Two Roads Diverged In A Yellow Wood...
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
When I was in sixth grade, we were given the task to memorize a poem of our choice to recite in front of the class. The same assignment had first appeared up two years earlier, when I was in fourth grade--inarguably my best ever year of school, since it wads then that I was first introduced to the real world of writing, but that's another story. Once again, I was faced with a decision:
Go easy, or go hard.
The former was really never an option for me. I loved challenging myself. Standing up in front of the class to recite my poem hardly seemed like a victory if I hadn't needed to work hard to conquer it. It was the same story for me those twenty-something months before, in the throes of my fourth-grade classroom. I can still remember standing out in our backyard, most likely barefoot, practicing it out from memory: I cannot go to school today, said little Peggy Ann McKay...
It was one of the longest poems in the whole Shel Silverstein book that I'd chosen back then, and I'd been reaching to impress everyone with my astounding memory and public speaking prowess. I'd been one of the only kids to pick something more than four lines long.
And sorry I could not travel both
I had accomplished the feat once before, and it didn't nearly seem as scary now. The details of my thought process at this time are fuzzy to me, at best. I can't even really promise that this occurred in sixth grade, only I cannot imagine anyone younger than a twelve-year-old selecting a Robert Frost poem to memorize and recite. That's what I ended up with, anyway. I picked the greater of the two evils yet again.
Not that this assignment was, in any particular way, an evil to me. I loved homework, school, and everything that came with it. But I always had such high expectations of myself. And these goals I created of my own accord, this strive for perfection, was not a product of my parents' hopes for me, as is the case with some kids. They're the kind of Mom and Dad who, had I come home brandishing both a detention slip and a paper with a big fat F at the top, would have told me as long as I did my best it didn't matter (and they probably would've taken my side on the hypothetical detention, with a few exceptions).
Neither of these things happened in my six years at school, not really, so I guess I can't say that I know one way or another for sure. But I'm confident in the fact that they are happy as long as I'm happy--that's all they've ever wanted for me. And in school, in those years, I was happy. Very happy. I thrived. My writing got better and before too long, my sixth-grade teacher was handing back my short stories with top marks. My work made it under the projector on a weekly basis during English, sometimes even more, to demonstrate to my classmates a 'good' example.
They hated it, I'm sure. I was the teacher's pet, inevitably, almost every year. It wasn't that I meant to be a tattletale, nor that I meant to think I was better than anybody else--I can honestly say that never once crossed my mind. But I was unfailingly polite. I loved the work I did. And I had drive: I wanted to constantly and consistently get better.
I started the district's first elementary newspaper, I was president of the Student Council, I got solos in the music Christmas production, I was the only singer in the talent show not singing along to the original track; my report cards came back, full A's, and when I heard my classmates mumble to themselves about how they were going to be grounded because of their C's and D's and F's, I interjected flippantly, Oh, I don't get grounded. They wouldn't care. That's too bad; I made the trek down the bleachers to the front of the auditorium every term when they announced my name on the honor roll, I organized food drives for the animal shelter. I was an absolute showoff, which was all right. That's just who I was, without purposefully doing it.
I was in and out of school a couple times each year, switching from homeschooling to public school to private school back to public school, but I was mostly okay. I caught up on what I needed to and I kept my best friend and I liked it. I was happy.
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
So yes, the girl who'd once been so disappointed to get a B+ on a paper two years before was, without a doubt, going to pick The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost, to memorize and recite. I cannot recall anything past this, past the knowledge that I did pick it. Everything gets fuzzy. And then it comes back with razor-sharp clarity.
That year, sixth grade started well. I liked my teacher. Friends were good. I had an innocent little crush. I did all of those things that I mentioned above, so I was pretty proud of myself. Everything was going swimmingly, yes, my last year of elementary school.
And then it wasn't.
My best friend of eight years confronted me in gym one January afternoon. I stood there, arguing back and forth with her, across the girl standing between us. It had been that way for a while now--somebody always between us--and looking back, of course I'm not surprised. I was hopping from public school to homeschool back to public school and then homeschool so often, she was bound to make a new friend. So that's what she did. And all the sudden, I didn't fit in with them.
You think you're better than everyone else, she accused me, and it was like being slapped. There were tears in my eyes, and then it was time to play dodgeball.
I don't know how it happened, really, that suddenly everybody who I'd once been friends with was accosting me. A few months before, while my friend and I'd been walking around on the playground, a girl had informed us we were so ugly.
You're so ugly that when you look into a mirror, I told my best friend to tell her, it breaks.
This girl had been my friend the year before, or so I'd thought. So had the girl who'd come over to my house for a sleepover, who lived down the street, but now she was nasty to me. One day at lunch, she spit smarties into my pizza. I, straight-edge, uncompromising, did the scariest thing I'd ever done--I reached across the space between us, plucked her carton of chocolate milk from its little square in her lunch tray, and dumped it on her pizza. I'd had enough.
She went and got the teacher's aide. I didn't get in trouble; my record had been much too clean for that. We got a warning, and I was left to give my former friend a satisfied, if somewhat shaky, smile.
The girl who sat in front of me, chocolate-milk-girl's friend and mine as well, often turned around and made rude comments to me. The boy I was sat next to for some homework assignment made crude comments--not directed at me, but disgusting all the same, especially to someone who focused on being as prim and proper as I did. I threatened to tell but didn't. In art, all the kids at the table told me they couldn't wait for me to leave for a vacation to Florida so I'd be gone.
That's still difficult for me to think about.
My math declined. It was getting more difficult, and all the sudden, I just wasn't keeping up. I felt maybe even a little pang of satisfaction when my papers were returned to me with C's, D's, maybe even an F or two. I'd never had them before. It was a tiny bit liberating not caring, not trying anymore. And I was right: I didn't get in trouble.
One day it all came to a climax, like those intense action scenes in the movies where you just know something is going to happen. The boys sitting behind me threw crumpled-up pieces of paper at my back. "B----," they called me, again and again. I didn't get why--I hadn't done anything to hurt them, but what could I do?
I didn't have anyone to play with at recess that day. I accidentally hit my head on the swing set, and it hurt, and by the time I got home I was crying because I had volunteering at the animal shelter afterward and I didn't want to go, didn't want to go to school tomorrow.
"Come on," Mom said. "We're going to talk to the principal."
We had a meeting, and he said the boys would be pulled aside and spoken to. He encouraged me to come back in the morning. I was three months from finishing the school year, he argued, and besides, was I going to let them win? I agreed. I was Student Council President, I had the newspaper. I had a handful of friends. And middle school was going to be great, I was sure of it. I would find people just like me.
I was never one to take the easy path. Just like with those poems, just like Robert Frost, I needed to take the one less taken. I had to do the scary thing, so I could feel good about myself. So I could feel strong.
The next morning I woke up and got dressed and went downstairs. I ate breakfast. I tossed my backpack over my shoulder and followed my Dad out the back door, to the gate, almost to the car. Today would be better. I would ignore anybody if they said anything. The boys would get in trouble and--
And they would know I told.
I was crying. "I can't go back," I said. "I can't do it." We went in to talk to the principal again, and I withdrew that morning. I, the taker of the Path Not Taken, plodded onto the worn down, well-traveled route. I chose cowardice over victory; I chose the thing that would be easiest.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
I fully intended to continue on to junior high that fall; I was excited. Until then, I reasoned, I'd work on making some new friends in our homeschool group, enjoy an extra-long summer, and get back to business, to my A's and B's and endless string of accomplishments, come September.
It didn't exactly go according to plan.
First things first, I met my best friend of four years. She was great. We had a seemingly endless amount in common, and we both liked to write--a habit I'd picked up that year in fourth grade and had yet to let go of. She introduced me to a writing site I've been a member of for nearly as long as we've been friends, and I started posting my work. It was exciting to get comments from other homeschoolers, people that lived miles and sometimes whole oceans away. They liked it. They said nice things.
School, its importance started to deplete an admissible amount. After all, I'd been working on math for an hour and a half every day for nearly seven whole months; I deserved some time off. So we did something called de-schooling, where I really didn't think about, look at, or contemplate any extra math outside of your normal day-to-day kind. Honestly, we unschooled, and I liked it. It allowed me to focus on my newfound friend and on contacting the editor of our local newspaper and asking if there was any need for a guest columnist.
I got the columnist position and started writing articles that were published every Saturday. My first one was about the economy and, looking back, a bit cringe-worthy. I had no clue what I was talking about, but I have to remind myself to take in the context: I was twelve. It was my first-ever newspaper article. I didn't do too poorly.
All the sudden, my successes were celebrated, without the unwelcome scrutiny of my classroom, or teacher, or grades. It was so freeing. And I guess that's why, when fall actually rolled around, I didn't even mention middle school. I was too happy to even think about that.
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
As more time passed, the less that scholarly things seemed to matter, and the more that life did. It was so full. I was busy with my book, with my friends, with full weeks and leisurely weekends. In January, my friend and I started writing a play together, crafting the various parts with different members of our homeschool group in mind. We held practices twice weekly, and the whole thing, although it didn't go off without a hitch (we ended up having to read from our scripts, in the end), felt like a giant, glaring success.
No, it wasn't perfect. But as I stood there next to my friend, and two bouquets were handed to us, I felt like I'd just accomplished something greater than a good grade on a math test, or a place on the honor roll. You know, I didn't want to be Student Council president. I wanted that. I wanted that moment, more than anything, right then. And I had it. The camera flashed then and took in our proud, slightly relieved smiles. I still remember that feeling, three years later, and I still own that moment. It's mine now, and I simply would not have had it had I taken the road not taken.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
My life continued in that blissful state for the next couple of years. I wrote some more books. My friend moved, and I made the new hour-long drive with my parents to visit her whenever I could. I continued voice and piano, until abruptly one day I decided I wanted to learn how to play real songs, and I did with the aid of my teacher, and now those moments where I'm singing, just me and my piano, only for myself, are some of the happiest of my days.
I read well over a hundred books, diving into a new genre--Young Adult. Mostly romance. A part of me, that old, nitpicky part that says kids in school are reading the classics, you've never read Shakespeare, you've never read Austen, still likes to make its little comments (I feel the need to make it clear here that I do not actually hear voices speaking to me in my head: that was purely metaphorical), but I mostly ignore them. Because, you know, I don't particularly care for Jane Austen. I don't see the appeal of Romeo and Juliet. I tried Les Mis, and the movie was great, but I couldn't get past the first few seconds, try as hard as I did to understand it. Oh, and the books I checked out on the Feminist Movement a couple weeks back, with the intention of reading them all and schooling myself? I abandoned them for an absolutely wonderful book called Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern, and most recently Since You've Been Gone, both YA romances.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads onto way,
I doubted if I should ever come back
I think the biggest surprise I have discovered about myself, through all of this, is that I'm not an intellectual person. Read: I did not say unintelligent. I just mean that I don't care about the classics because I get bored and I can't keep focused long enough to understand them. I really don't like science, never have--the human body works the way it works, and organisms are just there, and the sky is blue because it's blue and I really don't have this desire in me to find out why.
Math. Oh, math. What used to be my lesser in the boxing ring is probably my greatest enemy. I procrastinate it. I put it off. I really, really don't like it and I wish I didn't have to do it but I'm going to have to get down all that algebra and geometry eventually.
Now, at seventeen and in my junior year, I have some decisions to make. I have some hard work ahead of me. I used to be able to tell people, back when I was twelve and disciplined and brave and certain, that I knew what I wanted to do: graduate at sixteen, go to Purdue, become a veterinarian, and open my own practice.
I admire that little girl. Really, I do. But time and experience and, mostly, letting go of the unreasonable expectations of myself have allowed me to see my world objectively. What makes me happy is not practical: sunshine and rain, Paris and London, maybe LA or New York, doing a bit of writing and a bit of songwriting and a bit of singing and a bit of drinking coffee, a bit of filmmaking.
And it's not that I'm lazy, or dispassionate. I care so strongly for the things I do care about. It's just--I don't care about the same things that I used to, and it's at times so difficult for me, especially more now than ever, to ascertain what it is, exactly, that I want to do, where I'm going. It's hard because no, math does not matter to me, and really the only way I can push myself into doing it is to imagine the ways it'll lead to college, and, from there, grand and fulfilling experiences. So I'll just have to do it.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
You know, I've realized something. And perhaps you, the reader, have seen this yourself, noticed this a long time before I did. But I made a choice that day in sixth grade, sitting in the principal's office, and I chose a road, but I think I chose the one less traveled by. It would have been normal, to go back to school and continue as I was, wouldn't it have? Yes, it was the scarier of the two options, but don't people tend to fall back into their old, predictable patterns?
I just know had I not made that choice I wouldn't be sitting here right now, writing this. Who knows who I would be. Maybe I would be the driven girl I was back then, the exact same one who was aggrieved over a less-than-perfect grade on a paper. Perhaps I'd be on my way to graduating with a 4.0 GPA. Maybe I'd be valedictorian. Maybe I'd have my license by now--I just don't know.
What I do know is that I would not have known Kass, the best friend I've ever had. What I know is that my writing would not have improved this much, without the help of the homeschoolers-only writing website and it's ever-helpful, friendly members--one of whom I Skyped with for the first time, just two weeks ago.
What I do know is that I wouldn't have discovered my love for YA, that I wouldn't have finished NaNoWriMo for the first time last year, coasting into finish with 50,280 words. I know I wouldn't have spent two afternoons a week at the library starting last February, tutoring girls who would eventually spend every Friday here this past summer and become my good friends.
What I know is that I wouldn't know of any of this--the people, the experiences, the passions--that have come to shape my life. What I know is that my decision over the next few months would have been entirely different, if not already determined a few years back. Whereas I, sitting here now, less than twenty-four months away from college, have no clue whatsoever.
But I don't mind.
I will figure this out. If I can do everything else I've done--if I can keep my head high and go forward with fun goals for myself, reachable goals, if I am still the same person but not quite, still in the same mindset but only going in a different direction, then I will be just fine.
Two roads diverged in a wood and I--
I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.