There’s a narrative I’ve developed over the years, an explanation for the unconventional course my life has taken. I’ve whittled it down to a simple line I can readily deploy when conversation turns to career or education–those banal topics so keenly lodged at the heart of all small-talk. (Come on people, show some creativity. Why not ask about my favorite insect? I know loads of useless trivia about cicadas that I would love to share with the world. Did you know some cicadas have developed life cycles that occur in prime numbers to avoid coinciding with predators? Fascinating, right?) The narrative is usually in response to the question, “Where do you go to school?” and goes something like this: “Actually, I’m not in school. I left at sixteen to join the circus, haha!” Always said with that self-aware chuckle at the eccentricity of it all. (Mind you, no one should be asking me where I go to school. I’m 26 for fuck’s sake, not 14 like they’ve undoubtedly assumed. Just this winter a shopkeeper asked me if I’d like to volunteer at her non-profit shop and when I replied that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time (I was working three jobs like an adult, damn it!), she remarked that I’d want those volunteer hours once I got to high school. Awesome. I suppose I should be grateful I’ve retained my youthful appearance despite wearing a perpetual moue of cynicism and melancholy that should have etched itself on my face long ago.) This narrative lends my story an air of enchantment and bestows upon me a sense of agency. “These are the choices I’ve made,” it says. “Unusual, certainly, but all the more exciting for it.” Bullshit.
This narrative isn’t wholly fictitious–yes, I dropped out of high school at sixteen and, yes, I did train as a circus performer–but the tone and implication are nothing more than whimsical bullshit. There was no choice to be made–I left school because I was too sick to continue. And circus has been a part of my life from a young age, but I didn’t find my way back to it, nor did I decide to pursue it professionally (semi-professionally, anyway, or like a really time-consuming hobby that prevented me from having an actual job so that I spent years mooching off my parents and to this day have to decide whether I should spring for condiments at the grocery store or be forced to continue my pitiful, sauceless existence) until well after I had dropped out of school. I conveniently neglect to mention the year I spent under the covers working my way through every episode of Buffy (back in the days when you had to wait for Netflix to deliver DVDs and couldn’t just stream them all in an endless marathon, forgoing sleep and sustenance until your brain leaks out of your ears, pooling in your lap, and you absent-mindedly dip a chip in it and keep on snacking, eyes glued to the screen). The funny thing is, this was actually a pivotal year in my life–one I look back on with fondness and the still-palpable relief I felt at being free of institutionalized education, with which I’d been waging a Sisyphean battle. It allowed me the much needed time and space to heal from the trauma of my teenage years—years I’d spent embroiled in the throes of severe mental illness. Years I nearly didn’t survive. But no one wants to hear about how you couldn’t hack it and traded in your education for a 90’s dram-com and a few extra hours of sleep. (Well worth it! Couldn’t be happier with that decision!) They want a daring tale of eschewing tradition to follow your heart. They want reason and passion, dedication and hard work. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I have a terrible work ethic. (I was once fifteen minutes late for a shift because I decided to pre-shell some pistachios at the eleventh hour so I wouldn’t have to do it on a road trip the next day with germy car-hands.)
I’m tired of these affable lies and winsome appeasements that smooth the delicate fabric of civility. I’m tired of the mental gymnastics involved in rewriting my past for the comfort of others—what to omit, what to embellish—frankly, it’s hard to keep it all straight. For once I’d like to reply to inquiries regarding my education or career with a casual, matter-of-fact, “I dropped out of high school at sixteen due to mental illness, a disability that prevented me from finding employment at a level beyond menial or unskilled labor. But I don’t feel defined by a job title or degree, I did the best with what I had, and I’m really quite content with my life choices—thanks for asking!” I wish that were a response that wouldn’t garner awkward silences or horrified, pitying looks. But, mundane as that narrative is to me, it’s still a bit of downer for the rest of the world. So, unless I wish to be labeled dramatic (that loathsome term employed against women who deign to express themselves above a whisper) or an over-sharer, I’m forced to carry on with the cutesy soundbites and placating smiles, or attempt to avoid that line of questioning entirely. (Say, did you know that cicada’s wings are made with the first-known example of a bacteria-annihilating biomaterial?)