December 14, 2013

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Not Going to High School

My last post at Blogger Idol:

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned From Not Going to High School

Yours Truly, first week at
Community High School
Our town had an alternative high school- Community. It was notorious for a staunch refusal to conform to conventional ideas of standardization and structure. Many students graduated after three years, received credits for jobs, or took classes at local colleges. The school had no sports teams, but boasted a jazz band that played the Grammy's. The school mascot was a psychedelic zebra.

Admittance was based on lottery, and I won.

I'd been home schooled, studying chemistry and history out of textbooks, taking hula lessons and frequenting open mics. When I arrived for my first day at Community, I felt for the first time I belonged. My patchwork cloak and ribboned top hat were positively mundane. During free periods I lounged in the hallway, painting classmates' faces and playing chess. I took writing classes from University of Michigan students, an elective concocted by a friend where we watched "Animal House" and went camping, and studied dream interpretation with the infamous Tom Dodd.

The next year a new dean attempted to dismantle those programs, and after fifteen months of high school I dropped out. My mother told Washtenaw Community College I would home school again, and I registered as a part-time dual-enrollee. I loved my classes so much, learned so much, the next semester I registered full time. I had my student ID, I knew the process... nobody stopped me.

Over the next several years I was first in line for permission to exceed the 18 credit maximum, and councilors never asked if I was allowed to register. They nodded as I explained I had the time and energy to take yet another class, and signed my paperwork.

My best friend took me to his "Our
School Is Being Dismantled"
dance- that's me in all black.
In the fall of what would have been my senior year I took 27 college credits, including a play: La Casa de Bernarda Alba.

I was also occupied with my own projects. I took the GED to shore up my applications to transfer to an "elite" university. I snagged a solo art exhibition, and took on quadruple duty with my Rocky Horror Picture Show stage troupe- playing Magenta, Janet, making sets, and sewing costumes.

My classes started at 7:30am. I did homework during breaks, ate sandwiches from Schlotzky's and wrote essays during lunch, after my last night class I hung around the empty cafeteria to read up for the next day. Some evenings I rehearsed for Bernarda Alba or met up with the assistant director, who coached me for my vocal audition to Carnegie Mellon. Once in a while I made it home for dinner.

Most nights I headed to Rocky rehearsal.

We'd practice blocking, develop pre-show choreography, and make off color jokes. The cast smoked endlessly circling bongs and pipes, sipped 40s of Mickey's through straws, and occasionally rescued our host's sweet but mentally handicapped mother when she flooded the bathroom or set fire to her bed.

There was inevitably somebody recovering from a rave, glassy eyed, climbing out of a K-hole. Or somebody rolling around on the floor as they came up on ecstasy. We played Canasta during breaks, always cracking intersectional misfit jokes. ("We are the Goth Borg- you will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Everything is futile.") I'd sit on the couch watching the crew play video games, and they listened to my theoretical plans for a subatomic perpetual motion machine.

Escaping the basement at dawn
After midnight I went to the basement to paint or sew until nearly 5am, when the sounds of Legend of Zelda stopped. I emerged to watch the sunrise and curl up on the floor in front of the TV. As the first beams of sunlight peered across the apartment complex, the M*A*S*H theme started, and I fell asleep.

I slept through two episodes, then started my day again.

I have never learned so much about life as during my "high school" years. Those lessons have informed everything about who I've become.

If I had not gamed the system to achieve my education, I wouldn't have been moved to work in the Chicago slums with at-risk kids. I know the odds are stacked against success if you don't fit the mold.

If I hadn't known so many miscreant teens and young adults- homeless, depressed, abused- I wouldn't have so much empathy for people who fall through the holes in our social safety net.

If I hadn't perfected juggling too many tasks, I wouldn't have adapted so quickly to life with three kids under three.

If I hadn't internalized the mantra of "The Show Must Go On," I wouldn't have had the strength to do so when M was diagnosed with cancer.

Me and my best friends, on my 18th birthday
I learned to stand in front of a crowd of strangers and bare my soul, and how much harder it is to open up to one person, face to face. I learned to do that too.

I learned to hold a friend's hand when tragedy struck, to let silence heal. I learned to offer love and support in hard times, and relish the best moments as they happened.

I learned that stereotypes are nearly uniformly wrong, that life is more complicated than standards and preconceived notions. I learned to take boastful stories of drunken revelry as warnings, and see past scars and costumes and masks to the beautiful people inside.

I never went to a football game, or study hall, or a pep rally. I never went to Prom or Homecoming, never learned to gossip with friends in the bathrooms or forge hall passes. I never learned to cram for AP English or dissect a frog.
Instead, I learned about life. Instead, I learned to live.

A student mural inside Community High School,
depicting its mascot- the psychedelic rainbow zebra


  1. Found you over at SITS. What a cool story - very different from my frog dissecting and football gaming. Sounds like a great experience!

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