I’ve always been a few steps ahead of myself. I’m not sure who’s to blame for that: my parents, or me. I think it all started when I skipped the second grade. I learned to read at a fairly young age, and attacked books with with a voracity uncommon among my peers. When my mother taught me the difference between abridged and unabridged books, I immediately committed to only reading unabridged books. I must have been seven years old. Reading is the only thing I’ve ever been competitive about. In high school, I ran cross country and used to laugh as girls sped past me. I didn’t bother to take an SAT prep class, or to post my college admissions to my Facebook page. In fact, the only goal I’ve ever really had was to be the most well read person in any room I entered. So, I skipped the second grade because I was reading the unabridged copy of Little Women at age eight. As simple and seemingly innocuous as this decision was, it led to my high school graduation at age seventeen. Graduating high school at age seventeen has led me here. I graduate from college in less than a month. I’ll be 20. Like most soon-to-be graduates, the unknown future terrifies me, and the speed with which my life has moved horrifies me. But unlike most other graduates, I’m two years ahead of myself.
I brought in a lot of AP credits from my high school classes. Because of this, during my second semester of college, my course advisor told me I was eligible to graduate a year early. I called my parents that afternoon and told them the news. I could save a year’s worth of tuition and living expenses! Once again, I could speed up my life by a year, and skip a grade! Like I knew they would, they jumped at the chance to save the few thousand dollars they paid each year towards my tuition. Upon their urging, I decided to take a summer class and commit to finishing college three months before my 21st birthday. I crept through the next two years, balancing my own sense of pride and achievement against the growing realization that I was competing with students with much more life and work experience.
Graduating early has made for an interesting dichotomy in my life. I am always two steps ahead of myself, but simultaneously a step behind the peers I’ve been grouped with. It reminds me of high school track and field. I’m a freshman who made the Varsity team. I’m faster than the Junior Varsity kids, but my legs aren’t as long as the Varsity runners. In an effort to keep up, I often find myself overworked and exhausted.
This fall, I worked three part-time jobs while maintaining a full class schedule. I used to crack jokes at myself in the mirror each morning, saying: “You’re going to work eighteen hours today and like it!” I didn’t know what I was working towards, only that if I wanted to stay in-pace, I had better put in the effort.
My social life also grew confusing. Friends and acquaintances seemed to get engaged every week, and I began to wonder why I wasn’t doing the same. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career. I had no clue where I wanted to live. The thought of marriage made me nauseous. Each week, I would cycle through moments of panic and self-derision, lying face-down on my carpet on a Sunday night. The next morning I would wake up and remember that I was only twenty, and that I was living in an alternate reality.
It’s not just the early graduation date that makes me feel older than I am. Living in New York City doubles the effect. Being a college student in New York eliminates the cushion of a campus, and the safe feeling of being in between youth and the “real world.” New York is about as real as the world can get.
This semester, I’ve often found myself wondering why I started this whole process in the first place. Staying another year would allow me to save more money, gain more work experience, and build more confidence. Another year would give me the chance to raise my GPA, take more English classes, and meet the college boyfriend I always thought I’d have. Were I graduating a year from now, I think I’d feel ready. Were I were graduating a year from now, I don’t think I would be this afraid.
If I could go back to the tow-headed girl reading Little Women in the front yard Bradford Pear tree, would I tell her to slow down?
I don’t have an answer to that question. I wish I did, because then I could step across the stage in May and move the cord of my graduation cap from right to left with a sense of quietude and accomplishment. As it is, my hands will shake.
But there is a charm in fear. In his novel Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon writes, “It was nice standing out in the darkness, in the damp grass, with spring coming on and a feeling in my heart of immanent disaster.” If I’m after anything, it must be that feeling: expectancy.