There are certain things you expect on move-in day: The frantic in-and-out of your new neighbors transferring mountains of luggage from car to dorm room, being forced to repeat your name and hometown fifty times before sunset, excited hellos and heartfelt goodbyes. The faint whir of your pathetically small desk fan, which accomplishes little as the room fills with people and the last of the summer heat sets in. Getting to know your first roommate. Talking nervously, hoping you’ll click. Your parents making friends with her parents. Delaying the tearful moment when you hug your mom and dad and watch them drive away. Then, the moment comes. For every new college student, it comes. You are prepared. It is expected.
Mine was not.
“You don’t have to do this.” I’m not sure what possessed my mother to say these words, though I confess I wasn’t that surprised. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she did not let go of me. “You could come home and try community college. We could pack the car up right now. You don’t have to do this.”
I knew that as far as the infamous “college goodbyes” go, this was a bit on the extreme side, especially as I was positive that she meant it. Even having earned a full scholarship to my college of choice, therein saving us about $70,000 worth of financial burden, I was made aware from the start that if at any point I did not like it, I could drop out and be welcomed home. This, coming from the woman who raised me from infancy and schooled me for all of my life, both comforted me and stung the pride a little.
When I was four years old, all I could talk of was starting school. Having taught myself to read a year prior, I was already drawing my own comic books and writing short narratives to go along with them. I could count pretty high, and I thirsted for more, as much as my little mind could absorb. My parents decided the best option was for my mom to homeschool me, and through all of elementary, middle, and high school, she did – taking a strong role as teacher at first, and then letting me take more initiative as I grew older. She took note of my interests and chose curriculum based on that – for instance, my senior year I had an English textbook centered on The Lord of the Rings. It was a very “personalized” experience, tailored just to my unabashedly nerdy self. My mom put everything she had into properly educating me, to the extent that there was no privacy or separation between us. We were always together.
There was very little that I did without her, and almost nothing I possessed that was entirely my own.
We went to church and to bi-weekly homeschool meetings, from which I gained a total of three friends. Though I never felt unfulfilled in my schooling and excelled at most things I ventured to try, I was devastatingly lonely as a teen. Growing up in the most stereotypical of small, Southern towns, I had next to nothing in common with most of the other kids, who ridiculed my quirky personality and interest in books. My only release was in writing, which I did alone and often. To create brought me joy, and it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I discovered a means of sharing that creativity with others: theater. And all of a sudden, I knew what my major would be.
It seemed cruel irony that less than a year after meeting the first genuine group of friends I ever had, I would have to leave them behind. That small community theatre was the outlet I desperately needed, and in my seventeen-year-old mind I was leaving the only place I would ever feel accepted. To tell the truth, my mom’s offer was a little bit tempting. Still, beyond a shadow of a doubt I knew my answer.
“I do,” I said, hugging her tightly. “I have to do this.”
So I did.
And it was the absolute time of my life.
The first week was the hardest. We were scheduled from day to night with festive activities to welcome the new freshmen – ice cream socials, mud volleyball, “get-to-know-you” circle games complete with constant regurgitation of everyone’s name and hometown – basically my school’s method of keeping us too busy to miss home. All it really accomplished for me was allowing no time to unpack; though I did make a few good friends fairly quickly, many of whom will probably be my bridesmaids if I ever decide to do the whole marriage thing. Still, when the first weekend came around, I visited home and found that it felt much different than I expected it to. Actually, it felt just like that – a visit.
My mom called to check in with me at least twice a week for a long time, and when my first assignment came around, she was more nervous than I was. “Let me proofread it,” she insisted. So, I put my all into this miniscule, two-page paper for English Comp 1 – the easiest paper no freshmen realize they will ever have to write – and let her have one more say in the quality of my scholastic work. With her approval, I turned it in expecting a C+ or a B at most.
I got an A+.
This baffled me. Yes, I had always made good grades in the past, but those were from my mother. Every mother thinks her kid is the best and the brightest; this was my first experience receiving praise from a teacher who wasn’t obligated to give it. In time, I found that other teachers, as well as peers, found me intelligent and hard-working, an overachiever even. In reality I pushed myself harder at first because I expected to come up short.
With no real world experience with which to compare my level of knowledge, I had no idea I was actually smart until I went to college and realized that I could do this on my own.
I had, in fact, been thoroughly prepared. And on that foundation my confidence started to grow exponentially.
Soon after, I became more integrated into the theatre department and the honors college, and started making a lot of friends in a short span of time. I even caved and pledged a social club, which is my school’s version of a mini-sorority, only smaller, cheaper, and exclusive to the campus. The extent of my book smarts became as apparent as my lack of street smarts. I can still remember my first experience with alcohol (as can my social club sisters, as they like to remind me every chance they get): When asked to “pregame” with them one Friday night, I brought over a curling iron and makeup, thinking that term was synonymous with primping before going out (or as I so eloquently put it, “doing each other’s hair and stuff”). They laughed (with me, not at me, which was nice), shook their heads and handed me my first drink. In hindsight, I would have been an easy one to manipulate, humiliate, take advantage of…any and all of the above. But these friends weren’t like that. It was simple: We had fun together, I cared for them, and they cared for me. On multiple occasions they took care of me. And words could not describe how lucky I felt or how much I appreciated every positive relationship I had with my peers. They also appreciated my incessant Hobbit references, which was a definite plus.
One thing I’ve noticed with homeschoolers is that, once given the option of becoming social, they will remain in their comfortable shell, or they will eagerly break free. My parents had taught me all I needed to know about socializing myself, and I was ready. I knew that I should be quick to show kindness, but slow to trust. To take note of who would lift me up and who would tear me down. To probably wait on the dating thing, but always “protect” myself if I decided to do it anyway. Oh, and to keep a can of wasp spray in my dorm room, because unlike pepper spray, “they won’t see that coming!” With all this in mind – and the wasp spray in its designated spot on my bedside table – I became something of a social butterfly. And as someone who suffers from Social Anxiety, I really surprised myself on that one.
I’d always wanted to branch out and find others that I could feel comfortable with.
And after going without for so long, I doubt that will be something I’ll ever take for granted.
I should establish that my campus is well-known for being extraordinarily friendly and open to all, which is a significant portion of why our alumni base is so active and supportive: For me, and for countless others, this small liberal arts college was not just a place of education but a tight-knit community, even a home. Differences of race, religion, culture, gender identity, and sexual orientation created very few divides – we were all family. And it was incredible.
This may sound like a paradox, but I was raised a Progressive Christian in a very Fundamentalist Christian church. The Fundamentalist faith was what my parents knew and understood, so they took me to church every Sunday, where I would sit silently (like a good female) and agree with about half of what was preached to us. Politically and socially, both mom and dad were quite liberal. They raised me to love and accept everyone equally, yet college gave me my first experience with true diversity. For instance, I had never met a transgender person before, and though I had spent many a Sunday morning listening to the same “we are right, they are wrong” speech behind the same pulpit, I had never experienced real, enlightening discourse regarding religion. Here, I could actually learn from other people with a wide variety of backgrounds.
My own beliefs, both spiritual and political, developed and took concrete form.
Though I started out Progressive, I grew more so, and I held on to my faith with a better understanding of what it should signify: Love. Not judgment, never exclusion. Just love.
With each new year of school I made leaps and bounds in my personal growth, learning so much about myself in such a short span of time that from sophomore to junior to senior year, it was like becoming a whole new person four times. Developing “street smarts,” and with them my own personal tastes and interests. Becoming more cultured through experience and associations. Swearing when angry, and not feeling bad about it. I like to think of it as making up for lost time.
But not all answers would come with ease. As graduation grew closer, I grew more unsure of what I wanted to do after. A general theatre degree carries with it a wider range of possibilities than one might think: Did I want to act, or paint sets? Research plays, or try to publish my own? Following an internship in stage lighting, I found my answer. And that began my first ever mental switch from school world to career world.
As it turned out, pushing myself so hard in classes had caused me to neglect some things that I would really need once school was over. The theatre department saw me as “honors student first, theatre major second,” which I realized was true, and not, in the bigger scheme, a great thing.
I was thankful for my generous scholarship and wanted to prove myself: “Get good grades,” in my homeschooled head, was always going to be the goal.
But what my parents didn’t know to warn me about was that being a successful theatre technician has little to do with grades and everything to do with hands-on experience. My GPA was near perfect, yet I was a senior by the time I had finally declared my emphasis in lighting design. It took nearly all four years to earn the full respect of the other theatre majors, who understood what it took me regrettably longer to grasp: that we were there to pursue a career and one requiring not a 4.0 and honors cords but a remarkable tech portfolio. I had a lot of catching up to do in that respect.
Now that I’ve been out of college for over a year, I do regret that lost time. But, in continuation of the habit, I’ve made up for it as best I can. Once my brain was able to shift from school to career mode, it became my passion. I travel often for work now, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. I go to the mountains, to tropical regions, theme parks, the Big Apple, once a Tony-winning regional theatre, doing what I love every step of the way. I think back on my lonely years in that small town and wonder if I would have the same appreciation for the incredible things I get to see and do had I not been contained there for so long.
Though in a considerable many cases homeschooling can be a terrible idea, I see my personal story as a successful one. Not perfect, by any means, as I was heavily sheltered and limited mostly to my mom’s perspective. Luckily for me, this also meant that I got to learn from a strong, intelligent and open-minded woman whom I will always look up to, and that made all the difference. Though I had a lot still to learn once I got to college, very little of it was learned “the hard way.”
Because on that first move-in day, when I made the decision to stay, the decision to see life as a new adventure came along with it.
I guess I’m kind of like Bilbo Baggins. And college was my Gandalf.