New Youth Connections, New York
When I think about all the years I spent sitting in class, what stands out is an overwhelming feeling of boredom. Yet I never realized that boredom would one day be my key to freedom.
I never had to work hard to get decent grades. I wrote essays the night before and crammed for tests the morning of. In class, my favorite game was figuring out how much time we were wasting.
I’d take the number of hours spent in school each day and subtract the time allotted for gym and lunch, the time we spent sitting around and talking, and the time spent on administrative stuff (like checking homework) or time-fillers (like watching movies). Teachers may have considered these activities valuable, but to me they felt like a waste of time.
The number of hours left was the amount of time spent “on task,” as educators like to call it. Although I went to a suburban public high school with a great reputation, we spent only about half of the school day “on task.”
I fantasized about what I’d do with all that wasted time, if only there were some way to get it back. I made lists of the books I wanted to read, languages I wanted to learn and countries I wanted to visit. Instead, I was trapped in high school. Each day the ceiling seemed to lower and the hallways seemed to close in on me.
Then, one day during sophomore year, I added up my credits and found I was already close to fulfilling my state’s minimum requirements for graduation. If I took a semester of government and a semester of economics (typically senior year courses) during my junior year, the only requirement I’d have left was a single credit in English, which I could easily take over the summer. I was elated. Here, at last, was my way out.
I was sure I could get my parents on my side. The only stumbling block would be getting the school to agree. I wasn’t the most popular student in the guidance office. I was always in there, trying to change my schedule around to get a certain class or teacher. I’d have to be prepared, so I read all the fine print about my high school’s graduation requirements, as well as the state’s requirements.
Then I laid out my case to the counselors. Since the rules were on my side, they couldn’t say no. And that’s how, at the end of junior year, I officially finished high school.
Finally, my time belonged to me. I spent the fall of what would have been my senior year working in my town’s library, pursuing a writing internship and taking college classes in the evening. I spent two months living with my godmother outside of Paris, learning much more about French than I ever did in class. In the spring, while my friends were taking far too many A.P. exams, I left for Poland to spend six weeks interning with an American investment firm.
Most people’s reactions were positive. A surprising number of adults told me how they took time off before, during, or after college. And a few people said, “Wow, you’re really lucky. I could never do that.”
I was really lucky. Not everyone has supportive parents, solid grades, a cooperative school behind them, or a carefully laid-out plan for the future.
The most important thing that I did was take control of my education and future. I wouldn’t have achieved anything by being passive and complacent. There are choices and opportunities out there.
This past fall, I entered a small liberal arts college where students design their own areas of concentration instead of picking a major, and professors write student evaluations instead of giving letter grades. I wanted my college experience to be radically different from my years of compulsory schooling.