Monday, August 1, 2016

Take a Breather

One of my high school teachers had a knack for calculating marriage ages. He'd ask a volley of question-"Are you dating anyone? Got a job? Want a job? Headed to college? How old were you parents? Sisters? Brothers?" and then he'd shoot out a prediction. "You shall wed at age twenty three!"
He claimed he had a 95% success rate. How does he know that? Students grow up, get hitched, and report back to him. Once, long before my sophomore year of high school, he did it for a handful of kids and predicted they'd all marry in their low twenties. Then he told the last girl she'd be thirty two.
The rest of the girls gasped their how-dare-yous, but she tilted her head to the side and said, "No, that's right." She had plans for herself, plans for New York City and art school, and marriage wasn't in the foreground. When she finally reported back to our teacher, she was thirty three and happy with the way her life had gone. 
If you've been reading lately, you'll know I'm currently enrolled in a summer travel term. I finished school the same time everybody did-late April-and originally planned to spend a spring term on campus. But when I found out I'd been admitted into my summer program, I knew I'd need a break. I'd catch a plane the morning after finals and do homework for my new classes during layovers. There would be no time to pack, no time to breathe. I'd have an unbroken chain of school for six straight terms. 
So I dropped by spring classes, canceled my housing contract, and spent seven short weeks with my family. Whenever I tell adults that I finished school at the end of April and started again mid June, they look at me funny. Not because I'm going the extra mile by taking a summer term, but because they think I'm not moving fast enough. They ask what I've been doing with my life, if my parents are supporting me, and how I could possibly not justify spending less than two months away from school if I'm not working. I spent seven weeks fielding these questions at church, family reunions, and lunch get-togethers. I thought the people asking me were ignorant because they hadn't been in college for a while and forgot how school schedules worked. 
But today, I got this question from a professor.  
I'm not sure why it surprises so many people that I scheduled a seven week break from college between August 2015 and May 2017. Is it such a radical idea to have a spring break now? When Malia Obama announced this spring that she would start classes at Harvard in 2017, the "not until 2017" was deemed significant enough for inclusion in headlines. She's graduating in a presidential election year. Is it so shocking that she wants to spend one more normal year with her family? Or spend a year by herself, figuring things out? Or a year in travel? 
Young people are expected to move ahead with their lives at breakneck speed. This simply isn't possible. Sometimes, in my hours of anguish, when I'm scribbling four year plans in the margins of midterm notes with one hand and scrolling through job listings with the other, I think back to some words a church youth leader shared with us a few years back: "You don't have to sing all the verses of your song at the same time." If you did, they'd be muddled beyond comprehension. 
I did a lot from the tail end of April to early June. I caught up with old friends and was a bridesmaid in one's wedding. I trained for and ran a charity 5K. I attended a multi day writer's conference. I went to doctor's appointments that I could not possibly make room for during the school year. I went hiking and boating with my family. In short, I did all the things a person in any stage of their lives might do in any seven weeks of the year. 
But I didn't go to school.
That's two more classes I'll have to fit into a normal schedule instead of having them out of the way a term earlier. And you know what? I'm fine with it. Other students in our program sprinted through spring term just in time to catch the plane. But I know if I did that, I would've had a breakdown and not completed one of those terms. 
Even though I resent the pressure people put on me to sing all the verses of my song, I've caught myself trying to do that same thing to others. My brother typed the final words of his master's thesis last week. I shot him a text of congratulations, and then, fingers hovering over the keyboard, I was tempted to ask him what he was doing next. Was he going to find a job? If so, would he stay in America or head out to China again? What about that girl he was dating before his last trip to China? Can I plan a wedding? What kind of job is he going to get with that Asian Studies degree to support his wife, and are they going to get married now or after she finishes her doctorate? Never mind that so far as I know, they only dated for two weeks. The need to know is always burning.
So cool the flames. 
Over the course of my travel term, I've gotten to know the life stories of people I never would've met otherwise. We're all in roughly the same ages but different stages. I have one eighteen year old friend who graduated from high school with her associate's degree. Another girl dropped out of school at sixteen, got the admission fairy to let her into college, and is now a year and a half into her education. Her eighteenth birthday was two months ago. They're both further along than they're supposed to be at the eighteen, but one took the steep path and one took the detour. 
You end up where you end up. For some people, the right answer is to get married at nineteen. For some it's thirty three. For some people, it's not right to go to college right now, or ever. Some people need to speed through it. Still others will get it done in that same, normal, plodding four year plan. 
When I was a sophomore, I thought my teacher was a some kind of psychic or number wizard, predicting marriage ages with such accuracy. Now I know he was just a normal guy who'd figured out what I'm figuring out right now: that everyone moves at their own pace. I can calculate my friends' marriage ages now. I look at her health, her school goals, and whether or not her mom graduated college, but most of all, I look at her desire to get married. Everyone moves at their own pace, in love and learning and other matters. Life's not about seeing how many verses you can sing at once, but about finding how you fit into the rhythms. 

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