The bright orange ball of light on my dash that was all too familiar and hard to ignore challenged me to push my car just one more mile to the next gas station. Pedal to the metal, yellow lights trying to snag me as I sped down Middle Country Road. I coast into the parking lot of the gas station, overwhelmed with appreciation and achievement that I made it to the next check point of my day. I quickly call my mom: “Hey, did it come yet? Oh, Thank God. Okay, can you deposit it into my account? Thanks, mom." I glared angrily at the annoying orange glow that illuminated my below empty gas gauge, feeling defeated. Next step, wait for a check to relieve my overdrawn account of its exhausted funds. As I looked out into the snowy commercialized landscape of Centereach, I had a brief memory of looking out of the window at Patchogue-Medford High School while trying to pay attention in an AP history course. I couldn’t help but think that a simple warning about future financial struggles may have helped me out a bit more than learning about Emperor Yu of the I’ll-never-remember-the-name-of-this-anyway-dynasty.
“I just need you to say that you want to marry me, why can’t you just give me that confirmation, that security?” I sat there in silence, watching geese fly away into a dusky horizon from a park bench. I couldn’t lie, but I also couldn’t find it within myself to admit the truth to him. He had pushed me from day one. I had pushed myself, pushed myself to fall in love. After some convincing, I thought I was. I spent so much time thinking that I was in love, that I lost track of my happiness, my desires, myself. In the end, love shouldn’t need pushing. Love shouldn’t need convincing. Love should never revolve around logic. Perhaps true love, real love, undying love, occurs as naturally as the sun rising, a flower blooming, or a seagull gliding on a breeze. No pushing needed because the plunge into vulnerability is mutual. Yet, there’s always pain. The winds change, the tides shift, the waves become rough. You know what hurts the most about love? When you realize you never had it for someone. When you have to end things because you realized that your heart won in the battle between your soul and your mind. Then, you feel confused because you wonder what love really is and when you will feel it, or if it even exists. Dear 10th grade health teacher who shall not be named, why did you not casually mention that we are all likely to be heartbroken but also be heartbreakers in between slides of herpes pictures and diagrams of genitalia?
Friday nights were once about finishing a sleeve of Oreo cookies no problem, dancing to Snoop Dog, giggling about the latest development with the boy from the concert last night or that hot football player everyone wants, and laughing so hard that it hurt. “We’ll never lose touch, you’re my best friend forever, don’t ever change!” so many of my high school yearbook signatures claimed. I haven’t changed, so what has? What’s changed that keeps you from responding to my attempts to hang out again? Where did you even go? Who are you anymore? The best is when you bump into them around town and they give you a big hug like nothing has changed. “We have to get together soon and catch up! Shoot me a text, here’s my new number!” Well, the text has been shot. So has any chance of us hanging out again in the future, because it’s just plain offensive when you never answer again.
It’s all part of growing up, losing who you’re supposed to, gaining new and amazing people to replace the others. Separation is natural. I’ve come to realize that life is like a train, people constantly getting on and off, some stay on longer than others. Perhaps all those nights I spent copying down textbook definitions of American history that I no longer recall would have been more useful if I also had to define what I thought the true meaning of friendship was. Perhaps my teacher at the time could have enforced the idea of the evolution of friendship as much as they did the evolution of the American presidents. Can you name the 23rd president of the U.S., by the way? I couldn’t either.
Ironically, I’ve only been able to find myself during the times that I’ve been the most lost. During times of emptiness, darkness, lack of direction. Something strange happened to me in my early twenties, it felt like a veil had been lifted from my face and I was suddenly seeing the big picture, but it was as frightening as it was intriguing. My perception changed. So many of the social, religious and ethical constructs and expectations that I had been raised with began to evolve. I questioned Catholicism and reconsidered my beliefs. I wondered about God. I felt confused by all the suffering that occurs in the world. I removed the idea from my mind of having a set plan with steps and an end goal. I started to try to imagine the world through the eyes of the underdogs, the strugglers, the unheard, the unspoken.
That veil being lifted left be temporarily blind, like the light of the knowledge was too much for my eyes to handle right away. Suddenly, I didn’t know myself. I had removed so much of what I had been conditioned to believe in all my life that I felt blank when I had nothing else to fill that space in my mind, and it was pretty unnerving. I realized that my beliefs do help to define me. So, without any belief at all, my definition felt, well, blank. I remember my trigonometry professor becoming frustrated with me because I just didn’t understand a particular problem. I wasn’t seeing it the way she saw it. “How could that not make sense?” she asked with impatience. Imagine if she instead told me in that moment that there will be a lot of things about life that just won’t make sense one day?
There is a difference in learning and being educated. I feel that education tends to fall within limitations: textbook definitions, narrow-minded principles, monotonous curriculums and societal standards. Learning often involves passion, motivation, and wisdom. It requires experience, success, and failure. I’ve had so many wonderful teachers and professors throughout my almost decade long experience through high school and college. It’s not their faults that they are required to teach specific curriculums according to state standards. However, could you imagine if it became a requirement for all teachers and professors to include a short segment on a life lesson into their history, mathematics, English or biology curriculum? I think it was necessary for me to learn these things on my own, in some way, and of course it differs for everyone. Learning through experience definitely provided me with bits of wisdom that chipped away at my ignorance as well as innocence. However, I have no shame in admitting that I was not prepared in most cases. Life has smacked me in the face with surprise quite a few times and it’s really just beginning.
Now, I try to treat every situation as if it were a classroom. My life has become a work in progress. Homework hasn’t stopped, it just takes place in my head now as thoughts that I need to clarify and questions I need to find answers to. Memorizing textbook definitions has transitioned into learning to define the bigger things in life: love, friendship, forgiveness, shame. Lectures from teachers and professors haven’t stopped, as I’ve received some of the best lessons I’ve ever experienced from strangers, coworkers, friends, nature. I appreciate that my life is an ever-changing classroom, I love to learn. Yet, I also like to be prepared. If only High School could have snuck a few hints in about the real world here and there, maybe I’d be at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs right now as a self-actualized warrior princess who is saving the world. And yes, that IS something I actually remember.