I am (and to some extent, have always been) a writer, but my desire to become a novelist did not emerge until after I’d made the choice to drop out of high school and become an “autodidact” (someone who is self-taught -- see My Experience With Unschooling). All I knew then was that being in a traditional school setting made me terribly unhappy (for reasons that could fill a separate blog piece) and that I’d always had a knack for creative writing. I had no idea what was in store for me, venturing out into the wilderness, leaving everything I was expected to believe about school behind.
I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it, either, if my parents hadn’t been so supportive and my brother hadn’t already blazed the trail before me (see leftyparent's blog -- Pulling Eric out of School). I met some form of resistance from almost everyone else, having come from two generations of college graduates, a world where all of my adult role models worked white-collar jobs, and a Unitarian Universalist community of (primarily white) kids who all had college in their sights.
Growing up middle class only reinforced this notion that not only could college give me a leg up in life, it would prove something about how smart I was. I won’t deny that getting into college is no easy feat (and would have been doubly hard for me without a proper transcript), and I admire anyone who has the focus and mental fortitude to pursue that kind of intensive study. But once I left high school, once I began to pursue things entirely in my own way and on my own time, I knew in my gut that a 4 year university wasn't going to be right for me.
Why? Because no matter the exposure to people, places and knowledge, I wasn't willing to give up total ownership of my learning process. It was a tough sell to the people around me, who could not divorce the concept of “learning” from “teacher” and “classroom”. But part of being an autodidact is embracing how you learn best, and for me, the first step to becoming a writer meant doing just that -- writing. A lot. In those initial post-high-school years, that’s all I did, in a community of people who could enjoy writing with me.
I still had a small college fund at my disposal, but it would only be enough to cover a year's worth of expenses at most universities. I didn’t want that much debt, and while I may have had to shut the door on certain aspects of the college experience that had always appealed to me -- networking, living in another city and studying abroad -- I was able to have my own unique adventures because I was not in school -- working on a farm in French Canada, attending language school in Montreal for a couple months, and going to Australia to meet some of the closest friends I’d made in my online writing sphere.
These were empowering experiences, but my family and friends’ combined pedigree still hung over my head like a cloud. It was my own judgment I had to face, moving forward with my life, watching my peers drift off to college, one by one. Like them, I wanted to be someone successful, who was educated, articulate and witty. But in the white-collar world of the liberal elite (a club that I had grown up eager to enter), that meant you went to college. Plain and simple.
Instead, I got what I would classify as a “blue-collar” job, and resigned myself to being looked down upon. We all know the stereotype -- you drop out of high school, don't go to college, still live with your parents and eke out an existence flipping burgers. Well, I had a little more gumption than that! I was 18, had just gotten back from Montreal, and I'd only ever worked at my local coffee shop for a dollar above minimum wage. I ended up charming my way into a waitressing gig at another small business -- a full service breakfast/lunch place and bakery.
At times it could be exhausting work, getting up before the sun, juggling a restaurant full of people (and many regulars) with a very small staff, and doing just about everything outside of serving, myself -- set-up and breakdown of the restaurant, bussing, making drinks, running food, fielding the pastry and bread counter, and taking orders by phone.
But I was making a living wage. By 19, I had moved out of the house. I was paying for a studio apartment, art and piano lessons, a cell phone, monthly car payments (and everything a car entails), and I was able to eat out several times a week. I was always in a little bit of debt, truth be told (until my boyfriend moved in and cut my rent in half), but I had shattered the stereotype. I was on my own and thriving. It may not have been glamorous, and it wasn't sustainable in the long term (at least, not for me), but I knew that I could survive. And it was only part-time, so I could still write.
I started to let go of my preconceptions, one by one, to just accept what I had and what I could make of it. I can still remember the day my boyfriend helped me move stuff out of my room and into my new apartment (it only took one trip in a rented pick-up truck). Just before we left my parent's house (which is about 30 minutes away from where I currently live), he insisted my mother and I pose for a quick cell phone photo. He preceded it by saying: “This is a big moment, after all!” and my mother and I sort of shrugged and laughed and said: “I guess you're right”. At that point I’d been spending 5-6 nights a week at my boyfriend's apartment, anyway. I had already moved out without meaning to. It was unceremonious... it was just life.
And so was my job. While the majority of my friends spent 4 years experiencing college, I spent 4 years working at the restaurant. It's how I met my boyfriend, Luke... for that alone, it was worth it. A year in, I was promoted to manager, but don't let that fool you -- it was really more like waitress-plus. I still had to work hard and get my hands dirty, but I was also responsible for the mess.
I could talk a long time about my experiences there; how much I learned about myself, how tough it made me, how my small cadre of co-workers grew into a family. How stressful and intense those shifts could be. I made good money for what I did, but that fact was bittersweet. I was proud of my job, and proud of myself for how good I became at it, but it wasn't my passion.
I was working on my very first novel on the side, taking courses through UCLA's Extension, even meeting weekly with a writing group, but it was an uphill climb, and the more serious I was about writing the novel, the more I realized that my job was taking too much out of me. I envied my peers in college their time to devote to their fields of study, but I had to wonder... how many of them were there to pursue what they hoped would be a career? And how many of them were as clear about their passion in life as I was? It seemed that many of them were only there because that was what was expected of them.
My best friend was one of the only people I knew in a predicament similar to mine. She, too, had dropped out of high school, and while she'd taken the time to pass the G.E.D. (which we jokingly called the “Good Enough Diploma”), she simply didn't have the money or resources to go to college, and was not willing to put in that amount of effort when her interest lay in the restaurant industry, a field where practical experience largely outweighs education.
Our initial job experience was very similar, too, and I took comfort in that. We'd both been baristas and servers at small businesses. But while I was moving out and in with my boyfriend and starting to integrate into his circle of friends, her life had taken a very different turn. In the wake of losing her father to cancer, she and her sister decided to leave L.A. and move to Chicago, where her sister's boyfriend was already situated.
We did our best to keep in touch, but it was definitely a shift for me, as I found myself surrounded by people 5-10 years my senior, my boyfriend included. Many of them were aspiring actors (this is L.A., after all), and almost all of them had had some sort of college experience, whether it was for theatre or something else (I came across Poli-Sci, Psychology and Communications majors quite often).
As I began to interact more and more with these mid-to-late-twenties/early-thirty somethings, I noticed something startling -- the majority of them were in the very same situation that I was. We were all working blue-collar (or more menial white-collar) jobs, trying to launch some kind of artistic or otherwise higher paying career. In the case of my co-workers, who were virtually all college graduates, I (the youngest among them) was their boss.
They felt like my peers, and whenever I admitted my age to them, they tended to be astonished. When I would reveal that I had not only never gone to college, I had dropped out of high school... their jaws would literally drop. “But you're so smart,” they would say. “You're so mature.”
To the latter I would often answer: “Well, I've been out of school for nearly 5 years”, and that seemed to resonate with them. But what does that say about what constitutes a person's maturity in the “real world”? Because I had been in it for as long as some of them had, I read as 25-30, when I was really just shy of my early 20s. It seemed that not only was college not always indicative of success, it wasn’t necessarily a barometer for maturity, either.
For the first time, the choices I’d made didn’t feel so baseless. It was like I'd gotten the jump on life. While going to college had definitely broadened the intellectual/artistic horizons of many of my peers, practically speaking, I’d come out ahead. I had a reliable job that paid well, ample time to work on my book, and I wasn't mired in debt.
Sure, there were times when I felt under-educated (and secretly embarrassed), but I had come to realize that my lack of knowledge had very little to do with dropping out. Even when I was in school, I didn’t feel very smart -- retaining factual information has always been hard for me, which made me a terrible test taker. It’s one of the biggest reasons I left. I could understand the information put before me, but absorbing it was an entirely different matter, even when I was interested in the subject. I knew that no matter the choices and freedoms a college experience could offer me, it would still be largely that -- a classroom, a textbook, lectures, notes and test-taking. And that wasn't me.
But, as someone who grew up with a lot of privilege and the inbred promise of more, choosing another path meant altering my expectations. It was very humbling to make a living working a blue-collar job. Even more humbling to realize that on the spectrum of blue-collar jobs I was very much at the top of the pecking order (particularly once I was promoted), in large part because I was young and white. The back-of-house Latino kitchen staff were the ones who really had it hard (and their families back in Mexico, even harder), working 10-12 hour shifts, 6 days a week, many with second jobs and no cars to get around. I knew it was likely they’d be working blue-collar jobs for the rest of their lives, but for many of them, it was a step up.
It really started to open my eyes to my own sense of entitlement. I may have been supporting myself financially, but it was only part-time, and I would always have a roof over my head and food on my plate if I needed it. I was still living in the first world -- I would never know poverty, and unlike many people (college educated or no), I had an immense support network in place to help me achieve my dreams. It made me feel so grateful for all of these things.
And I realized, too, that I had always unconsciously assumed I would go to college because it was just what people of my caliber did. But now I know that there are people in this world with the capacity to do great things who don't have or can't get a degree to prove it. My experience in the service industry really drove home why my parents and grandparents didn’t want me to spend my life working at the expense of my dreams. I learned that I didn’t want that either (and that I was lucky enough to be able to make a different choice), but I think it was worth coming to that place on my own, to solidify just how much my dreams meant to me.
I’m a firm believer in “going with your gut” when it comes to navigating your own life, but part of trusting yourself is having the time, space and support to develop those instincts without being too outwardly influenced. I had some of that time while I was unschooling, but I have to wonder how much further along I’d be on the path to publication if I had unschooled from the beginning. When I look back, I’ve been writing and enjoying stories since I was a small child, often entering contests at school and winning awards, even choosing to spend a large chunk of my adolescence online, immersed in fantasy roleplaying worlds and forums, writing to my heart’s content.
And when I think about what I took away from school, I honestly come up with more negative than positive. I don’t feel like I came out of it well-rounded or balanced. If anything, I took away a feeling of inadequacy, a penchant for insomnia that I still can’t seem to shake, and some serious damage to my self-esteem that took years to rebuild. I don’t blame my parents, though, who were willing to listen when I wanted to try something else. They were on their own journey to figure out how they felt about traditional education, and so was I. If I learned anything from school, it was what I didn’t like about it.
It can really shape kids’ priorities and expectations, which they internalize over time, and then they’re set on someone else’s idea of the “right path”, for better or worse. It no longer surprises me that many of my peers nowadays seem lost or confused about their own direction, now that they’ve finally been given full custody of their own life. I felt that way, too, but I was 15. I had a lot more time to figure things out and a lot less of the pressures that come with adulthood.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I came out the other end of what would’ve been my college years that I finally felt ready to commit myself to full-time “study”. I was able to use my small college fund to leave my job last September and pursue my dream of finishing the novel at last. I’ve spent the last 10 months learning what it means to be a novelist full-time. I have my grandparents to thank for the money, and I love them for fully supporting the choices I’ve made with it.
While I’m still not done with the novel, I’ve made some significant progress, and the experience of this past year has been invaluable to me. Just in the last month I’ve had to open myself up to the idea of part-time work again, knowing that the money I’ve been subsisting on will be gone soon. I decided to approach the restaurant industry from a new angle by going to Bartending School, and was able to get back in touch with just how hardworking, poised and adaptable I can be in any environment.
While bartending isn’t my eventual career aspiration, it was for many of the people around me. There's a threshold to the amount of money you can make as one, certainly, and it's a physically demanding job, but as I sat there, learning about Mixology and Dramshop Laws, it felt as valid a choice as anything else, blue-collar and all. I realized that everyone's entitled to their own experience, and to put our own qualifiers on it seems shortsighted.
Now that I’m a certified bartender, I’ve begun to look for a job again, but even as I resign myself to the amount of time and energy it will require to return to the restaurant industry, I no longer consider my aspirations of becoming a writer to be “higher” or “better”, just different. And while I’m happy to ensure people have a good experience wherever I work, performing that function shouldn’t relegate me to the background. Regardless of whether it’s for life or just in the interim, being blue-collar shouldn’t make me wallpaper in a white-collar world.
While I only got a glimmer of what it feels like to be disenfranchised, it was enough to know that there were worlds of people who would never even have the opportunities that I had always assumed I was owed. It reminded me that we are all human together, and that so much goes into determining our circumstance in life. It no longer seems fair for me to feel entitled to so much when so many people have so little.
Instead, I try never to forget how lucky I am in the grand scheme of things, that I’m able to strive toward exactly what I want in my life and be happy. Recently, my father confided in my brother and me that he was glad each of us had charted our own course and that neither of us was “working for the man”. It just goes to show that it all comes down to perspective; another parent might’ve disowned me for the choices I’d made.
I’m so happy we’re on the same page, and I’m relieved to no longer be overly worried with whether or not I “measure up”. If experience has shown me anything, it’s that being a blue-collar girl in a white-collar world doesn’t mean that I’m somehow worse off. It just means that I took a different path, and that’s what works for me.
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