Responding to today’s daily prompt: What’s your biggest regret? How would your life have been different if you’d made another decision?
I wasn’t going to do this prompt. After all, why would I want to put my regrets out there for the world to read and judge me for? Well, aside from that not being the point of a blog, didn’t I start this whole thing partly to combat my fear of being judged?
So what is my biggest regret? College. And that’s not just because I am still looking for work and student loan interest rates have doubled. That’s just the cherry on top. The final shout in my ear that not only did I waste years of my life, but I am still paying for it, years later.
To be fair, it wasn’t all of college, I spent 18 months at Landmark College, in Vermont. Fantastic. For the first time in my life, up to that point, I felt like I was understood by my peers, because their struggles were comparable to mine. I met professors who were both aware of the extent of my limitations, and believed in me anyway. They put in the effort to help me succeed, and if I hit a seemingly insurmountable challenge, I wasn’t made to feel guilty over it. That first night in a dorm meeting I sat in the crowd, surrounded almost entirely by male students, feeling unsafe, as I had grown accustomed to feeling in male dominated situations, only to hear the dorm leader guy talking to the men about treating others with respect, instead of merely addressing the few women in the room on how to not invite harassment and worse. Here was a place where I felt safe and validated. I was not merely ‘other.’
I got my A.A. degree in 3 semesters and 2 summers. I felt on top of the world. To this day that degree is the one I am most proud of. I worked my ass off. I threw my whole self into succeeding academically, into my friends, into having fun. At 20 years old, I felt unstoppable. When I interviewed for Nyack College, they handed me my acceptance letter before the interview was over. It felt amazing. My confidence soared.
I soon found out, however, that the emphasis of my new school was not on academic success, but on being right. There were rules that hadn’t seemed so bad to me when I enrolled, such as no smoking, no drinking, no dancing(!), that hadn’t seemed too bad, after all, I didn’t need a rule to tell me not to smoke, drink, or dance. Those things weren’t really part of my life anyway. Single gender dorms seemed more comfortable. No longer would I have to awkwardly avoid eye contact on the way to the bathroom with the creeper who always seemed to be in the hallways in the morning, when the few girls were on their ways to the shower.
There was more than that, however. There was my first roommate, who was shamed for having sex with her boyfriend on break, while said boyfriend got written off as ‘a guy.’ There was my hair, my cute pixie cut was not considered ‘feminine’ enough. My choices of classes, even, were not considered feminine enough. This was not a school that took girl’s education seriously. Even my catholic upbringing was considered wrong. There were two professors who encouraged me, out of my three years there, and made me feel like my presence was positive, not everything about me was wrong. Other professors were downright rude; ignorant, and bigoted.
Academically, it was less challenging, but it was also more oppressive. Alternate viewpoints were not appreciated. Demographically, this school was way more diverse than my primarily white male Vermont cocoon. But there was no opportunity for true intellectually diverse discourse. Not that people didn’t hold differing viewpoints, on a variety of topics, but there was a limited number of topics on which divergent thought was encouraged, and so each topic had its dedicated factionists.
So why didn’t I leave? Because 18 months of feeling successful and independent at school was not enough to counteract what had been a secret fear of mine for the majority of my formative years. That I was not good enough, I was different and different was bad. Despite my parents attempts counteract the influences of my teachers and peers, to make me believe I was intelligent, creative, and someone to be proud of, despite coming from an environment where I had been successful and confident; I only barely hesitated to believe that once again, I was the one who was in the wrong. After all, when you are faced with a community that is so ideologically homogenous, it’s hard not to internalize the message that they are right, they are normal, different is wrong. Even the few other nonconformists that I found had internalized the same message, even more so than I, as they had been raised with the same ideals. For the most part we accepted, even embraced, our falling short of the ideal, without actually questioning whether that ideal was valid in the first place.
What I had desperately hoped to be a nurturing environment had been, mostly, a sham. That is not to say that I did not have good times, did not meet ardent people who I still admire for their passion to do what they believe is right. Who are intelligent and eloquent and creative, and many other qualities I admire. Intelligence, eloquence, and creativity were not valued as personal traits, it seemed, but only in how they fit into the preconceived idea of what we should be, how we should act, and what we should believe. I sidetracked my life to try to be something I never could have been, not honestly. The bitterness over those years when I lost myself, gave my identity away, has followed me farther than anything else I learned there.
I regret that I sold myself short.