Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Real Diamond and a Real Screw-Up

This past weekend I won a story contest in my local newspaper by writing about how my mother sold her long awaited diamond ring so that I could go to my dream college when I was seventeen. The stories had to be short and mine was, but what I wrote didn't tell the whole story. For Mother's Day, I focused on the nice part of what happened - what my mother was willing to do for me to have the education she didn't get. I left out the part about how I squandered her sacrifice and screwed up royally, setting off a chain of screw ups that took me over a decade to end.

I was a high school drop out. I got my GED with a bunch of people from jail when I should have been starting twelfth grade with my friends. I went to a semester of community college, taking only classes I liked before I ran off to New York, where I'd moved from the year before, to live with my boyfriend. Yes, I was barely seventeen when I did that. I tried community college up there, taking art classes this time and withdrawing from math after a couple of weeks. My boyfriend was an artist and I wanted to be like him. I was always good at drawing. I won a fire prevention poster contest in elementary school. I liked art and I liked the idea of a bohemian artist's life. My boyfriend had applied to an art school in Boston and had been accepted. He was leaving and I couldn't go along, while at the same time, all my friends who hadn't dropped out of high school were getting ready for college life too. Most of them were headed to the Ivies, because although I was a loser, my friends certainly weren't. But I didn't want to be a loser. I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to make up for the shame of my GED by going to college too. I applied to Bennington College, an extremely small, extraordinarily expensive liberal arts college set in the idyllic Vermont countryside, as a transfer student.

Bennington worked for me because it was beautiful and quirky. They didn't require SAT scores, barely wanted a transcript and they were more tolerant of things like GEDs and patchy high school records. They seemed to overlook my failing of the tenth grade and subsequent attendance of summer school at an academy for disturbed teens. Remarkably, in spite of their permissiveness, Bennington is a pretty prestigious college. A lot of famous people have gone there and the school has an excellent, if somewhat notorious reputation. Remember "Less Than Zero"? The school they were home for the holidays from? That was Bennington. Anyone read A Secret History by Donna Tartt (amazing book)? That school was Bennington too, with nothing but the name changed.

Getting into Bennington was a huge deal for me. I was shocked they accepted me and it was my chance to redeem myself for all that I had messed up in high school. This time I'd study and do my work. I'd stay organized and not let my personal life interfere with academics. Better yet, I'd be a couple hour bus ride from my boyfriend in Boston and all my friends in the Ivy Leagues. I felt like I was one of them again, not some trailer park, white trash drop-out who lived with her boyfriend when she was only sixteen.


My mother sold her ring to pay for tuition at Bennington, which was at the time, the most expensive college in the country. And I went there for all of three and a half months.


It's a long story of why I dropped out yet again. I can only say that I was too young and too broken. At the time the wounds of my childhood hadn't begun to heal and where most people emerge from childhood with a few scars and bruises, mine, with my sensitive and anxious nature, was more like a full limb amputation. Back then, I didn't believe that the world loved me back. Set free without the ties of my family or the protection of my boyfriend who dumped me over the phone shortly after arriving in Boston, I could not control my terrible need to prove that I was lovable and that need took precedent over everything. Sometimes it still does. One day I'll fill in the details.


Revealing this makes me feel like I didn't deserve to win that contest. I wanted to be so happy, but I wasn't. I'm always trying to win things and have been since I was little and used to obsessively try to be the hundredth caller when I heard the song of the day. My trying to win is that same need to prove my worth, the same thing that got me in trouble and caused me to waste my mother's generosity and the opportunity she gave me.


I'd like to hope that I've made it up to her by now. I entered the contest because I couldn't think of anything I could give her that would show her how sorry I am for what a screw-up I've always been.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

But that contest was about a mother's love for her child. You illustrated that beautifully. You wrote about your mother in such a beautiful way. Wasn't that the point?

beansa said...

Hello Wide Lawns -

I have been reading your blog for a while but this is my first comment. I just wanted to come out of lurker status to tell you how much I love your blog.

I live in Seattle now but I grew up in South Florida close to where you live (Lighthouse Point). You render the charm and weirdness of Florida so perfectly in your stories. Times I've been homesick, especially in the winter, I've read through your archives and come away feeling like I had a mini-vacation back to my homeland.

You've made me laugh and cry and think and you've given me a new perspective on my home state and my "people." I wish that when I last lived there I hadn't been so preoccupied with being an angsty teen & 20-something that I missed out on the incredible wealth of writing material SoFlo has to offer!

The story about your mom selling her ring is sweet and you told it well. The fact that you weren't yet ready to take advantage of the opportunity your mom gave you doesn't mean you're unworthy of the prize. I bet the fact that you "get it" now and that you've made it through those troubled times and healed some of your wounds means the world to your mom.

Your new blog design looks great and I hope it helps you propel your blog to the top of many more reading lists where it surely does belong. Thank you so much for sharing your writing. You have a gift and I'm greatful to have experienced it.

PS - I'm sending this comment through again because I can't tell if it went through the first time. If it did, sorry for the double post.

janani said...

The fact that you appreciate what you mother did, even if you didn't use the opportunity pays her back. I agree with Anon1, you did great on the contest

Kerry said...

We've all been young, and screwed things up. When we grow up, we work to fix the things we messed up if we can. You did get through college, you did grow up, you turned it around.

My parents sacrificed to send me to college too young, too. She didn't sell a diamond, but I know it was a sacrifice in a family that (in retrospect) didn't have a lot. (note to self: tell mom thank you since I don't know that I have) I messed it up too- drinking, sex, and grades that went downhill. I know she was upset with me, though we never did talk about it.

It took me until two years ago to get through school. Twenty years after my first try.

We all make mistakes. Your mom showed her love, and that's beautiful. That's worth holding onto.

English said...

This made me cry. Beautifully written.

I can relate to much of what you felt (and still sometimes feel). We have traveled similar paths (GED, quit college 1, quit college 2, looking for worth in all the wrong people, etc.). Isn't it great that we "made" it? lol Look at us now, teaching in college and being published. I really wish you would write that dang book already.

greyspasm said...

Don't make me smack you, WL! If you screwed up in the past, I'm guessing it was mostly because you acted boldly and followed your heart. Sometimes doing that gets you in a mess. Sometimes messes are stepping stones to better things. If you keep thinking of yourself as a screwup, then none of your successes will ever feel like your own. Your self-pity will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The time to stop feeling sorry for yourself is now.

Green said...

I don't view you as a screw up at ALL. You're a regular cool person with some interesting ideas who had some wacky shit going on as a kid that has left a few marks. Those formative years are really fucking formative, and sorting that shit out is a job and a half. I bet your mom doesn't view you as a screwup either.

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