14: What Are You Made For?

14: What Are You Made For?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

What Are You Made For?

Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible— the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.

~Virginia Satir

My older sister filled out thirteen college applications. She sent them all around the country—to Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston. Then she sat back and waited for the replies, for the big fat envelopes, confident in her perfect GPA and her valedictorian’s cap.

Three years later, my own applications sat before me. They were all terrifyingly blank. I didn’t know what to say.

“What do you do in a typical day?” one question asked. How could I answer? The truth was that I stayed home all day. After my mom dropped me off at school I would pretend to go inside, then sneak back out across the soccer fields, catch the subway, and either go home or to the bookstore across the street. There I’d stay until my parents came home. When they asked if I wanted to go out, I’d tell them I’d had a busy day and was too tired. Forget extracurriculars. All I did was sleep, and when I couldn’t sleep, read.

“What do you see in your future?” asked another question. But I didn’t see anything.

“You should apply to as many schools as you can,” said my dad. “Keep your options open.”

He couldn’t know that all of my options were closed. There was no way any college would accept me, no matter how smart I was, with weeks of school skipped and failing grades. Of course, I couldn’t tell my dad that. I’d been lying to him—and everyone else — for months. I hid my report cards in a dark corner of my closet and deleted the concerned messages from my teachers off the phone.

So I took all of the applications and carefully put each one, mostly still blank, into an envelope. Sealed them, addressed them, and showed them to my father. Thirteen applications, just like his other perfect daughter. We mailed them together.

One day, about a month later, I snuck home early from school, only to find my parents sitting on the couch with sad, serious looks on their faces. “We’re worried about you,” they said. “We know there’s something wrong. The school called and said you haven’t been there since last week.”

I started to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t do it anymore. I used to like school—I still like learning—but I just can’t do it anymore.”

“Do what?”

“Get up in the morning. I can’t stand being up before the sun rises; I feel like a ghost. I fall asleep in all my classes. Not that it matters — not that they teach me anything I want to know. They won’t let me write stories or talk about politics or anything else I might actually want to do. How do you expect me to get up every morning for that?”

My parents brought me to a psychiatrist, who said I was depressed. I could have told him that. But when he said it, suddenly no one was angry anymore. My teachers all told me they would help me catch up with my work. The principal told me I wouldn’t be disciplined for skipping weeks of school.

So I went back to school, and it was just about bearable. At least I didn’t feel so guilty about lying to everyone all the time.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about those blank applications. Did it matter if I finished high school, if I wasn’t even going to college? What was the point?

I was just about to give up again when I got a phone call.

“Hello, this is Susan. I’m calling from the admissions office at Hampshire College.”

Hampshire College? I remembered the name. It was the only college I had even bothered trying to fill out the form for.

“We were wondering about your application,” she continued. “Your SAT scores are very high, as are your grades until this year. But it looks like last semester you failed three classes, and the application itself was only half filled out. What’s going on?”

“I’ve been depressed,” I said, and then, before I could stop myself: “I couldn’t stand school anymore. I couldn’t take one more test. I’m not a robot, I’m not made like that.”

I expected her to hang up on me. But instead she just asked, “What are you made for?”

So I told her about the stories and the poems that I wrote, how I loved politics and had twice interned with a local congressman, how I liked to read books about psychology and evolution and the beginning of the universe. I told her that I was made to learn, not to take tests or be told what to think. I told her that I was getting treatment for depression, but if college was anything like high school, I didn’t want to go.

“Some colleges may be like that,” she said, “but not Hampshire. We believe that every student should get to choose what they want to learn, to define their own education. It takes a special kind of student to succeed at Hampshire, and we think you’re one of them.”

“You do?” I asked.

“This is unofficial,” she replied, “but I just wanted you to know that in a few weeks you’re going to get a letter offering you admission to Hampshire.”

It wasn’t like my depression disappeared with those words. But to suddenly have a future again — to be told that a college wanted me in spite of my failing high school — maybe even because I couldn’t succeed at a regular high school or college—because I was different, independent, special... that was enough to get me to finally fight against my depression, to love and believe in myself and, years later, to be happy.

~Alexandra May

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