It began with a simple choice: I wanted to experience life outside of the boundaries of formal education. My high school experience ended in June of 1999, and everyone I knew was going to college in August. My friends and family were worried about my lack of preparation in this area, mainly because I had a poor GPA and hadn't actually applied to any colleges. But I had a different idea about what to do after summer.
I wanted to put some distance between the psychic trauma of surviving a District 11 education and the terror of doing it all over again in three months, only paying money for it. So I made the choice to wait for a year before I went to college. I would have the chance to figure out what I really wanted out of life before I had to go out and get one.
As it turned out, just making that choice turned out to be an adventure. Every person I talked to was shocked that I would even consider doing it. Everyone "knew" that getting in to college as soon as you could was the smart thing to do, so why was I defying conventional wisdom like this? Didn't I know that no one would hire me if I didn't go in for at least two more years of schooling?
Those who weren't shocked regarded me with the kind of honest skepticism usually reserved for cliff divers or free climbers. In their opinion, either I knew exactly what I was doing, or I simply didn't care about the consequences. In fact, the only people who really agreed with my reasoning were college students who wished they'd taken time off themselves.
My reasoning was sound enough. Why spend terrifying amounts of money buying books and living in cramped dorms, enduring panty raids and bingeing contests? Why not get a job, buy a car, take long cross-country vacations and generally come and go as you choose?
Once the decision was made, I began to formulate a plan for how I would spend that year. The first thing I would need was a job, because that's how you get money, and I needed lots of it. Three of my good friends decided to follow my subversive example so that we might spend as much time together as we could before any of us left the state for college. We all had acquired pretty decent jobs at the end of our senior year, but none of us made enough to do anything fun. Except, that is, for one guy who got his MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certification and now makes about fifty bajillion dollars a year at MCI as a network systems administrator, or some such thing. And then there was the question of housing. We found a place in the very decent neighborhood of Walnut Street for $250 a month each, split four ways, utilities not included.
Now, one might imagine that an entire house would be plenty of room for four people to live in relative harmony, but much of that depends on the kind of roommates you keep.
The truth of the matter turned out to be quite a bit messier than we had planned, and after four months of miscommunication, not-so-minor grievances, late payments and frozen burritos, we had to call it quits. Hanging out with friends is fundamentally different from living with them, and it's best if you can understand this before you actually attempt it. If you can arrange to live with an ordained saint instead, then that's perfect.
If not, at least get a dog to share in your misery. Because you will be miserable. Unless your parents are more generous than anyone has any right to expect, you will be poor, perpetually low on food, unable to rent movies or go to restaurants, and continually probing the area past the "E" on your gas gauge.
But living poor forces you to take pleasure in the smaller things in life, substituting Frisbee in the park for a Rockies game, or reading books from the library instead of paying through the nose at a megaplex. And, while this may not necessarily sound like a good thing, you spend more time with your friends when you're not running off somewhere to do something.
Ah, many were the nights when we got together and made fun of Judge Dredd, Army of Darkness, or any one of the six-dozen cheesy movies we'd managed to pick up used for $1.95. We bought cheap party games for the PlayStation and spent hours trying to beat each other's records. We even had, heaven help us, a fair collection of ultra-violent Japanese animation, which is perfect for those nights when you want something flashing in front of your face, but you can't spare the energy to care about it. All told, we probably sat through over 200 hours of it.
Eventually, there were parties. There were drinks. There were drinks mixed with drinks mixed with the parties, and there were mornings where we weren't sure if we were dead or alive, only that we felt terrible. Work days always loomed threateningly around the corner.
And then a pair of rather remarkable opportunities came my way. The first one was sitting off to the side of the road on Union Blvd., and it had a big FOR SALE sign in the back window. It was a 1966 Mustang, the car of my dreams, and the sign asked for $3,000 or Best Offer. Somehow I convinced my mother to buy it for me, on the condition that I pay her back for it and restore it to its original condition.
This would be no easy task, but I had a full year to spend studying technical manuals and learning everything I could. The car needed a lot of work to get up and running again, at least to the point where I could drive people around comfortably and safely. We fixed the fuel line, replaced the rear suspension, installed a new carburetor and fixed up the interior so that it was at least all the same color. When all was said and done, I owed my mother around $5,000 total. But to me, it was worth it.
Second, I got a package in the mail from the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, an outdoors education program based in Maine. The package contained information on various classes that they were offering, and the one that caught my eye was a 55-day backpacking and canoeing expedition through the Canadian backcountry. The course was scheduled for that July, which meant I had just enough time to save up my share of the tuition and buy all the equipment I would need. A day after I read that flyer I signed up for the course on the Internet, and began training.
The months passed by slowly, and after much anticipation and preparation I flew off to Portland, Maine. I planned to spend almost two months away from family and friends and anyone else who might even have a clue about who I was.
The universe detests imbalance, though, and apparently things had been going just a bit too well for me lately. So three days into my trip I twisted my knee around and snapped the cartilage beneath my kneecap and had to leave ten days later. We had just finished going through an area called Mahoosuc Notch, known to hikers worldwide as the most beautiful and most difficult one-mile stretch of the Appalatian Trail. The following day we were to go rock climbing at nearby Table Rock, but I was restricted to cheerleading everyone else as they climbed.
I came back with more respect for the natural environment than I'd ever had, and a greater desire to spend a measurable percentage of my life out of doors. That brief trip was the most expensive, yet most rewarding thing I did that whole year. Despite the outcome I wouldn't have done a thing different, and as a friend of mine would later tell me, at least I tried something that no one else I knew had ever done. That was important, I think, because the goal and the outcome had never changed. I had always wanted to be different, to do things my way, and the second I stepped foot on the plane that would take me across the continent, I fulfilled that desire completely.
Upon my return, however, things at home began to seriously unravel. Everyone knew when I was leaving, and had taken steps to see that my share of the rent would be covered. In fact, someone else we had known from high school was kicked out of her house shortly before I left, and we had arranged for her to move in with all of us until I returned.
But someone hadn't made the payments, and the landlord was pissed off. Arguments between the housemates had apparently escalated during my absence as well, and so it was decided that the best thing to do would be to move out on our own. Some of us, myself included, had homes to go back to. Others would have to find somewhere else to live, and the transition was tough on us all. We all assumed (with that sort of teenage ignorance well known to parents) that things would be fine. But we found out the hard way that living together and hanging out together are two very different things, and our breakup left me with one less friend.
As the summer one year post-high school graduation passed, I realized that it would no longer be possible for me to avoid getting a higher education if I wanted to move up in the world. And so I signed up for classes at Pikes Peak Community College, and now I plan to stay there for two years before moving on to a four-year school. Going back to school has made my life more hectic, and yet somehow more ordered than it was. I have things to do now besides work and play, and for the first time in a year my life has some direction to it.
All that time gave me a chance to decide what there is in the world that's worth doing -- which is good, because as soon as you leave high school your general impression of the world is that it is an extremely nasty, violent and difficult place to get along in. And while that's not far off the mark, teenagers usually just assume that because something is difficult, the wisest course of action is to put off having to deal with it for as long as possible.
But this attitude is wrong, or at least misguided. The worst possible outcome of taking time off is that you'll be a year behind all your friends who ran straight to college. Even then you'll be a year ahead of them in experience, and the things you learn when you're living on your own can never be taught inside a classroom. A college education is too important to spend on a whim, so for your own sake, take the time to figure out what you want to do with your life before you go and change it.