Author’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories that will explore equity from various angles, including proficiency-based learning and assessment, selective college admissions, and the approach of Career and Technical Education courses. The perspective below is by one of my former College Prep students, “Allan,” my “best reader.” Note: Names are pseudonyms if not otherwise indicated.
All through high school, even though I’d been kind of doing all right, I never really thought about going to [college], ‘cause I wanted to be done with schooling. I was never looking at classes to get credit. Even when I was enjoying stuff, I wanted to be done with it. I looked at my father, I guess — he’s an auto mechanic, does transmissions. [My brother is] working for a communications company. He’s a lineman, works on electrical poles, running new cable. He’s doing really well with that. He had no experience, had some friends who got him in. [His company is] sending him to school now; they’re paying for it.
I liked doing stuff with my hands. I liked wood shop. I’m really bummed they got rid of metal shop the year before I got there, because I would have loved to do that.
I remember you had suggested me for Honors, and I went into Honors English. There were mostly seniors, and a couple kids in my grade. I was struggling to keep up with the essays. The first half one teacher taught it, then they switched [to a student teacher] and she switched up completely what the class was doing. We ended up doing a lot of mythology and fantasy books. That’s how I got into Neil Gaiman, really phenomenal books. I got into Terry Pratchett later on. I never did any AP Math, but I did Honors Math.
I was born on the Cape. In 3rd grade, after my parents split up, we switched to Farmington River, living in Otis. Dad moved to Westfield to be closer to us. I really liked Farmington. It’s a very small school, like 20 of us for each grade. All the teachers were excited and really into what they were teaching. The place had a family vibe; everyone was really interconnected — even the lunch ladies knew your name. They were doing home-cooked stuff there. Jessica would make her own deep dish personal pizzas for everyone. She would make them by hand.
I’d gotten into the Advanced reading group. It was named the Dragon’s Den, after the mascot of the elementary school. We were the first year of it. During English class, we would get pulled aside. I was in there with Andy [a College Prep classmate]. I think Greg [another classmate] was there at the beginning, for the reading stuff, but then he moved out of it because there was a lot more workload. It was like six or eight of us. There was an afterschool component, and we’d get to do a lot of personal projects. I remember we did an architecture one. I fell off. I was in it just for one year, and then they kicked me out because I wasn’t doing my homework. I started doing better in high school, but [English] was always my worst subject. Math has always been my strong suit.
[After 6th grade at Farmington River] most of the guys went to Monument [now Du Bois Middle School], most of the girls to Lee. You come in not knowing anybody. You’re these 15 kids [from the hilltowns] who are the outsiders. But everyone is nice enough, it just takes a while to readjust when you’re moving schools. I was living with my mom in the middle of nowhere Otis. It was at least an hour and a half or two [on the bus]. There would be some days in winter I’d be standing out there before the sunrise. In the mornings I was at the end of the loop, but in the afternoons I was one of the last stops, and I had the longest ride. I used to try to read, but I got motion sickness. I’d sleep a lot, always had a CD player with me. Even though I was making friends in Great Barrington, it was hard to see them, because I couldn’t do anything after school. It was impossible to get rides to friends’ houses, unless I could get off the bus at their house.
The only person near me was Andy, but he lived down the mountain. So I’d have to ride my bike, bomb down the hill, and then at the end of the night walk back uphill, because good luck getting my mom to give me a ride. I just assumed I couldn’t do much. In my head it was always the transportation issue. My mom would never come into Great Barrington to shop. She would never go anywhere I could potentially run into friends. We’d always go to, like, Westfield.
When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, Mom got in a bad sledding accident. Some friends of ours took apart an old car and made sleds out of different parts. They took the driver’s seat and put it on skies. Some redneck stuff. Standing on the back, she hit a bump and the skies jumped and landed on her ribs with the full weight of a person on it. She hit the ground really hard, so it pinched her ribs, broke two or three of them, pinched some nerves that never recovered. She can’t do anything physical, can’t really sit at a desk. Mom kind of turned into a shut-in when we moved here. She thinks everyone’s out to get her, stays inside. I don’t know why she doesn’t leave Otis at this point. She’s married now, for the past couple years. [Her husband has since died, of a heart condition.]
I don’t remember a one-on-one [meeting in 8th grade to select an academic track in high school]. I remember they’d come into the classroom and talk to you and give you suggestions, and if you wanted to go more in depth you could meet with a counselor. I never went [to my guidance counselor] on my own. I wouldn’t openly share anything [with my parents]. It would be like, “Let me see your report card,” at the end of the year. They’d see the grades and if something was low, they’d be like, “What the hell?” but not really be on top of anything the next semester.
I like building stuff. In the auto shop, we did a couple field trips to tech schools and got to see some machine shops; that interested me for a while. But then I realized I didn’t know what I’d want to do with that kind of degree. I ride motorcycles, I used to work on them all the time, so I looked at that, I shadowed one day at a motorcycle school. I talked to the teachers and they were not promising actually being able to get work. They were honest with me, but the people in the office obviously really want you to come. I tried to talk to some local bike shops, to see if they wanted an apprentice, but they were like, “Well, what’s your full degree?” I couldn’t get into it without fully dedicated two or three years of my life, and a bunch of money, and then find out I didn’t like it. Normal college wasn’t on my radar, anything academic. I thought about doing some math stuff, but I didn’t know what that would get me. I didn’t want to be a teacher. That’s the only thing I could see — doing something academic — becoming, in my head.
I don’t know my [MCAS] scores, but I know they were good enough that I got the Rosalie Conte scholarship, where you get free tuition to a Massachusetts state school. It’s something I didn’t even know about and then at the end of the year, my guidance counselor, right before college deadlines, was like, “Oh yeah, you know you applied for this, and you have it for six years.” I had no other plans, so I figured, “All right, I’ll do this,” because it sounded like it would be so much cheaper. She helped me out frantically to apply to all the state schools I could. Westfield because it was right here, Salem or Bridgewater because a friend was going there. I wasn’t looking at the accolades or majors of any of these schools, ‘cause I just figured I’ll go in and do General Studies and figure something out. I applied to UMass Boston because Amherst was already closed at that point. I did the bare minimum for applications; I chose all the ones that didn’t require an essay, or something like that.
Westfield State was the only one I got into. Then I kind of panicked, ’cause I’d just done 12 years of school and I needed a break. They were cool with me deferring it, and Rosalie Conte is good for six or seven years, so you have time to do a gap year or two. I did a shadow day and did all the applying, all the financial stuff. That’s when it started clicking that the scholarship is like $900 a semester. Tuition was the only thing it covered. Didn’t cover any fees. I was under the impression it was going to be more. It would have basically been the same if I didn’t have that scholarship. It wouldn’t have made a difference to what my debt is.
I wasn’t really thinking school, but if I was thinking school, I was thinking the college experience — living on campus — at a big school. I’d been going to small schools all my life. I had a different picture of what it would be. It was so expensive to live on campus, it would have tripled my debt. (I’ve been paying it off. I’m down to $5,000. I think it was seven or eight [thousand].) My dad had a two-family house, and I was living in the downstairs apartment, and he was not making me pay rent. I was leaving school to bartend [in Berkshire County] on Friday nights. I was making money.
I didn’t even finish the second semester. I just picked classes based on what I could get into and maybe looked interesting. The first semester went all right, schoolwork-wise. Astronomy class with this old hippie, world history with a cool Nigerian teacher. Biology was really interesting; we went on walks in the park.
But I wasn’t working toward anything; I wasn’t seeing an end goal. I just went because I thought I was getting a better deal. I was there to be there. I started struggling the second semester, falling behind. It started really bearing down on me. I started cutting classes, the ones I didn’t like. I wasn’t even doing good in my math classes, and that was a big sign to me — that even [in] the thing I was usually into and doing well with, I was really struggling to keep up.
I was making good money, too, bartending, and I’m like, “Why am I doing this if I’m making good money, and I really enjoy it?” Halfway through the second semester I skipped one day in math and they covered a bunch of stuff I did not understand. I was falling so behind.
I don’t remember how I came to the decision. There was no way at that point in my head to turn things around. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to stay in academia for four or five more years. It had been building for a month or so and then I just … I was dying inside. I remember one day I pulled into school and thought, “There’s the administration office.” I went in and asked them for the form [to withdraw from school], and filled it out, with the lady at the desk, talking in a monotone: “Here’s the paperwork.” I signed myself out. The hallways were cinderblock, 30 feet long, with maybe one door going into an auxiliary classroom. I definitely cried a little bit in that hallway. Not because I feel like I made a bad decision, but I was a little sad that I did all that for nothing. But I also felt super relieved.
I didn’t tell him [Dad] for a while. He worked days, but I would just not be home at times that he might think I should be at school. I don’t know how long I went without telling him; I just couldn’t figure out how. Finally one day I sat him down and told him what happened.
At first he was annoyed, like, “We went through all that?” But he didn’t go to school, my brother didn’t go to school, my mom didn’t go to school. His father did — he was an engineer — but no one else in our immediate family. He understood after I explained to him that I was falling apart. I had to start paying rent, which was still reasonable. I just started working more and more.
I feel bad about it sometimes, but the more I think about it, at that time of my life, it just didn’t feel like what I should be doing, and I didn’t have the motivation or right mindset for it. I have thought about potentially going back, but there is no track I have in my head.
I’ve always had an idea in my head of being a national park ranger — like an environmental cop, a green cop — to go and get a biology degree to do that. Some nature science, I could potentially see myself being interested in. Nothing I am looking to do anytime soon. I’ll be that 30-year-old freshman.