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Letters to Young People: Unsayable

I wrote this to a student at the end of last semester, one who was struggling with what looked pretty clearly to me like depression and/or self-deprecating thoughts that go along with it. I never sent this. This is the kind of thing that would lose you your job. But I think it is so, so utterly, important to say. If you’re in college, this may be a letter to you, from a college professor.

College staff, like high school teachers and college counselors, are not supposed to tell students not to go to college, in this day and age when the President is publicly talking about how important it is for EVERY student to go to college. We may feel that college is not for everyone, or that students ought to take a break, but we can’t say that…. because it is the opposite of doing our job. It’s the kind of thing that would probably bring the wrath of angry parents screaming into our department offices. And then, our job is in part to make sure the college continues to make money. And every student who leaves college is a student whose parents are not paying tuition, whose scholarship is not being sent to the school.

I guarantee that if you looked hard, though, there is at least one person in any group of teachers, college professors, and advisors (probably many of them!) who, outside of their jobs, would like to give advice something like the following to students navigating the college-y path between high school and jobs:

Take a year off from school, if you haven’t already. Or a few years.

Not because you’re dumb (you are NOT!), not because you need a rest (just sitting around can sometimes lead to being more depressed).

Do it because you need to know who you are when you’re working outside of school.

School is really, really good at making us compare ourselves to other people, and feel terrible about it. Because the job of school in society is sorting out who should be in which jobs, it actually makes us feel bad as a normal part of the process of that sorting.

I was never the top-scoring kid at my (really scary!) school full of braniacs as a kid, and I always felt like I didn’t deserve the best college or jobs because of it. My sister went to the same school and felt the same way, and nearly melted down entirely because of it. I mean, we almost lost her.

But I had a lot of different jobs in weird places, and when I ended up teaching at the public school in the inner city, I realized there were a lot of people who were struggling a LOT harder with their lives than I was. So how smart I was didn’t matter as much as how much I was willing and able to pitch in and help. When I was working there I actually started thinking of myself as a totally different person, who was worthy because of the help she gave, and how well she could work with other people, instead of how smart everyone thought she was. It was really, really important to get out of the weird artificial system of judging myself based on numbers and grades, which, after college, really didn’t matter to anyone at all.

And my sister had a lot of jobs in weird places (clearing fire trails in Idaho, tagging horned toads in Nevada, operating a bulldozer in Washington, working for Planned Parenthood, being a medical test subject — I totally DO NOT recommend that last one, it’s scary). And now she has an interesting government job and a new baby and a super-hot, really sweet husband :) Things get better once you get out of school and get school out of your system.

So I say take some time off. Don’t think of it as dropping out, because it’s not.

Take an easy, simple, boring job in an office someplace. Or working with kids. Or doing something like waiting tables or working retail that you have a hunch you don’t want to do forever. Or something weird with reliable pay, like my friend who worked as a bartender on the railway through Canada to Alaska for a while.

I know you’ve probably had a few jobs already. A few more won’t hurt — comparing them helps you understand what kind of work you really like to do (which won’t look the same as it does from what school is telling you about work, which as you probably suspect is often wrong) and what things you want to avoid doing.

Do it full time, not trying to do school at the same time. Let me tell you, not having homework totally changes your mind about EVERYTHING — you have time to be yourself on your off hours for a change. You’re not constantly haunted by stress, by knowing there’s something you’re supposed to be doing. And getting bored or frustrated with a bad job is great motivation to figure out what you need to do to get the hell out of jobs like that, permanently.

People won’t see you as dumb because you did this. I promise. Most of the people I know who took time off come back to school and do *way better* at it than they did before, so your grades might even do better. And people often see them as more mature.

It’s hard to leave the friends in your class, I know, and not go through the stuff they’re going through while they do. Your really good friends, though, will keep in touch on Facebook or other ways online. If you have really good friends who can’t be found online — friends who you can tell anything to — go out of your way to call them when you’re feeling lonely. Talk to them about stuff that’s not school-related. And find some new friends online, maybe through Meetup, where you can meet people in groups to do things in real life. Make friends at your job, even if they come from places nothing like where you’re from. I’ve met some people who have supported me through some really hard times that way.

That’s one person’s advice. Here’s some more advice from a respected professional in the tech industry (where there’s a lot of sympathy for people who dropped out; many programmers and even heads of corporations have done it):

‘At the moment when young people are considering their career strategy, they have typically made all of their life choices completely within supporting structures. Even having worked hard to get where they are, and even though things like class and race can mean that some have the cards stacked against them, it’s rare for young people to have substantially departed from supporting frameworks. Highschools have “college counselors” (not “dropout counselors”), scholarships and financial aid packages lead in a single direction, and university overlaps with internships —which then culminates largely in a series of “career fairs.” There is a tremendous amount of support for these decisions, and very little support for making any deviating choices.

‘When we arrive at the ends of these funnels, it’s possible that the direction we’re facing is more a reflection of those structures than it is a reflection of ourselves. Self-determination in a moment like that can’t simply be about making a choice, it has to start with transforming the conditions that /constitute/ our choices. It requires challenging the “self” in “self-determination” by stepping as far outside of those supporting structures as possible, for as long as possible.

‘This is necessarily terrifying. I think a lot about a quote from Alfredo Bonanno, an anarchist and habitual bank robber, on the feeling of leaving prison:

‘”The instant you get out of prison you have the sensation that you are leaving something dear to you. Why? Because you know that you are leaving a part of your life inside, because you spent some of your life there which, even if it was under terrible conditions, is still a part of you. And even if you lived it badly and suffered horribly, which is not always the case, it is always better than the nothing that your life is reduced to the moment it disappears. – Alfredo Bonanno, “Locked Up”

‘I know that the most significant and meaningful periods of my life have all been moments that I could have never rationally chosen or even /known as possibilities/ had I not been foolish or lucky enough to step into the nothingness that Alfredo Bonanno writes about. I try to remind myself that if leaving prison is scary, the same is likely true for any genuine process of discovery.

That’s basically what I was saying, too: most of us have never thought outside of ‘supporting structures’ (what a gentle euphemism, for a prison or for a school!) before we get out of college. And those supporting structures only go on for so long. It feels safe inside them and scary outside them, but the trade-offs of scary are worth it.

You’ll find similar advice in these two books, which had a big impact on me, and I recommend them to everyone: The Teenage Liberation Handbook and Dumbing Us Down.

Good luck. Be brave. The rest of us who are done with all that school nonsense are outside waiting for you.

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