85: My Gap Year Plans

85: My Gap Year Plans

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

My Gap Year Plans

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

~Mark Twain

Some nights during my junior year I lay in bed late at night, stressed out by my U.S. History textbook, The Enduring Vision, which rested on my desk, demanding to be annotated and underlined, read and understood. I lay and thought about the freedom that supposedly flourished outside the walls of my dormitory room and the fences of my boarding school, Deerfield Academy

Summer came after anti-climactic final exams, and I looked at a few colleges before I left for a month in Guayavi, Costa Rica, to do community service work for the one hundred inhabitants of the tiny mountain town. We arrived in San Jose and drove eight hours south, towards the Panamanian border, on paved roads that quickly turned into rocky roads embedded with deep ruts from the daily rainfall. When the sixteen of us arrived, we were met with wide eyes and seeming admiration; our next door neighbors Josué, ten, and Antony, six, ran from their small house with dirt floors and a tin roof. They were curious to meet Americans for the first time.

We fell into a routine quickly. We woke every morning at 6:30 and climbed out of our sleeping bags, dressed in the same clothes we had worn so many hot and humid days before, and walked down the rocky, scarred roads to the salon comunal. There was always a layer of fog that hovered quietly, almost apathetically, above the ground and as we walked we could see down into a deep valley walled in by blue-forested mountains that rose emphatically just half a mile away. The land that lay beyond was too far to see, but I thought it might be the Pacific that rested behind those mountains.

Collectively, we lost ourselves in the landscape, the mountains and the jungle, and in our jobs, whether teaching English or painting a schoolhouse. My friend from Tampa Bay was able to forget her best friend’s eating disorder, and my other friend, from New York, could postpone dealing with his parents’ rough divorce. In the company of fifteen other high school students, we were all able to take a step outside the stresses of our everyday lives and understand how we wanted to deal with them when we returned home.

It was Peter, our group leader, an International Relations major and graduate of Tufts University, who first planted the seed of a gap year in my mind, a seed that would soon flourish like the freedom it entails.

“I took a gap year in Nicaragua,” he told us. “I didn’t know any Spanish and went there planning to stay for three months. I ended up staying for the year. It was an unbelievable experience. I was alone with my own thoughts for weeks, until I had the language skills to meet people. Did you know that it’s possible to remember your dreams?” he continued. “I used to write down my dreams every morning, and by the end of the year, I could not only remember every insignificant detail from any dream, but also write eight pages about it every morning in a journal I kept next to my bed.”

Enthralled, I listened to Peter’s stories from Nicaragua, stories that it seemed an eighteen-year-old would rarely have the opportunity to be a part of.

The next spring, I got into college with a sigh of relief; nevertheless, I kept telling everyone that I was going to take a year off, without giving it much thought. One day, I talked to a friend who hadn’t gotten into any schools and on a whim we decided to live in Argentina together and teach English.

My parents fully supported my decision to take a gap year because my mom has researched it, finding articles that wholeheartedly endorsed the idea.

“Did you know that Princeton is requiring 10% of its students to take a gap year next year?” my mom asked.

“No,” I responded, almost uninterested, for I had already made up my mind.

I knew that I would stay in touch with high school and middle school friends, although they would be a year older than me in college. In college, age doesn’t really make a difference. I decided that a year traveling was the type of education I would learn from the most the next year. I sent in a deferral letter.

My month in Costa Rica was the first opportunity I was given to leave the bubble of American high school and my American way of life, and I am excited to go and experience the real world for a full year this time.

My group leader, Peter, suggested that we work in the National Park Service in Patagonia while we are in Argentina, and warned us not to plan on making money. The idea evolved and now four of us will be teaching English next year in Buenos Aires, learning how to manage our own money and relate to people in a foreign language.

Until I leave for Buenos Aires, I will be in the Himalayas for three months on a similar program to the one I did in Costa Rica, without anyone that I know.

My mom and I both laugh when she tells me some of her friends’ concerns. “What will you do if Bo comes home from the Himalayas with a wife and family?”

“What happens if he never comes home from Argentina?”

I would be lying if I told you my family isn’t worried, but I am grateful to them for giving me the freedom to choose what I want to do next year.

I am now reading Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, who tried to summit K2, failed, and is now building schools in rural Pakistan. At the beginning of every chapter there is a quote and at the beginning of Chapter 7 entitled “Hard Way Home,” the quote reads:

This harsh and splendid land
With snow-covered rock mountains, cold-crystal streams,
Deep forests of cypress, juniper and ash
Is as much my body as what you see before you here.
I cannot be separated from this or from you.
Our many hearts have only a single beat.

~from The Warrior Song of King Cezar

I hope to experience this “single beat” over the next year in the Himalayas and in Argentina, whether in the vastness of Patagonia, the crags of the Himalayas, or the concrete expanses of Buenos Aires. I hope to surrender myself to my surroundings, to the people and the places, yet also to remember my dreams every morning. And I look forward to returning to the mountains, with only the landscape and my own thoughts, pursuing the enduring vision, without expectations and with nothing to lose. As Peter says, “You can’t even imagine how much you will change.”

~Bo Swindell

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