December 2 2016

Leading into a Future Unplanned

jancalendarTwo weeks that’s where I stand at the moment, on the precipice of now and the rest of my life. It’s almost the day — truthfully, it’s more like 13 days, 12 at this point, but two weeks, that’s how long I’ll say and once it passes, I’ll likely be curled up on a couch, staring out of the window of a home that hasn’t been home for awhile, at least not a permanent home, but will be now, for an undetermined length of time.

670px-Make-a-list-Step-2-1I have no plan. It feels good to say it. I’ve had a plan my whole life, a detailed list of goals on a sheet of notebook paper, with my age scribbled beside each line so I would know how old I’d have to be when I accomplished each item (I am being so honest right now). But that plan is scrapped now, as most of the goals are crossed out or completed, and the only one left is to walk across a stage in approximately two weeks, wearing a black cap and gown, and receive a leather cover case that will eventually hold a $45,000 diploma. After that, the future stares at me, blank-faced.

GraduationThe goals list began in seventh grade, when I wanted to save the world. In order to do that, I needed to get straight A’s for the rest of my school career, attend Harvard, go to law school, and become a New York District Attorney like Rachel Dawes in “Batman Begins.” I’d crush the mafia or whatever corrupt force was prevalent at the time, and from there, move on to Washington, D.C., where I’d fight to make sure every city in the United States has homeless shelters for people and stray animals alike. My activist heart was formed at a young age, inspired by such role models as Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger.

bottlesWhen I was around 14, I thought I could save the entire planet if I recycled all the metal cans and plastic bottles in my home. I remember one Saturday afternoon, I was sifting through the garbage, sorting out what could be recycled from what couldn’t, wrinkling my nose and flinching each time my hand brushed against a gnawed pizza crust or a banana peel. My dad came in and asked what the heck I was doing. I told him I was recycling so I could save the Earth. Dad picked up one of the plastic bottles I’d fished out, a little bit of water still sitting at the bottom of it, and gave me a quizzical look.

“How will recycling save Earth?” he asked.

I looked at him and shrugged. I didn’t know. I was 14, and more fond of saying things than actually researching what I was saying. I was basing my garbage dive that afternoon on a documentary I watched in science class, with its images of seagulls wrapped in plastic bags and landfills sky high. I told Dad that much, and he shook his head.

“Honey, you aren’t trying to save the world; you just want to clean it up.”

“Fine, then I’m recycling so I can clean up Earth,” I responded. But in my head I told myself I was saving it, as I continued stuffing recycling bags. I didn’t let Dad’s negativity stop me; what I did let stop me was  that the nearest recycling plant was across town, and I couldn’t drive.

So I added ‘save the planet’ to my list of future endeavors, and I wrote down ‘research how to save the planet’ to be completed at some point in the next 20 years.

working-scheduleThe list took up two sides of the notebook paper, with each moment mapped out. Get through junior high. Check.
Test into the highest math and science classes at the high school. Check, check.
Get accepted into all of the AP classes. Check, check, check.

It goes on there were so many and get all A’s was the hardest part. I slipped, causing me to edit my list a little bit. I changed “go to Harvard on a full ride” to “go to the University of Alabama on a partial,” but I threw my shoulders back. It was fine I could go to Harvard Law or Yale for graduate school.

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When I got to college, I felt like a bunny on crack, trying to bounce in every direction. It was almost overwhelming, the sheer number of opportunities, the paths I could take. And with events like ‘Get On Board Day,’ where every organization and academic society was laid out like a smorgasbord fit for any former high school overachiever well, let’s just say, I was flying high. I signed up for everything, including the international relations club, the college Democrats, and undergraduate research. My resume after that first year looked like a dream, a resume my goals list would be proud of, but the resume only looked good; I don’t remember going to many of the meetings for the clubs I signed up for, and I forged my way through the research experience, relieved and exhausted when it was over. I received B’s both semesters, with a smattering of A’s that I cursed because they had minus signs beside them (just one of the frustrating things about the University, its commitment to the plus/minus system of grading). In the meetings I attended, I fidgeted, out of place among the multitudes of students who were also high school overachievers.

But that’s the thing about college, and I think a lot of students realize this as a universal truth, that no matter how good you think you are, there is always someone better.

For instance, there’s a girl from my high school who went to UA as well. We didn’t talk much in school, more acquaintances than friends, and less than that even, connected through friends of friends, acquaintances of acquaintances. But we knew each other enough to make polite small talk whenever we’d run into each other on campus, and one day I found myself sitting across from her in the lobby of one of the buildings, waiting for class to start. We nodded and smiled and asked the obligatory questions  how have you been, how often do you get to go home, what are you studying? I told her I wasn’t sure yet, but I might be leaning toward international studies.

She grinned and said, “So am I. I’m thinking the business track, with a focus on economic stability in impoverished regions. Oh, and I’m pre-med.”

I nodded along, forcing my smile out of the grimace it tried to sink into, because, damn, that was a list. It was like that a lot, I found out.


Friends of mine started non-profits, volunteered in poverty stricken areas, joining the Peace Corp, an engineer friend had plans to develop environmentally safe transportation, and another worked with an organization to end human trafficking. All while maintaining 4.0 GPAs, a feat I’ve long since given up. And I started wondering: why did I want to save the world, when others were so much better at it?

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licensed via adobe stock photos

Not only did I feel like an imposter in the club meetings I attended, I couldn’t get into my classes. My first year I took international relations and criminal justice courses, and I knew after the final exams that they wouldn’t fill the rest of my college career (the C’s I got in each helped that decision). And math and science classes proved what an idiot I am, or at least how poor the education system is in the public schools of Alabama. I started wondering what I really wanted in life, trying to answer the big questions college presents. My friends were heroes, no doubt, but more than that they seemed happy and assured, while I fumbled and stressed. I wanted to save the world, but every path I looked down didn’t fit me, and I didn’t know if I could ever find the one I could confidently stroll down.

200235619-001Then I strolled into English, a bit aimlessly. I decided to sign up for a creative writing course to fill up my sparse schedule, because I was running out of core classes to take and I hadn’t decided on a major, and because I’d always loved making up stories. I kept a journal for that class, as part of the grade, and in it, I fretted over what I was going to do with my life, caught between wanting to do something worthwhile but not knowing what that was. And after each entry, I’d put my pencil down, stare at the page, and think to myself, “that felt good.”

bookgiphyAnd so I was an English major, with a minor in creative writing. And despite the negative responses I got for my choice of studies, usually in the form of the question “what the heck are you going to do with an English degree?” from family, friends, and strangers, I’ve never been happier. It was the perfect degree for me: reading and writing for a grade. Not to mention therapeutic, especially when the question I’d been asked so many times started to sink in: what the heck was I going to do with an English degree?

At this point, my eight-year-old list is little more than a marked up, scribbled up ghost of its former self. All my plans have been rethought/abandoned, and what is left is a giant blank. There is no set path in a writing career, no goals that can be checked off sequentially; this business is unpredictable, and I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time, and I don’t think I’m supposed to (but if anyone knows of a writing career manual, send it my way). I haven’t completely shaken my over-achiever ways; I’m closing out my last semester pretty strong: a thesis written, an internship completed, a campus-wide writing group co-founded. I’m no where near the level of some of the English major queens and kings, who have seriously awesome entries on their CVs, but I’m finding I don’t think of myself as a frumpy caricature next to those superhero people, as I did with my save the world friends. It’s freeing, not feeling the need to compete in this field, and I can just write and breathe easy. Sometimes.

But the future is waiting, tapping its watch and telling me to find a job, find a home, and start living the life I want. It is terrifying, seeing that black hole ready to suck me up two weeks from now, but I’ll be OK, or at least I keep saying that. I’ll write my way through the black hole. Mainly, I just hope I can still make a difference, and I think writing can help me do that. One of my creative writing professors, and perhaps my favorite instructor at AU, offered words of encouragement recently to me and the other students in my class, saying at this pivotal point in history the arts are more important than ever, as we, as writers, strive to reach people who may seem unreachable. I want to reach and I have a lot of that save the world mentality left in me, even if I’ll save it in a different way than I’d imagined I would at 13.

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