Your mileage may vary

Recently, I received a post that really got under my skin. It’s from Fiona (Hi, Fiona). I started to dash off a reply and then I thought that it required a much longer, more considered answer. With her permission, I’m reprinting her original comment below followed by my response. My response is lengthy; I apologize. But it is from the heart.

“I’m in a bit of a dilemma and I made a deal with my father that I would get advice from three people: my high school counselor, my voice coach, and an author. I want to go into the fine arts: writing, singing, composing. My father wants me to go to Columbia, Yale, or Harvard. I’d be fine with these but I want to go to a smaller school and then study abroad for at least two years. “It’s my life and this is a decision that will alter it forever” is my argument and I honestly think that studying abroad would be more helpful for what I want to do. Also I really don’t have the finances to go to the schools he is pushing for.

Our ideas for my future are also a bit different. He wants me to become an English Professor or something along those lines. I want to go to London, perform on the West End, write novels, teach at a boarding school and compose arias and operettas (yeah I have quite a variety of professions in my future.)He believes that these things are impractical and useless- but I think of them as reachable dreams that I am completely willing to gamble for. My voice coach said to pursue Europe and accomplish my goals, the high school counselor told me to do whatever pleased my father. So I’m in a bind. Could you be the author that gives me advice? I would appreciate it.”

Deep cleansing breath.

I thought about this a lot. Probably more than most people would need to because I’m slow like that. But also because I wanted to try to give the truest, most honest answer I could. And so that’s what I’m going to do, Fiona, because you were brave enough to ask and you deserve the truest, most honest answer I can give, even if it flies in the face of what other people may tell you. These are my thoughts. Your mileage may vary. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make the decision about your life.

See, the trouble with answering a question like this is that it makes basic One Size Fits All assumptions about happiness and prosperity and security. It assumes a certain static predictability to life, like there is some sort of Life Manual which tells you to follow the yellow brick road, stay on the path, don’t cut through the woods, don’t talk to the wolf and all will be well. But the woods are pretty and the wolf is a great storyteller and we are not One Size Fits All. We are human beings. Individuals. I love coffee ice cream. My husband hates it. Some of us thrive in competitive colleges: some of us are lucky to remember to leave our dorm rooms with matching shoes and our homework.

I’m going to get the first thing out of the way: What the hell is the matter with your high school counselor? Seriously, THAT was an answer? “You should make your father happy”? That is the most bullshit answer I’ve ever heard. Your father and your guidance counselor have both had their crack at being young and in charge of their destinies. It’s your turn now. Jesus. Okay, I’m getting mad at your counselor all over again so I’m going to move on.

I will tell you a few things about myself, Fiona, things you might not know. I was not academically gifted. Oh, sure, I did well in English and arts classes. But the other stuff? Not so much. I daydreamed and doodled. My thinking was disorganized. (I recognize now that I am probably ADD and have been my whole life, which can be helpful for, say, pulling together wild, disparate threads in a novel but is not so helpful for comprehending math and science and tests.) I was the kind of teen who made teachers, parents, and loved ones wring their hands and shake their heads. “You have so much potential” was a phrase I heard a lot, usually accompanied by a heavy sigh. It was said that I was “very bright” and “creatively gifted” but I “didn’t apply myself.” This was all true, by the way. I was a very headstrong, frustrating teenager. I couldn’t have applied to Harvard or Yale or any of those places if my life depended upon it. I went to state colleges (North Texas State University followed quickly by The University of Texas at Austin) where I proved to be a middling, not-terribly-memorable student. I think I graduated with a low B or high C average? I don’t remember. Probably because I don’t care and it doesn’t matter.

Quite frankly, I was a hot mess. It took me six years to get my undergraduate degree. I changed majors three times. I flunked two courses my freshman year and was glad that when I transferred, I got to start with a clean slate. Then I failed astronomy my sophomore year because I just stopped going. Turns out, going to class and taking notes is a pre-requisite for passing said class. (Astronomy? At 8:00 a.m? What was I thinking?) I dropped math three times and nearly failed it the last time I took it. I am convinced my physics professor, who had the untold pleasure of seeing me in summer school five days a week, passed me out of a fear that I would take his class again and make his life a living hell of trying to answer my increasingly indecipherable questions.

There were startling gaps in my education, some of which were not my fault and some of which decidedly were. It wasn’t until my thirties, when I was out in the working world, that I began my educational pursuits in earnest, with renewed focus—my own version of home-schooling, I suppose. I guess I needed to learn on my own terms. Something snapped and I became hungry for knowledge. This is just to say, Fiona, that it took me a really long time. But I got there

Is an education important? Absolutely! And I think there is much to recommend about college—when and if you are ready for it. But there are many components to a full education. There is the education of travel or working to better the world and the lives of others, which certainly puts much into perspective and, I think, contributes to a feeling of well-being. There’s something to be said for taking a year off to work if need be.

In thinking about my response to your question, Fiona, I couldn’t help thinking that there is another, more global issue at play here, something that nags at me, and something I’d like to address, and that is our current state of education and how we view young people—as narcissistic extensions of ourselves, as “things” to program so that they can prove our validity. This is wrong, Fiona. Kids and teenagers are not badges of our worth. They are not shiny things we wear: “Ask me about this My Kid Got Into Yale sticker!” No. They are individuals with hopes and dreams and inner dramas and demons that we don’t always know about, whole secret worlds inside their heads that we are not privy to, and maybe it would behoove us to program a little less and listen a lot more.

God knows, it is very tough to be a teenager, especially these days. The recent spate of hate crimes and bullying is testimony to this. I could go on and on about the obscene amounts of homework assigned to high schoolers, even middle schoolers; the overscheduling; the portfolios and tutoring and prepping. My God, the pressure! It’s insane! You guys are going to be burned out before you’re twenty-one.

And why? For what? What is it all for? What does it prove? I cannot remember a single test I took. Not one. But I can remember how it felt to discover Catcher in the Rye for the first time, like someone had written a book just for my soul. My English teacher, Willa Mae Burlage, turned me on to that and the existentialists. (Thank you, Mrs. Burlage.) I can remember the kindness of my second-grade teacher, Miss Hayes, silently offering me some of her Tab and crackers on a day I wet my pants and had to wait for my mom to pick me up. (Thank you, Miss Hayes.) I can remember my sophomore history teacher, Mrs. White, making American History come alive for me in her classroom so that I could practically breathe it. (Thank you, Mrs. White.) I remember the feel of my lungs burning as I pushed myself in cross-country to break through that eight-mile mark, the ecstasy of the accomplishment. (Thank you, Coach Garland. I really hated you then but I’m over that now.) I remember a day my friends and I had frozen yogurt at the little health food store near the college campus, which made us feel like we were trying on “grown-up” for size. I remember doing plays and discussing works of literature, getting to know people, taking typing. Who knew that typing would turn out to be one of the most valuable classes ever? (Thank you, Mrs. Braswell.) I remember that the night before taking the SAT, my friends and I went to see The Police in concert in Dallas, and I didn’t get to bed until 1:00 a.m. I don’t really remember much about the SAT, and my scores sucked, but man, was that a great concert!

You know what you should be doing at seventeen, Fiona? Listening to music. Eating pizza before your metabolism goes to hell. Dancing. Spending a Friday night with your friends at the local playground having conversations about life, liberty, love, and Lady Gaga while sitting on a merry-go-round. Reading great books. Reading trashy books. Inventing personas. Trying on identities. Learning to drive. Going to concerts and games. Playing sports. Disdaining all of the above. Creating random Facebook pages filled with quotes you love one day and find hopelessly déclassé the next. Making art. Examining your hair for split ends. You should have the luxury of occasional boredom so you know what it feels like and so you know how to respond to its inspiration. You should not be so overscheduled and exhausted. Teenagers are not supposed to be mini-adults or over-achieving automatons. There is supposed to be a long on-ramp to adulthood. I’m getting worked up again, Fiona, so I’m going to move on.

If I were coming up in the rigid, narrow educational model of today with its fetishizing of standardized tests, I would probably fail. I certainly would not be in the top ten percent of my class as I was then. I am absolutely hopeless at standardized tests. I cannot test for crap. I will look at those multiple choice questions and be able to give you a good argument for about three of the four. I will think, Why? Why is that the only right answer? What a bullshit system. You want me to write an essay to explain something? Fine. Done. But bubbling in answers? No can do. Unless you’re looking for a nice pattern: “Look! I made a dragon!” Dragons are nice. I like dragons, Fiona.

I hear about the thousands of dollars spent on Kaplan tutors in order to pass the tests, to give the answers the colleges seek. This is not learning or thinking. This is regurgitation. (There is also a whole element of socioeconomic advantage at play here that should be acknowledged.) It feels so…programmed. Does it teach you to think? To feel empathy? Does it make you a better person? Can it help you weather tough times or adapt to different circumstances? Or will you stand in the changing tides and say, “But the answer is C. I took the Kaplan course. The answer is C,” instead of improvising? My personal opinion is that this leads to a rigidity of thinking, a calcification of process that does not allow for adaptation, for being able to bend. Being able to bend and adapt is important. More on this later.

There are people who will tell you that there is a manual for life. That you must insert Tab A into Slot B and paint it Robin’s Egg Blue from the Pottery Barn Perfect Colors Wheel™ and pair it with the Showroom Model Pilates-Toned I’m Fabulous line, as if life were one big resume building workshop. They are wrong, Fiona. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now, and none of that stuff matters. It is not rooted in anything real. You must learn to plant your own roots in soil that nurtures them.

Somehow, I feel that all of this over-prepping is a response to a world that feels frightening and unstable and incomprehensible to many adults. It IS a frightening, unstable world. But a degree from Harvard will not insulate you from the world’s pain and uncertainty and sudden losses. Though it’s hard, welcome these, too, Fiona. They are also a valuable part of your education. They will make you stronger. It will hurt like hell at the time and you will dearly wish for the Kaplan Sure-Fire Answer C to make it all go away. There is no Answer C. Remember what I said about bending, Fiona.

Now, I am sorry to tell you that things are kind of a mess right now, Fiona. But you probably already know this. Whatever you choose to do in this life, if you and your friends can advocate and fight for change, for a better, fairer world for all, with marriage equality and civil rights and food and clean water and health insurance and a thriving educational system and a people-before-profits mentality, well, that would be better than any degree from Harvard. In fact, if you can attend the Ivy League School of Humanity, so much the better for you and all of us. That’s my one request, if I may make it.

The world is changing, and this is hard for people who grew up in a different generation to understand. It’s like playing with an outdated playbook. When I was growing up, parents usually worked for a company or in a profession for life. Insurance companies didn’t operate out of a Dickens novel. There probably was more of a sense of security—or maybe there wasn’t and we just lied to ourselves. The thing is, you guys will know how best to navigate this new world full of new choices and opportunities because you’re growing up in it. My son can do things on the computer I will never understand because it is second nature to him. He’s had them his whole life. You’re better, faster, stronger than we are. I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many of you, and I am always awed and thrilled. Frankly, I can’t wait to see what you’ll do in this life. I remain optimistic. I have faith in you.

Let me go back to your father for a minute. I understand his concerns. I’m a parent myself. We always want our children to be prepared for the world, to be able to support themselves after we are no longer able to do that for them. It’s a vital part of our job as Mom & Dad, this preparation, this worry. I am the last person on earth to hand out parenting advice, Fiona. I make lots and lots of mistakes. But the one thing I have learned is that the times I am most successful as a parent are the times in which I remember that my son is an individual and that I need to really listen to what he’s trying to tell me. That who he is has to be respected and I cannot superimpose my anxieties or ideas or unfulfilled dreams onto him. Our job as parents is to parent the child we have. Some kids are analytical and organized. Some are artsy and disorganized in their (creative) thinking. (Raises hand.) Your mileage may vary. It is inevitable that as parents—well, as humans—we compare and contrast our children with others. We look for them on the spectrum of success. Our society says that your kid getting into an Ivy League school is a big old thumbs up. If your kid is really that kind of kid then, yeah, sure. But what if your kid isn’t? One of the most valuable lessons we can learn—again, as parents and as humans—is to follow our own compasses and not be so concerned with what the rest of the world thinks we should do. It is hard but necessary work to learn to stand outside judgments on such things and think for ourselves. (This is not to say that if your inner compass says you should start a cult of Kool-Aid drinkers, you should. Sometimes we do have to recalibrate our compasses.) I am sure that somewhere beneath his concern for your well-being and perhaps his own societally-influenced markers of success, he wants you to be happy. You need to let him know what will make you happy.

Ask your father if he feels it is a responsible choice to enter adult life saddled with huge student loans, which, from what you’re telling me, you would surely have if you went to Yale or Columbia. I went to a state college and I worked, but I can’t tell you how relieved I was not to be worried about paying back thousands of dollars in loans. (Well, once I paid off that two-hundred-dollar library fine. That’s a long story, Fiona.)

Ask your father also if he really thinks that being an English professor is a stable, secure job. If so, I’d like to introduce him to some of my professor friends. Academia is certainly not immune to budget cuts. More and more, I hear stories of how hard it is to get tenure and that classes are frequently given to adjunct professors and T.A.’s so as to save money. If you really want to teach, you should, of course. Teaching is one of the most amazing, noble professions I can think of. (My mother was a high school English teacher for thirty years, and she changed kids’ lives. Hi, Mom. You rock.) But it doesn’t sound to me like that is your calling. At least, not now. And getting back to what I said about job security? There is none. Anyone can be laid off at any time. Life’s savings can be wiped out by one guy on Wall Street and nobody does anything about it. So it goes, to quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. You might as well do what makes you happy.

What good is it to spend a life doing something you don’t like? That’s not living; that’s marking time. And maybe it’s that from where I sit, I have the benefit of having witnessed the many transformations of various friends, almost none of whom ended up where they thought they would but almost all of whom love where they are. (Quick sidebar: Auto-correct is telling me that last sentence should read: “All of who.” Auto-correct is wrong. “Of” is a preposition; a prepositional phrase demands the objective case. Therefore, “All of whom” is correct, says the daughter of the hardcore English teacher who forced me to use correct grammar. See? I did learn something! This sidebar is just to say, Fiona, that IF EVEN AUTO-CORRECT CAN BE WRONG, who the hell can tell you how to live your life to the fullest? Right. Moving on.) We never stop coming of age. We never stop growing and learning and changing. Hopefully, the road is long and paved with interesting choices and sidebars and unplanned magic and love and loss and joy and frustration. This is all good news, Fiona. Hopeful news. There is a lot you can do with hopeful news.

I know some people argue that going to an Ivy League college gives you a leg up, that it offers you connections you couldn’t get elsewhere. Okay. That’s probably true. But I would argue that you can make connections in all sorts of ways if you are hard-working and persistent. I’m in favor of the DIY approach to life. But I also really hate the idea of “connections” and “networking.” Ugh. So clinical. When they say, “It’s who you know,” well, maybe who you know is your college roommate and four of your pals and you decide to start your own theatre company because you want to work together. Maybe it’s your next-door neighbor with whom you sometimes have coffee and share a few laughs. It’s not some Machiavellian social climbing. I’m lucky enough to know many wonderful writers, librarians, and booksellers. They are not “connections.” They are friends. Colleagues. I like them. I genuinely enjoy their company, and sometimes their snacks. They often have snacks. Invest in friends with snacks is my advice. Instead of building “connections,” build community. You can’t go wrong with that.

I’d like to tell you that in my twenties, I got it all together, Fiona. That would be a lie. After graduation, I spent two years waiting tables (one of the best educations in human nature ever), working as a nanny (another job I adored with a family I am still very close to), and writing plays. My parents despaired. I also made some of the best friends of my life. Life-long friends. I sang Cole Porter songs with them on apartment building rooftops and went down sun-dappled rivers in innertubes on Texas-hot days. I performed with the Gilbert & Sullivan society because why not? I dated. Got my heart broken a few times. Broke a heart or two. Danced. Tried to play the saxophone. (Apparently, it helps if you take it out of the case.) Oh, Fiona. I hope you make great friends. I hope you fall in love and get your heart broken and also break hearts. I hope you find a life partner and learn what it is to grow alongside that person, to make decisions together, to weather storms that feel they might break you at the time but much later, you look at each other in the safety of your kitchen over a banal sink full of dishes and smile with a knowing understanding of how far you’ve come.

Or maybe you don’t want that at all. Maybe you want to traipse through Europe as a circus performer with a fleet of lovers. I just made an assumption about your happiness based on my own. Do you see how easy that is to do, Fiona? How slippery the slope? And I’m not even your father. Therefore, let me stick with my own experiences, which are the only ones I’m qualified to talk about.

I began writing at eighteen and my first book was published when I was thirty-nine. That’s a long gap, Fiona. Twenty-one years. (See? I can so some math.) I worked steadily at it, too. While working my many jobs, I read and wrote and revised and sucked a whole lot and for a long time until I finally started getting better and listening to feedback and putting some real marrow on the page. Would it have been cool if I could have done that at twenty-five and been one of those wunderkind “Thirty writers under thirty!” featured in The New Yorker along with a soulful picture of me in a black turtleneck staring off into the middle-distance with an expression that said, “I am smarter than you and mysterious. Do not try to understand me. Also, I am a little sad but sad in a glamorous way that looks great with my shirt.” Didn’t happen that way. I was too much of a mess, and I’m also not good at cultivating an air of mystery. And turtlenecks are suffocating. Some of us take a long time to get where we’re going. We cannot get there before we are ready, is the point here.

I’m going to tell you one last personal story, Fiona, because I think it is relevant. Growing up, I never once thought about being a writer. It did not enter my mind as a profession. Like you, I had a million interests and passions, but perhaps unlike you, I was not, as I’ve said, terribly focused. I was pretty convinced I’d become an actress since that was the one thing I seemed to be able to stick with. And then something happened, Fiona. Something terrible and unforeseen. One day, one very ordinary morning as I was driving back home after dropping my dad at the airport, I hit a slick spot in the road and watched, terrified and helpless, as my car spun out of control before ramming into a light pole and crumpling like a tin can. I was in bad shape. Really bad shape. My face was broken, disfigured, and once I was finally in stable condition, I had to make the decision—the first adult decision of my life—to have my impossibly damaged left eye removed. This was the summer between high school and college. It should have been a glorious summer. Instead, it was a long three months of pain, fear, and healing.

I was eighteen and broken. Angry. Desolate. Depressed. Suicidal. I would not be an actress. I was not going out on dates like all my friends. I was sitting in my dorm room smoking cigarettes and drinking and acting out in wildly self-destructive ways. I did not have anything to anchor me—except for a little yellow journal, a graduation gift.

I started to write, Fiona. First, I wrote to save my life. That sounds dramatic. I am quite sincere: I wrote to save my own life. Then, I wrote to figure things out. Finally, I wrote for the sheer joy of it. I wrote myself into being a writer, I guess. Funny how things work out.

I promise you, this was not my life plan. I did not sit across from a useless high school guidance counselor pencil pusher (yes, I’m still mad at yours) my junior or senior year and say, “You know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to have a devastating accident that will change the course of my life. Can we do a spreadsheet on that for my folks? Can I get a Kaplan tutor? Also, should I prepare a portfolio?” The point is, Fiona, that a completely random life occurrence helped to shape the life I would have. And it is a good life, Fiona. A rich, full life with a husband and a child I love and a job I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have and lots of new experiences. And sometimes it sucks, because that’s the way life goes, but that’s okay. Because I learned to bend, Fiona. To recover. To move on and keep reaching. I’m getting a great education. One they do not teach at Kaplan.

No one knows how your life is going to go. And there is no such thing as “a safe road.” You cannot program a life. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” –John Lennon. I still write to save my life, to face my demons, to make sense of the world and my place in it. I write to understand my deepest fears and to make my peace with all my failings. And yes, I still write for the joy of it. Because it is joyous work, Fiona. I hope you find joyous work, too.

You asked for my advice, and I don’t want to let you down. I can’t tell you what to do or what would make you happy or whether or not you’ll accomplish all of your dreams or half of them or if your dreams will change over time. Only you can figure that out. Maybe you should travel and experience the world and other cultures. (Travel broadens your mind and heart.) Work to make the world a little more fair in whatever way you can. (The world needs you.) Pursue work which fulfills you even if it means having another job on the side. (Who wants to just mark time?) Be kind when you can and forthright when you need to kick ass. (Benevolent bad-assery. It’s what’s for dinner.) Most importantly, keep learning, growing, reaching. Keep getting to know yourself as much as you can so that you will understand what makes you happy and what doesn’t and know to go about the former and avoid the latter. Being able to make yourself happy is a life skill that we learn as we go along. Live as honestly and authentically as you can because, in the long run, it’s a lot simpler and less anxiety-producing. Really, if you’re going to wipe out and fall on your ass on occasion (also a vital part of your education…along with getting back up), it’s better to fail as yourself than as somebody else.

The truth is, dear, dear Fiona, that you already know yourself. You already know what you want and have, in fact, answered your own question: “I want to go to a smaller school and then study abroad for at least two years. “‘It’s my life and this is a decision that will alter it forever’ is my argument and I honestly think that studying abroad would be more helpful for what I want to do.’”

Amen, sister. I think this sounds like a fine plan. You are not all over the map. You have dreams you’d like to accomplish and you have a plan for doing so. What an education to live and study abroad! Even if you end up becoming a professional dog walker, you will have the memories and experience of that forever. As I write this, I’m sitting next to Gayle Forman, another pal, and asked her about your dilemma and she said, “College isn’t going anywhere. it will still be there.” Also, she gave me a snack.

It’s tempting to leave you with some kind of “You can do it!” bromide. But I won’t do that. It’s not honest. I don’t know you, and I won’t presume things about you as a person. I do sincerely wish you well and I want you to succeed on your own terms, to cobble together a life that feels satisfying, one with sweetness and frustration and continued growth. And I want to thank you for your question, for the trust inherent in it. It really made me think. And if you can keep thinking, Fiona, you’re in good shape.

I hope this is helpful, from one dreamer to another. For what it’s worth, I believe in you. Let me know what happens.

Your pal,

3 thoughts on “Your mileage may vary

  1. Hi Libba, I read this post when it first came out on your livejournal and I think I cried when I read it because it hit so close to home for me (I was graduating high school that year and full of uncertainty) and while 2 years later I’m still of wandering through life I wanted to thank you again for this timely piece and the wonderful answer you gave Fiona that, in a way, I feel you gave to me as well.

  2. “Who wants to just mark time?”
    Found this today, and wanted to say thank you. I needed this question to be asked. It resonated so deeply in my mind that it snapped that thing inside holding me back these past few months. Can’t wait to get back to writing and creating.

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