was a reassuring “Something will work out for you soon.” She was only saying what I was thinking, and yet my inherent spitefulness pushed me to work even harder at it. She’s one of the reasons why I am where I am today — not quite at the poverty line.
Six months ago, I decided to try and get active on social media, and connect potential clients. After dusting off my old twitter handle, using fifteen minutes to think up a witty bio, and spending an extra twenty choosing a color for my theme, I hovered over ‘save changes’. This was the next logical step in climbing my way up the arbitrary ladder of what I did for a living.
And yet, I couldn’t publish it.
Already in my ‘Who to Follow’ section I was seeing persons I knew in the tenth grade, who probably still had the old copy of me on their hard drives — the one that was going to do something in a STEM field. What would they think if they were to recognize my name, click on my profile, and see that this was what I did now? Would they assume I was an alcoholic? It’s fine to think that a stranger might come across your work online, visit your blog, skim your portfolio, read your reviews, and have in-depth access to such a big part of who you are, but the idea of it being someone who saw you cry because your eighth-grade teacher almost sent you to the principal’s office for a fart joke, it’s terrifying.
As much as many of us would rather we didn’t, we need the approval of others in some way, shape, or form. Our ancestors needed the approval of their tribes so they could continue to live, hunt, and survive together, and we’ve evolved to desire the approval of peers who can send us into a state of panic by asking what we’ve been doing since they saw us last. There’s a sort of unspoken agreement among everyone in high school that you’ll make something of yourself, because you’re there getting an education, which is really all it takes for you to succeed, and it falls apart then you must have done something wrong.
You must have.
I have a vivid memory of an exam results period in the ninth grade when my English teacher asked me to read out loud to the class the story I had written on the test, and how anxious I suddenly became about what I had written. During the exam, I had been proud of it, and had hoped my English teacher would enjoy it, but the prospect of reading it to my peers, it became clear that it was utter garbage. In this recreation, my current and potential clients sat in the role of my English teacher, and my old schoolmates were playing themselves. What was I doing? I didn’t even have a degree. I wasn’t published in anything that mattered. A couple of my clients didn’t even speak English as a first language. How would they know if I’d given them good copy?
I was a fraud.
High school is such a defining chunk of our lives. College and university too, perhaps. (Don’t quote me on those last two. I don’t have the full picture.) Our need for approval is contending with a developing sense of self, and conflicting feelings of vulnerability and invincibility. There’s a reason why so many people look back on their high school years as one of the best or worst times in their life. Mentally and emotionally, it’s paradoxical. It’s a viral video warning you of the dangers of social media. We were chrysalises then, hoping that the next time our classmates saw us after graduating, we’d be the butterfly we projected to everyone, but mostly ourselves, we would be. Even now, we want the approval of people we hardly think about except for when we think they might be thinking about us. The interactions we stress over are the ones where we’re sure we did something regrettable. We think everyone is hovering just on the fringes, waiting to see us fall on our faces, and make us the punchline to a joke that’s been set up for years.
But the truth is, nobody cares.
Between relationships, work, children (it’s still weird seeing people I used to go to school with having babies now), bills, and that broken car, you honestly do not matter. No one cares what you do. Even if you ended up carving soap spoons in the middle of Antarctica and post pictures of your work on Twitter, you might be a brief footnote to a conversation, but at the end of the day, you pay your own bills, everyone else pays theirs, and we are all slowly dying.
Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse and counselor who works with the elderly, wrote an article on the things people regret most near the end of their lives. The most common regret of all? “I wish I pursued my dreams and aspirations, and not the life others expected of me.”
It’s an obvious lesson to learn, and some are lucky enough to learn it while it matters, but many never do. I write this in the hopes that it might help someone like me, who needed to read something like this a year ago, to get there a little bit faster.
I hate writing, but it’s no longer just for the difficulty; it’s for the worry that I’m not good enough. As a creative, there’s always a little piece of yourself that goes into every project, and that vulnerability is what makes it so hard for me to own the title of ‘writer’. Because that’s me saying that I think my writing is good enough — that I’m good enough.
I don’t know if I am, but I figure my best bet is to keep stubbornly bulldozing my way through it, and one day I just might be.
I’m finally leaving high school, guys. Wish me luck.
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