The Great Escape

The Great Escape

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Great Escape

I never felt like I could be myself in high school. I thought I had no choice: either I played cute, or boys wouldn’t talk to me. So I hid my grades, kept my love for T. S. Eliot to myself and spoke in short sentences (“Good game,” for example), biding my time until I could get to a place where everything would be different.

College, I knew, would be just that—the great escape to a place where everyone would talk fast, love books, stay up all night and not obsess about football. A chance to throw off the cheerleading uniform and let the real, witty, sophisticated me break free from my fake self. So I moved two thousand miles away from my tiny coal-mining town in western Colorado to attend Columbia University in New York City—the capital of fast-talking, book-readingweirdos.

Butwhen I got to Columbia, the witty, sophisticated me, instead of bursting free, dove for cover. Everyone in New York seemed either insane or awesomely together. I couldn’t imagine whom to hang out with or where I fit in. A girl in my hall raved about the rowing crew, so I declared that I would join. But when it came time to get up at 5:30 A.M. for a swimming test, I bailed. Then I went to a sorority rush event and realized that pledging meant wearing pearls— so I split. Finally, I closed my eyes and jumped headlong into the hipster scene. I got a crew cut, bleached it blond, bought black clothes and dated an actor who claimed to have once stolen Ethan Hawke’s girlfriend.

But somehow nothing quite worked. There’s not a lot you can do with a crew cut, and black clothes get gloomy after six months straight. Plus, the actor continued to steal other people’s girlfriends—while he was dating me. I tried to throw myself into my schoolwork, but my classes were so huge and formal that I was afraid to open my mouth. So there I was—still the same confused person in spite of my new surroundings.

But when I least expected it, things turned around. I started waitressing at a local café and met my soon-to-be best friend. We spent all our spare time there, studying and hanging out even when we weren’t hawking fat-free cranberry muffins. Inside the café, I found a more casual atmosphere. A few of my professors came by regularly, and, perhaps because I was the one behind the espresso machine, we had the kind of relaxed, interesting conversations I’d imagined in high school. I found a close circle of friends. Another waitress and I started writing stories we called The Adventures of Shark and Desperate Girl, chronicling the paranoid behavior of two café regulars having a torrid, not-so-secret affair. I began to learn the fine art of flirting with the firemen who came in for java breaks and, finally, realized that I liked my life.

So college is the perfect place to find—or redo—yourself. Suddenly, without parents and high-school friends who remember when you tripped down the stairs at junior prom, it’s a level playing field. The time is ripe to explore that long-concealed interest in pre-Cambrian fossils or to date a goateed poet type.

But once you have the chance to be anything you want, you face the really tough question: What do you want?

It’s harder than it sounds. What you think you want when you’re surrounded by familiar faces looks different in a new place. Things you thought were cool suddenly appear dorky, irrelevant or simply wrong. In high school, I was sure I’d fall in love with the first man who wanted to talk about Hemingway; but when I met that person, I hated his guts. I thought I’d find my voice in a college classroom; but in the end I was much happier scribbling down my thoughts and discussing them in the relaxed atmosphere of a coffee shop.

In other words, if you yearn to be someone quite unlike your high-school self, be fearless. Try whatever you can imagine until you find something that really fits. But in the meantime, go easy on yourself and others who are shopping for a new identity. I remember cattily criticizing a very straightlaced friend who had bought herself a motorcycle jacket. “How tacky,” I told someone. “She’s trying to look so tough, and she’s so premed.”

“You got a crew cut and dyed it blond,” another friend pointed out.

Yeah, I thought, I did. Maybe I should give her a break.

After all, my friends and family gave me many breaks. They knew—even when I didn’t—that somewhere amid all these shifting ambitions and new outfits, the same person still existed. And at graduation, as I was looking around the campus—my hair had almost grown out—it finally became clear to me why I’d come all these miles. It wasn’t to become a completely different person. It was simply to figure out how to be comfortable with the person I was—not only at a huge university in an edgy city, but inside my own skin.

Wendy Marston

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