A personal essay-based work of fiction detailing the immense impact of elation, disappointment, and maturity. Beginning during the first year of the protagonist's college experience, and ending sometime after that, this story traces that character's development in (what I hope is) a distinctive voice.
To have standards. To stand upon a moral high ground. To hold your ethics and values near to your heart. To be true to yourself. Bullshit.
I grew up surrounded by love. My mother was a nurse, so sometimes that love took on a tougher form. But I always knew that there were at least two people in the world who would always care deeply about my wellbeing. I reciprocated that love, sometimes forgetting that it was there just long enough to let a grade slip. That love and their hard work paid for my ridiculously expensive education, and I’ve never lost sight of the significance of that fact. They instilled certain ideas and values in me, but paramount to all of those ideals was the concept of love, in all its forms. As a voracious reader, I tore through novels that idealized, diminished, and reconstructed this very value, and gradually I came to idealize it in my own special way. I separated love into family, friends, and romance; the third had not, at that point, materialized. I always caught romantic love just as it disappeared around a corner; I didn’t know it then, but I had learned to enjoy a good chase.
For thirteen years, I attended an elite private school in suburban New England. From an early age, I was subtly and not-so-subtly informed that my education and my upbringing set me apart from the undereducated, mainstreamed masses. I would later learn that this imbued aristocratic nature is largely referred to as a sense of entitlement, and that my style of upbringing could be considered concerted cultivation that would lead to an ever-increasing amount of valuable cultural capital. I did not receive any kind of grade or GPA until high school, so I spent nine of those thirteen years thinking that I was keeping up with everyone else. In reality, there were areas in which I was distinctly falling behind.
High school was a harsh reality check, in many more ways than one. There was an inundation of new faces, expectations, and options. In lieu of the creative, meandering educational style that I had seen up until that point, I was given a sink-or-swim, all-or-nothing pace with which I had to keep up and, if possible, surpass. I wasn’t quick enough. Math became my nightmare; English, for the first time ever, became a difficult balance of thought and action that twisted more than it clarified. My burgeoning sense of entitlement, which for so long had seemed inherent, shrank until I was grasping frantically at any value I could truly call my own. I was being swallowed whole by my academic shortcomings and my social discomfort. Something needed to change.
Baby steps. Little, tiny steps that could somehow chart their way to major changes. Getting a general grip had to come first, since my apparent inability to manage anything had given way to apathy and inaction; if I decided that I simply could not “do” physics, than why bother trying at all? So, at my parents’ urging, I began seeking extra help. I stayed up late, struggled and cried over concepts too big for me to wrap my head around, and finally collapsed in an exhausted pile of minute success. I passed. Onto the next year, and the next hurdle: myself. In that year of struggle, my metabolism had slowed and my social awkwardness had skyrocketed. I had friends, but I didn’t know why they were my friends. I switched to all vegetables, all fruits, all the time. I became a vegetarian. I slowly eased my way into a Diet Coke addiction. And I shrank, physically. Within six months, I could officially be considered skinny. And then the parental love kicked in, and I became too skinny; a middle ground was struck. By the end of that second year, I was handily passing my classes and I had reached an acceptable weight, which in turn made me confident enough to decide who I wanted my friends to be. Overall, success had been achieved.
Junior year flew by in a haze of A’s and B’s. I learned that I was a horrible test-taker, but somehow made two perfect scores on the ACTs. Then the college search began. I was astute enough to know what I couldn’t reach, but again, that middle ground became elusive. Instead of reaching for the stars, I settled for the horizon. I applied to mid-range and safety-level schools, and I refused to remain in New England. After thirteen years in one place and a variety of personal transformations, I needed something new. I had picked up Spanish proficiency, had traveled to Madrid on an exchange program, and had road-tripped around Europe for a month with my family, and so I knew I would need to study abroad. As I would come to learn, I would always, always want something new. It seemed endless.
I settled on a small liberal arts school in Middle-of-Nowhere, Pennsylvania; the school was of no particular distinction, other than its idyllic campus and its renowned study abroad program. I had gotten my acceptance letter early, so I spent the remainder of my senior year resting on my collegiate laurels and planning for all the changes the not-too-distant future would bring. For a girl growing up in a stereotypical prep school setting, I had not had many stereotypical romantic experiences; my favorite genre, historical fiction, told me stories of epic romances and furtive, meaningful glances that, somehow, proved elusive in my reality; for a while, I thought that I had simply been born in the wrong time period. My loving parents told me over and over again that I was an old soul, and that any social misconceptions I had likely came from a more mature mindset. In a sense, I suppose that’s true; but I wanted my epic romance just as much as the next girl.
We were sent off from graduation with great pomp and circumstance, and with the reassurance that we were important and would do great things for the world; after all, we were elite and special. Within a few short months, my parents were driving me down to my small college in the middle of nowhere while I ecstatically took it all in from the backseat of the car. In this new setting, with its promise of fresh faces from all over the world, I had gained an instant sense of self-confidence; I was pretty, I was healthy, I was finally new to someone. To everyone; no one on this campus had ever seen me before. What’s odd is that I had no negative reputation to shed; I just knew that I wanted a new one. And so, as we moved my boxes of clothing and furniture into my tiny freshman double, I exuberantly greeted my stranger of a roommate and my hallmates. I was more outgoing than I had ever been, and I loved myself. My parents tearfully lingered at the goodbye luncheon, and I felt myself welling up despite all of my excitement. For the millionth time, I felt their love in an almost-tangible way; my mother’s hug and my father’s words both wrapped me in a lasting warmth that has never left. I felt my throat close as they disappeared into the car; I blinked, kept the tears at bay, and then went in search of my new classmates. I wanted to be everyone’s friend, and I was inexplicably capable of starting conversations with complete strangers. This was my new life. I could create a new me, all while holding onto the important parts of who I had been. And this is where the real story begins.