My life has never fit standard templates. So, I have always trusted my gut when making decisions. Many of my worst choices, according to most standards, became my best decisions. That’s because they rarely adhered to rules or templates about what, when, and how one should do things. When we “should” all over one another, we build traps and cages for one another. We need to stop that because the best lives are spent exploring myriad roads. That’s how we discover our passions, our gifts, and our purposes.
I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. At the time, I would have said I was burned out and bored. Looking back, what I called boredom and burnout probably had something to do with my yet-to-be diagnosed narcolepsy. It is hard to feel sleepy all day, every day, no matter how many hours of sleep one gets. Fighting to stay awake is literally painful. Therefore, going to school was painful. So, I stopped going.
I moved to Toronto where I got a job working at the head office of an insurance company downtown. For a few years, I worked in a clerical position in cubicle culture. I made a decent salary for someone without a lot of education and I was fortunate to work with interesting people. I also became certified as an aerobics instructor and taught in the company’s fitness center. I acquired a few job skills along the way as well.
That’s Where I Want to Be
At one point, I took an in-house course on effective business writing. It was taught by a woman whose name was Leesha Van Leewan. Leesha had a presence like I had never seen before. Her hair was flaming red and she moved through space like a dancer. As I listened and learned, I thought, “that’s where I want to be.” I’d never imagined myself teaching. Nonetheless, my epiphany that day was the beginning of my journey to the front of the university classroom.
I Had a Dream
The next step came in October 1989. One night, I had a dream in which my friends from high school were graduating from university. I woke up feeling sure that it was time to return to school. That morning I called several local high schools to find out what I needed to complete before I could apply to universities. By the end of the day, I had a plan.
In February 1990 I enrolled in courses at a local high school. In September, I enrolled as a Physical Education major at York University in Toronto.
All in Good Time
Now, I’m not advocating that anyone else drop out of high school, but I do not regret my decision. My 17-year-old gut, wise beyond its years, told me that dropping out was the right move. And you know what? It was. I have never regretted it because I was where I needed to be when my unconscious spoke to me in that dream and said, “Linda, it’s time.”
When I started university, I was ready and I was successful. I loved every minute of my undergraduate experience. Was it hard? Yes. That’s what I liked about it. The work was engaging, the professors were fantastic, and the courses were rigorous. In part, because university schedules are more flexible than high school schedules, it was easier to work around the challenges of living with narcolepsy. More than anything, I loved discovering what I didn’t know I didn’t know.
In 1995, after a change in major, I graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English and a minor in Humanities. I went to graduate school at the University of Alberta where I earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in African American literature and culture. After a stint as a post-doctoral research fellow at NYU, I became a professor at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas.
Some people might see my “I’m a high school dropout” story as an “in spite of…” tale. It’s not. It is a “because” tale. That is, I am a university professor because I dropped out of high school. My deviation from a standard education template–my bad decision–was the best thing I ever did.
People often say that if a person doesn’t go to university or college directly out of high school, then they won’t go back. That may be how it goes for some people, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. If someone takes time off to work and never goes back to school then maybe they weren’t meant to go in the first place. We have to stop trying to fit our lives into someone else’s version of the ideal template. There are options.
It is not a character flaw if one takes a gap year or doesn’t get a degree at all. A university degree is not the only way to be successful. The world needs plumbers, electricians, welders, horseshoers, and other skilled tradespeople, all of whom make good livings. University is not for everyone. A degree does not guarantee success or happiness. There is more than one route to success and happiness.
I wish parents would stop shoving their preferred templates down their kids’ throats. Template torture benefits no one. We need to be more mindful of when we’re following life’s templates because someone told us we should and not because we chose them.
Here’s the Thing
The answers to most of our questions about the paths we should take in life are in our guts. It is wise to seek counsel from others, but not at the expense of our inner voices. No one wins when we do that. We know what we need and where we ought to go. Like Dorothy, we have the power to determine how to get there. That power is with us all the time. We have to believe we have it and then we have to commit to using it.
So, I’m curious. How often do you surrender to the power of a template? At what cost? How often do you struggle to make decisions because others’ voices are shouting over what your gut is telling you?
Thank you for reading. As always, I appreciate you.