From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

So Afraid to Change

I was seventeen years old. I had just graduated in the top ten of my high-school class. I had a lot of friends. I had a scholarship to attend Johns Hopkins University. I had a girlfriend and a great family.

And when the time came to leave for college, to say good-bye to the place I had always called home, I lost it. I lost it the night before leaving, saying good-bye to my friends. I lost it in the car during the eight-hour drive to Baltimore. And when we actually got to the campus, I lost it completely. There was no way I was going to make it as a college student, not at Hopkins, not anywhere. I needed to go home. I needed to go home now.

My dad disagreed. At first. But eventually, after several hours of discussion back at the hotel room my parents had originally booked only for themselves, it was decided. I would take a leave of absence. The school understood and told me that my acceptance and scholarship would be held for me if I ever wanted them. But I had no intention of ever taking them up on their generous offer. What I wanted to do was go home and be eighteen forever.

My girlfriend was surprised to get the call that I had come back. She seemed more concerned than happy. Probably the right response.

Briefly, everything returned to the way I had remembered. I was back home and nothing had changed. I was still eighteen; I still had a girlfriend; I was still with my family. But then my friends started to leave for their respective colleges. Soon, there weren’t as many people around to hang out with, and the phrase “You need to get a job” was being thrown at me from all directions.

On a random drive through my town’s shopping plaza, a horseshoe-shaped strip mall, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of an everything-for-a-dollar store. I stopped in and asked to see the manager. Her name was Jean. She had bangs teased way up above her forehead and popped her gum incessantly. She smelled like a bowling alley.

“You’re not going to college?” she asked.


“That’s fine. I never went to college. Just makes you stuck-up anyways.”


“So you’ll be working five days a week, six hours a day. Your big jobs are mopping the floor and unloading the trucks that come with deliveries.”

“I’ve got the job?”

“Yeah, you got the job, college boy. We’ll start you at $4.25 an hour. That’s five cents more than what we could legally pay you.”

So it was done. Thirty hours a week. $4.25 an hour. Before taxes, a grand total of $127.50 every week. I started the next day.

The first truck arrived at 10:15, fifteen minutes after I had punched in. The second truck came at 1:00. The third truck came at 3:00. By the end of the day I had unloaded almost 12,000 pounds of cut-rate merchandise. I had earned $25.50.

The days wore on. There were many frustrating aspects to my new job, but the one I remember most is how angry I would get when the water in my mop bucket got dirty before I had finished cleaning the floor. One day I just stopped mopping. Jean threatened my job if I didn’t return mopping to my daily duties. I made excuses. I hid. I built a small room, deep within the piles of recently delivered boxes. I would read in my little fort. That was where I read Lolita and Catch-22 for the first time.

About a week after our mop confrontation, Jean was fired. Turns out she had been “borrowing” merchandise from the store to furnish her home. About thirty seconds after I’d heard of Jean’s dismissal I walked into the storeroom and wheeled my mop and bucket into a closet. I closed the door and never set eyes on them again.

In late October, the regional supervisor made a surprise visit to our store to see how we were doing without the services of a manager. She pulled me aside as her visit was coming to an end. “You’re a smart kid, right?” I wasn’t sure how to answer so I just nodded. “Well, a smart kid who works hard could really go places here.” I wasn’t sure if she was joking. “Talk to me in about six months, I might have an assistant manager position opening up in one of our other stores. You could be making one and a half times what you’re making now.” In six months, I could be making $6.40 an hour. The prospect left me underwhelmed. “Oh,” she continued, “and see if you can’t find a mop and clean up this floor. It’s filthy out here.”

On Halloween, my girlfriend broke up with me. She called me after taking her little brother trick-or-treating. She asked me to meet her, that we needed to talk. When I pulled up, she was waiting for me on the curb. She was dressed as a pumpkin. An orange felt globe covered her body from shoulders to thighs. Her head was painted green.

By early November, my posture was noticeably worse. I rarely smiled, and even on those days when I didn’t work, my clothes still smelled like cut-rate potpourri. I was down. It seemed like everything I had loved about this town, about being home, had changed. Then one night I got invited to go sledding. I lived outside of Buffalo, where snow in November is not an uncommon occurrence. I snuck onto the local country club grounds, where the best hills were located, with some friends of mine who were enjoying their senior year of high school. Surrounded by the exceptionally clear and chilly night, all they could talk about was college, the people they would meet, the parties they would go to, the chance to finally get out of this “tiny, stifling town.” I listened to them for almost an hour. I started thinking about the way Hopkins’s campus had looked when we drove up for the first time. I saw the students unloading vans and U-Hauls. A beach volleyball court had been built in front of one of the dorms. Flyers on the trees had announced upcoming parties and concerts. That was all there. And I was here.

And I was jealous.

It shocked me. It was then that I realized I had changed. I had been trying with everything I could muster to hold onto that time of graduations, friends and girlfriends, trying to hold off the future as long as I could, without even realizing that I had been changing the whole time. I’d let some ties drop away, others had come undone. And now I was jealous of my high-school friends. I wanted their future, the same one I had put on hold.

It was time to act.

The next morning, I met my dad in the dining room. “Dad,” I said, “you think you could call Hopkins and ask about me heading back there this January?”

He smiled, didn’t make a big deal. “I’ll see what I can find out,” is all he said.

Two months later, my father and I were taking that same route that had proven so problematic in September. The eight-hour drive seemed to take forever, and I’d be lying if I said a little of that old fear, that longing for the past, didn’t come back. But every time it did, I thought about that night in the snow. I felt the rush of excitement that came with thoughts of starting a new chapter in my life, with new challenges, and the fear faded away. As we drove through the backwoods of Pennsylvania, we passed by a faded old sign on rusted posts, maybe from the previous fall, maybe from the Great Depression, advertising “jack-o-lanterns next left.” I smiled and pulled a map from the glove box. We only had about a hundred more miles to go.

Chris Sullivan

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