By Kat Freydl
The first time someone asked me about my college plans, I was 10 years old. I was a member of the Duke TIP program and every single honors program my school (about 400 students strong, a private school nestled in the moderately deep south). The instructor of my advanced reading and writing class, Great Books, used my essay introductions as examples, declaring them better than her own. My book reports were always kept as student samples. I had a picture of the Savannah College of Art and Design taped to the inside of my binder and a Harvard Sweatshirt that I wore like a security blanket.
“I’m not sure yet,” I said after some moments of deep, ten-year-old pondering. “But I really think I’d like to try for an Ivy.”
And that was that. I was a bright kid (by some strange alchemy, that was the term they always used, too--a bright kid), and there were big expectations for me, expectations that I never once doubted I would meet.
Time passed, as it does. In sixth grade, my history teacher mistakenly administered me an eighth grade U.S. history test rather than my own age-appropriate makeup test, and I scored a 100% even though I’d never studied the material. In seventh grade, I tried to start up a school newspaper. It failed, but at the end of the year, I still got the “aspiring graphic designer” award. I placed in all of the spelling bees and math competitions and art shows I was thrust into. The thing is, I was raised to believe that I was exceptional.
The thing is, I’m not.
The summer before ninth grade, I moved to Michigan to live with my father, vacating the Christian school nest for the big bad world of common core and underpaid teachers and arts as required electives. My first report card came back with three Cs, three Bs, and one A (in English. And it wasn’t an A, it was an A-), and I cried. It wasn’t the first time I had ever cut myself, but it was the first time I did it with feeling. I threw away my notebooks and signed up for tutoring at Sylvan. I stopped wearing the Harvard sweatshirt.
This place became normal to me. It was a public school, but it was one of the top public schools in the country, the kind where the University of Michigan was a safety school, and if you wanted some Adderall you just had to walk up to any kid and shake them a little. This school had seven lunch lines and a salad bar. This school had customized napkins. Instead of shoving me into a locker or calling me a faggot, kids sent me off to be friends with girls who would try to frame me for shoplifting at CVS. When I tried to kill myself, this school had a plan in place for it, a well-oiled machine from common use. This school. When I left it, it felt like I was breathing for the first time in two years. I came back here, to the moderately deep south, but stayed in public school, a system that puts more emphasis on getting by than excelling. And I’m here. I’m at that moment that my elementary school teachers and church ladies and distant relatives have been waiting for with bated breath since I was 10, the precipice of the rest of my life...and I don’t want it. I don’t want the gowns or the class rings or the flying graduation caps, the pomp and circumstance, the girls hugging me like they never gossipped about me in the cafeteria or over bathroom stalls, the photos and the smiles and the glossy, passive-aggressive graduation party invitations. I don’t want it. I don’t want to cross the threshold, walking over some metaphorical bridge off of this metaphorical precipice to the next one. In fact, more often than not, I want to fling myself off of this precipice and take the fall laughing. At least then the wind would tear the laughter from my throat and the reflexive tears from my eyes so I wouldn’t have to put in the effort of holding them back.
I’m not a bright kid, and possibly never was. If anything, I was born too old for my body, and that stopped being impressive once my physical age caught up with my witty one-liners and knitting hobby. Soon, the other things--the local newspaper articles, the poetry books, the writing gigs, the jokes and the jokes and the jokes--will stop being impressive too, and I’ll just be left with this (bathtub-pruned fingers and dead hair from one too many bleaches and tears and tears and tears). I suppose that’s why now, at the less-than-a-semester left mark, I’m spending large amounts of time crying and watching reruns of bad Nickelodeon shows and reading teen novels rather than the dense philosophical literature that has come to be expected of me. I’m horrible at making choices, is the thing, and grey has never worked for me--I eat too much or not at all, I sleep all day or don’t sleep for a week, I wait until approximately one day ago to paint over the garish neon pink and lime green of my bedroom walls from age 13. I can’t compromise with the simplest of objects, like my mother’s clawfooted bathtub, which instead of filling up like a normal person I lay in, stark naked, turning on the spigots in turns, scalding hot water as long as I can stand it followed by freezing cold until the tub is full and my nervous system is well and truly overwhelmed. And I suppose that’s why, after 7 years of prepping for the Ivy Leagues, I’m not settling for community college, but actually want it, even though everyone I tell makes a face like they’ve just eaten something sour, waiting a few beats too late to respond with a fake-enthusiastic “Oh.” It’s the want they don’t get. Bright kids don’t take a year or two to go to community college in the town they’ve spent their whole lives scraping the walls of. And yeah, sour-faced-downers, I guess you’re right. Bright kids don’t.
I am not a bright kid. I want it. I want the weird credit hours and the familiarity of routine, picking up hours at Smithfield’s Chicken and Barbecue or Olive Garden or whatever other mundane job will take me, refilling sweet tea for people I’ve known in this same old town for my whole life, spending the excess time writing and reading and making art and living and laughing and watching my baby sister and baby underclassmen friends grow up and, yeah, it’s true, saving money so that that same baby sister can go to the university of her dreams. It was a decision made out of obligation but solidified by choice. I choose the sour faces and the puckered brows and the southern-fried, gossipy whispers. I defer my acceptance letter and honors college enrollment to the unversity of my dreams, put it on the back burner for later and take the closest thing to a gap year a person like me can manage. I’m not a bright kid. I’m a kid, said derisively by a bitter woman as she looks at my dyed hair and dubious clothing choices disapprovingly. I am poser trips to record stores and iced coffee with too much cream and sugar.I am writing this at my desk in my freshly repainted room with Christmas lights draped over paintings and drawings and photos of my friends that plaster the walls, clad in a bathrobe and sipping a Vitamin Water.
I am not going to an Ivy League. I am not bright. I am, maybe for the first time, letting myself be average.
I’ve never been happier.