21: Running Through the Woods

21: Running Through the Woods

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

Running Through the Woods

In youth we learn; in age we understand.

~Marie Ebner-Eschenbach

I remember running through the woods. My blue silk dress was getting caught in the brush as we made our way from the dance hall to the parking lot. Through the trees, I could see my father’s car racing up the school driveway.

I pulled off my shoes, which kept getting stuck in the damp spring ground, and Billy (the name I will use here) held my hand to steady me. Then we ran the remaining distance to his car.

I didn’t start crying until we reached the main road and was certain my father hadn’t followed us. Billy lit a cigarette and shook his head. Neither of us could believe the night had taken such a wrong turn, that my senior prom had spiraled into a disaster that was, we knew, only just beginning.

It was a right of passage in the 1980s, getting a string of hotel rooms after prom. It was understood that we had all lied about where we would stay that night, that we would dance and drink and party together, sleep four to a bed then get up, go home, and face the last summer before college.

But my story was not that of the typical graduating senior, and how this night landed me in college still amazes me over twenty years later.

I met Billy the summer before my junior year. He was beautiful and irreverent and the attraction was as instantaneous as my parents’ concern. They had high hopes for me to attend an Ivy League school. I was the straight A high performer, the competitive figure skater who had just given up the sport to pursue my education. I had two years to fill out my already glorious resume, ace the SATs and fulfill my destiny. Billy did not fit into the equation.

None of this mattered. We were in love. That crazy, hormone induced teenage love that will not be denied. Not by parents. Not by the distance between our schools. Not even by the greater distance that resulted when he suddenly joined the Marine Corps at seventeen. I did what I had to do — got my grades, did my extracurriculars, started my college search. And in the spring of my senior year, I got engaged to my Marine boyfriend.

This meant one thing to my parents. Terror. And the terror grew as the acceptance letters began to roll in. Of the eleven schools I applied to, nine accepted me. And one of them was Brown University. The Ivy League. It was well understood what this meant to my family. My grandparents were immigrants who struggled to live The American Dream, to give to their children what they did not have with the understanding that those children would, in turn, give their own children even more. Neither of my parents had finished college, but my father still managed to land a job on Wall Street and work his way up the ranks. I remember the progression of affluence well. The small houses getting bigger. The Ford Pinto being traded in for the Cadillac. And my older sister going off to college. It was my turn to do my part and I was failing miserably.

There was no question that I was drawn to Brown. Nestled in the hills of Providence, Rhode Island, with its historic buildings, traditional college green and highly privileged student body, it felt important. But Billy was stationed down south and I had offers waiting for me there too. I was torn between my love for him and a family history that was ingrained in me from before I could remember.

The after prom plan was the last straw for my parents. I was on the dance floor with Billy, my bare shoulders pressed against the stiff fabric of his uniform, when the chaperone pulled me aside. My father was on the phone, screaming. His every fear was being channeled into anger about this one small thing, this thing that should not have mattered, and his words were more hurtful than they might otherwise have been. I, too, had been holding back my own anger and I unleashed it into the receiver, then left it hanging as I grabbed Billy and told him we needed to run.

We got to his house half an hour later to find his parents waiting with a police officer. My father had called ahead and told Billy’s parents he was coming after me, and they were scared of what might happen. When my father arrived, there was little discussion. Thinking I had called the police, he was beside himself. He gave me two choices — come home with him now, or be forever disowned by the family. But it was not a choice I could make. Between his anger, my anger, Billy upstairs and my entire life unraveling before my eyes, I could not get in that car.

And so it came to be that I was disowned. I moved into an open dorm room at my school, where I was a day student, and they let me finish my last three weeks without charge for room and board. I am, to this day, forever grateful. Billy went back to his base in Mississippi, and I graduated without my parents in attendance. I spent the rest of the summer living with Billy’s kind and generous parents, working at a sandwich shop and scrambling to apply to a state university. I was not able to see my three younger siblings, my mother, my older sister, or needless to say, my father.

What I did not know was that my mother had filled out the form to accept the offer at Brown. And near the end of the summer, she came to me with a formal, written proposal. They would pay for college if I agreed not to marry Billy until after graduation. Of course, I had become so detached, so irreverent myself, that I turned down the offer. The summer was almost gone and I still had no plan for college.

One week before the start of school, my mother came again, this time without a formal document. This time, she said, they were willing to pay for Brown and see how things went. I was eighteen years old and I had a decision to make — one that went far beyond the choice of where to attend university.

In August of 1985, I packed up my car and drove north to Providence. I attended Brown for four years and graduated Magna Cum Laude. It took several months to reconcile with my family, and to realize that my life was moving on in a way that was incompatible with Billy’s.

Brown changed my life, opening doors and giving me the tools I now use as a thinker, a learner and a writer. There is no question that it was the perfect place for me. And yet I thought about Billy for years, and still do, because he taught me about love. I found him recently through the Internet. He is happily married, and I am happy for him. We talked about the past and I was, after all these years, able to explain the choice I made.

Life is always about choices it seems, and the older I get, the more I understand this, and accept it as truth. Still, there are times when I can feel Billy’s hand holding me up as I pulled my shoes from the mud in those woods.

~Wendy Walker


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