The Rules of Life aka The Templates
My life has never fit into many of life’s templates so I have learned to trust my gut when making decisions. In fact, many of my best decisions have been bad decisions according to everyone else. Why? Because my decisions have rarely adhered to rules about what one is supposed to do and how and when one is supposed to do it.
High school drop out
People are often surprised to find out that I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Why did I drop out? At the time, I would have said I was burned out or I was bored. Looking back, however, what I was calling boredom and describing as burnout most likely was related to the fact that I am a narcoleptic. I would not be diagnosed till I was 38 years old, which is a typical pattern unfortunately, but all the signs were there. It is hard to explain to people who are not narcoleptic what it is like to be excessively sleepy all day, every day. Constantly fighting to stay awake is quite literally painful. Therefore, going to school was painful.
I moved to Toronto where I got a job working at the head office of an insurance company right downtown in the heart of the city. 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. I worked with interesting people. I also became certified as an aerobics instructor and taught in the company’s fitness center on a volunteer basis. I acquired a few job skills 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 presence like I’d never seen before. She seemed at least 7 feet tall with a head of flaming red hair, and she moved through space like a dancer. As I watched her at the front of the room, I remember thinking, “that’s where I want to be.” Until that day, I’d never imagined myself teaching. Nonetheless, my epiphany was the beginning of my journey to the front of the university classroom.
I had a dream
The next step came in October, 1989. I had a dream one night in which my friends from high school were graduating from university. I woke the next morning knowing that it was time to go back to school. At work that morning I called several local high schools and found out what I needed to do in order to be eligible to 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.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not advocating dropping out of high school. But I don’t regret having done so. My 17 year old gut, wise beyond its years, told me dropping out was the right move. And you know what? It was. I know this because I was exactly where I needed to be when my unconscious spoke to me in that dream and said, “Linda, your time is now.” Indeed it was.
When I was ready, I went
When I started university, I was ready and therefore I was successful. I loved every minute of my undergraduate experience. Was it hard? Yes and 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 what I now know were the challenges of living with narcolepsy. I loved the process of 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 with a minor in Humanities. I went on to graduate school at the University of Alberta where I earned an M.A. and a Phd in English with 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.
I’m glad that, even at 17, my instinct was to listen to my gut when making decisions. Some people might see my “I’m a high school dropout” story as an “in spite of…” tale. They are wrong. It is a “because of ” tale. That is, I am a university professor because I dropped out of high school. My deviation from life’s education template, my bad decision, was the best thing I ever did.
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: if one does not go to university or college directly out of high school, then he or she will never go back. Sure, that may be the case for some people. In my opinion, however, that’s not a bad thing. If someone does not go to college or university right out of high school and never goes back, thus deviating from one of many templates about how to have a good life, it probably means he or she was not meant to go in the first place.
Not going to college or university right out of high school is not a character flaw. A university degree is not the only way to be successful. The world needs plumbers, electricians, welders, horseshoers, and other skilled trades people, all of whom make very nice livings. University degrees are not for everyone. They do not guarantee success or happiness; we need to stop pretending they do.
I wish parents, however well meaning, would stop shoving their versions of life’s templates down their children’s throats. It’s not just parents who are guilty of template torture though. We all need to ditch the templates–all of them–not just the ones related to education. Even if we live up to the expectations that go hand in hand with the templates, doing so won’t make us happy if our motive is that someone told us we should. As my friend Kelley is fond of saying, we need to stop “shoulding” all over ourselves.
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 when you do so at the expense of your own inner voice, no one wins. Each and every one of us knows what we need. Like Dorothy, we already have the power to determine where we need to go. That power is with us all the time. We just need to believe that we have it and then we need to make sure we use it.
So tell me, 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? And deep down, are you okay with that?
Thank you, as always, for reading. I appreciate you.