We’re taught to think outside of the box, yet we spend our entire educations within one. A peek inside my experiences as a student.
“The cognitive dissonance caused by a society that tells its children to “follow their dreams” through messages in films, literature, etc. and then punishes them for not choosing safe, money making careers in adulthood is fascinating, to say the least” - Ellen Kushner
I woke up with the sun and went out to breakfast. I checked the time and disregarded it. I didn’t care if I was late. I was freaking out. I drove even further away to a garden despite the fact that I was supposed to be at school in 30 minutes. I sauntered towards the gates and as I approached they glided open, an employee had just arrived. I followed her in silently and the gates returned to their locked position behind me. The gardens wouldn’t be open for another hour, yet there I was. Whether this was luck or trespassing wasn’t my concern. I boldly bolted the stairs and headed to my favorite bench to meditate and write. By now, I was supposed to be arriving on campus for the first session of Camp College.
Feelings of disgust, anxiety, and isolation consumed me. I didn’t belong there. But, knowing how disappointed my parents would feel if I didn’t show up, I came to the decision to drive to school. Far more than fashionably late, I arrived...blasting an Odesza song as I sped through the parking lot. By the time I reached the doorway, everyone’s eyes were on me. Camp College lasted 3 days, I lasted 1 and a half. I felt so uncomfortable amongst peers I’d known for so long...they all felt like strangers, aliens. I had such different goals than everyone around me and for some reason I was surprised to come to this realization. I recall that, because of my lateness, I chose to sit on the floor rather than search for a vacant chair. Hours later, a college counselor told me ((in a very you don’t have a choice manner)) to find a seat and I said “No thanks.” I was rude to an unnecessary degree and it didn’t end with the way I spoke. We were asked to write answers to college guidance questions, and although I truly stand by the answers I wrote in August 2015 - they were, admittedly, inappropriate. When asked my ideal career, I put things like “going to cafes for 2-3 hours a day to journal and draw” and “taking two 6 month paid vacations a year.” Like I said, I stand by these answers, but they are not exactly what a college counselor would be looking for. And that was just the start of the school year.
“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Backing up for some context, I went to a preschool for flower children. Imagine a bunch of toddlers running around a backyard playground eating flowers, playing in the dirt, and learning to cook vegetarian meals and you’ve got The Exploring Child. In retrospect, my earliest formative years of schooling influenced my philosophy on education significantly. Moving into traditional public school Kindergarten through 7th grade, I constantly craved the outdoor classroom and limitless creative freedom I had as a toddler.
I was an artist at heart and I learned the most not from homework or powerpoints but from nature and hands on experiences. Thankfully, my elementary school teachers were lenient and accepting of creative fiction stories as essays and drawings and paintings as projects. But by 6th and 7th grade, guidelines were stricter and the power of my imagination weakened in effect. I would try and put a creative spin on everything; unsuccessfully convincing teachers that my ‘Cornell Notes’ should be ‘Flower Notes’ where the center of the flower was the subject and each petal would be a bullet point of information. I illustrated every book report, I collaged the front of every notebook and binder I had; yet none of this was truly encouraged. Students were expected to all think and work alike, and all room to be unique was squandered. I finished up 8th through 12th grade at a small private school where learning happened around a table and discussions were based around real-world events. I still didn’t enjoy the side of learning that came down to tests and textbooks but I appreciated and thrived in a setting where I was recognized as an individual and had the opportunity to express my views and beliefs freely.
“I love being unfiltered with my only responsibility being to create” -Jay Alvarrez
I always felt that being in a structured 8:00 - 3:00 school schedule drastically hindered my ability to create. I saw high school as this giant obstacle trying to ruin my existence. Incredibly existential, it bothered me to no end to think about all the precious time wasted indoors doing work that wasn’t purposeful to me on my path on this planet. Throughout high school, and especially during senior year, there were many points in which I begged my parents to let me drop out or look into alternative schooling options. I had this vision for my life, a life full of freedom, creating art, and the space to simply be myself. Instead I was spending 5 days a week in an environment learning about things I wasn’t interested in with peers I didn’t relate to where I ultimately felt suffocated as all of my dreams and aspirations were drained from my soul.
As leaving high school wasn’t a feasible route to take, I applied for a demanding internship at Lux Art Institute, an incredible museum and art education center. My life changed drastically. I interviewed and was awarded the internship all in one day, and was asked to start working the next. I didn’t go to school once that week, and it was probably the greatest week of my life up until that point. Clearly, this was something I would need to discuss with the Dean of my high school if I wanted it to last. This internship was my solace from the traditional high school life that was draining everything out of me and I needed it more than anything. I promised my teachers I would maintain A’s in all of my classes and meet with them outside of class in exchange for missing school 3 times a week to work. I persisted and persuaded and fought for the life I believed in until the doubtful adults around me began to believe in it, and in me too.
Although I was physically present in the classroom less, I succeeded more than ever. Having an outlet to explore my career goals allowed me to bring a refreshed perspective to the classroom, but my heart remained invested in the world outside of my tiny school.
With my internship came opportunities I never imagined. I met artists from around the country while working in all different parts of the industry. My colleagues became friends, and my students became mentors. Although I’d been in school 14+ years at this point, I was now immersed in a world where learning was happening more than ever before.
“My mind says college but my heart says isolated sheep herder in Iceland” - Unknown (Tumblr)
My internship confirmed what I always believed was true; that I learned best from experience rather than schooling. I was rapidly gaining an understanding of the art industry and I found that the less time I spent at school the happier I was. For the first time in a long time I genuinely loved my life.
Despite my personal beliefs, attending university was a given growing up. I made it clear to my parents that additional schooling beyond senior year was not appealing to me but they suggested that I should apply and then make a decision months later in case anything changed. So, without doing any research whatsoever, I had tossed college essays and applications into a sea of thousands and was accepted to my ‘top choice’ university. I didn’t really have any reason to declare it as such other than the fact that I wanted to be near the ocean and moderately close to home ((two factors that shouldn’t really be the backbone to any major decision)).
Everyone was excited for me and thrilled that I was going off to school...except for me. Initially, with the buzz of all my peers talking about where they were headed in the fall I felt reassured that this was the right next step to take. But as the energy died, so did my intentions. Why did I want to go to college? I thought this was the thing I was against?
Something I have improved on significantly since March 2016 ((when I was accepted to university)) is not letting society dictate my decisions. There is no right and wrong - there is only now. What I mean by this is that there are never simple right or wrong decisions, it all depends on the moment and who you are in the present. Making choices that society deems right or wrong can be totally irrelevant to you.
I felt like the socially acceptable thing to do would be to attend school and study Art, yet I knew in my heart that it didn’t feel like the right step for me. It is customary at the high school I attended for students to decorate their graduation caps with the name of the college they will be going to, and I chose not to do that. Instead, I bought iron-on patches off Etsy and adhered those to my cap. It was a good call in the end.
“It does not matter if you are a rose or a lotus or a marigold. What matters is that you are flowering” -Osho
To go to college and live a life independent of my family and the comforts of familiarity for months at a time was less like a leap of faith and more like a nudge off a cliff. At first, the free-fall wasn’t so bad. I’d always been capable of doing well in school and I made friends quickly. It was not until I hit the ground and the dust settled that I recognized how incredibly bored I was, and without an internship in the art industry like I had in high school, I was left without an outlet to release that negativity and turn it into creativity.
I grew frustrated and resentful. This wasn’t the life I’d imagined myself living. This wasn’t my truth. I hadn’t known I was capable of being away from home and I quickly realized I was not only capable of being on my own, but I was pretty much capable of anything...so why was I here in a situation that was not working for me when I could be anywhere? I felt abandoned and unhappy and as time went on I found it increasingly challenging to get in touch with the fire within me. My feelings scared me. I loved having days filled with roadtrips, photo projects, painting, and chai lattes...but even time spent doing the things I enjoyed felt hollow.
I came to the realization that I wasn’t being honest with myself. I wanted to be happy in an environment that was making me sad. It was like putting a fish on land and being surprised that it couldn’t survive. Although my grades or academic performance shows otherwise, I never personally felt that I thrived in a classroom. Even when it comes to learning about things I am passionate about, I much prefer experimenting and discovering on my own what works and what doesn’t rather than having the all the fun spoiled by being told what is right and what is wrong.
However, what set me over the edge was the feeling of losing my individuality for nothing in return. At a large university you are a number, defined by numbers, in a sea of numbers, given numbered grades, converted to numbered GPAs; which in sum qualify your value. That did not sit well with me.
I have worked SO hard to be Annie Fay Meitchik. Not a perm number. Not a 92% on my midterm. Not a 6/6 on my photography project. I had spent 18 years devoted to being myself, and I wanted to be treated as such.
“Darling, the world’s not really against you. The only thing that’s against you is yourself” - Unknown
I knew that my personal values were not in alignment with those of the university I was attending and that was something that was not going to change. My happiness was deteriorating, my money was being spent on something that made me miserable, and worst of all my time was being wasted. Besides all that, from an academic standpoint, to continue studying Art at a school without the resources or course offerings to properly teach that subject made no sense to me.
I also still felt incredibly invested in my life back in San Diego. My friends were there, my family was there, and all of my art connections were based in the area as well. College was so out of line with my story it was like I was still on the chapter of my childhood at home with my parents and I had put the book down and started reading someone else’s book at a different chapter. There was this huge disconnect between who I was and what I was doing.
I made the choice to withdraw from school after winter quarter ended to pursue my truth and it was the best decision EVER. Revitalized by the love of my family and the support of my friends I have found myself again and am grateful to be able to simply exist as myself. I rediscovered what it means to be content, appreciated, and joyful. I don’t spend time thinking about where I should be or what I would rather be doing because I have this incredible sense that I am exactly where I am meant to be. I create art each day, I blog, I collaborate, and I have a place at Lux to contribute creatively.
Everyone’s path is different. But if there is any lesson I’ve learned that is universally applicable it’s that you have to do what’s right for you, without guilt. It could feel like the whole world is against you, especially if you are making choices that fall outside the norm - but you absolutely NEVER need to be against yourself. Believe in your ability to make the right choices for you, and beyond that, allow yourself to own those decisions and be proud of the fact that you are in touch with your intentions.
So many people aren’t living a life that resonates with them at their core because (1) it’s hard to figure out who you are in a society built around conformity and assimilation and (2) once you figure out who you are and what you want it’s difficult to break free from that very society and just go for it.
Disregard what everyone else thinks, even if it’s just merely for a moment and take the time to define what it means to be you and what you need to not only survive, but thrive.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” - Alexander den Heijer
If the environment you are in is hindering your ability to flourish, take action.
Your existence is up to you.
Remember that it is everyone else’s first time on their journey too. Nobody but you will ever live your life, so you may as well be confident in your instincts and follow your heart.
Spend time doing the things that leave you with a lasting sense of fulfillment and purpose and allow that to be the center of each decision you make.