”Hey Miss, are you going to attend Medical School or the Conservatory? In a few months you will be taking your SATs: have you started private tutoring or do you struggle all by yourself? Will you wear a robe or a dress when graduating? Are you relying on “Pride and Prejudice” or hoping for “To Kill a Mockingbird”? Are you taking your final exams on this heat? Did you make copies of all your transcripts? Did you already buy all the books for the first semester?”
And ... there you are, the first day of exams, Miss. And you look even sleepier than Sleeping Beauty, if the mirror is not mistaken.
I remember it perfectly: the stress, anxiety and that fake smile, forcing myself to add a little self-esteem to my confused demeanour. Then the teachers nagging us to memorize as many quotes as possible for our SATs. The parents putting pressure on us to decide, as everyone does at this stage, which university to attend. The grandparents urging their smart granddaughter to go to Med School, of course. Then the added stress of preparing for graduation day, all the while the eternal question killing me inside: am I making the right choice? But before I could rebel against all this pressure, I woke up out of the frying pan into the fire: university exams.
What would I do differently if I were to relive this period? After growing up on a diet of American movies, I always wanted to experience what people across the ocean do. A couple of months ago, I finally got to experience that briefly and realize that dreams can also come true with little money and a lot of family support. Some call it a sabbatical year, gap year or break year. Some do it after graduating university, after getting divorced or during mid-life crises. I call it “dreaming with a deadline”.
Why would I take a sabbatical year after high school? Why then? Why not after college?
I wouldn’t do it in order to make money. Nor to take a break from learning. And even much less so to disappoint my parents, after supporting my academic growth for so many years.
I would take a break after high school because, very often, later becomes too late. Later I will not have the excuse of youth and the idealistic desire to change the world. Later I will be caught up in the never-ending efforts to pay my own utilities and bills. Later I will be trapped by long-term commitments. Later I will be spending all my time reading corporate regulations and have no time to read again the classics that evaded me in high school. Later I will be haunted by the fear of professional instability, lulled into the false safety net of a stable job. Later on, my wings will be clipped from too much walking and flying classes are paid with mid-life crises.
One might assume I’m part of that vast unhappy majority of people who chose the wrong degree. But if I were to choose again, I would do the same, even more certain than I was the first time. There are other reasons why I would stop to take a deep breath and enjoy the view.
I would take one year as a break. One year break to do something else. To learn without bruising my knees against the deformed structure of my school’s desks. A year for personal development. Not as a race against time, permanently competing with 31 other colleagues who have such different skills and interests from me! A year to read, without being forced to learn by heart hundreds of quotes characterizing the ‘great literary figures’. A break to help my parents understand my concerns, not only my latest grades.
A year I would invest in hobbies. Photo classes? Tailoring? First-aid? Or maybe I have always dreamed of playing the guitar?
A year to care less about the popular opinions, and more about those who offer an alternative to the status quo. A year to learn to navigate a foreign city, instead of joining the confused masses of graduates on college corridors.
A year where I would write backwards, from the end to the beginning, diagonally or horizontally, only on the corners or turning the notebooks inside out. Because this is the advantage of a plain, empty sheet of paper: you can write anything on it, in any way, without limiting yourself to the frames of ruled paper.
A year in which I would set aside a couple of months for volunteering or for an international internship. To stuff my world into a trolley bag, to wear comfortable sneakers and meet all kinds of special people. Greece? Turkey? Africa or Philippines? Refugees, abused people, or victims of general ignorance?
A year to travel. I would work and perhaps realize that even girls can sweat. A time to at least find what I would hate doing, if not what I like to do too. A year to improve a foreign language and to learn humility. A year with a hint of sunburnt cheeks and the smell of campfires. A year to search and search for myself. Among lost souls who need a hug, between streets that do not show up on maps or in the treasure-filled pages of a second-hand kindle.
A year to realize what I want to do, how and especially why. A year to lose ideals in order to find them again, only ten times brighter. A year to discover pieces of myself in places and experiences that I’ve never encountered before. A year to wander through other people’s stories and to put mine on paper.
A year to discover the beauty of this universe that God created. A year to learn how to love myself and then return this love towards everyone else, following the example Jesus gave us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first greatest commandment. And the second is like is: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”. I will take time to read the Bible and understand the meaning of the sacrifice of our God. A year to learn to make a habit out of expressing my gratitude daily for everything He blessed me with.
Now I am 20 years old. I’ve come to realize it is late. Is it too late?
In one year, I will have my bachelor degree... Guess what’s starting then?
A year. A different kind of year...