I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my family’s house back in the California suburbs, after a year of college. It’s almost culture shock, even though I haven’t really been out of the house yet—all I can think about, when I look out the window, is how few trees there are, and how big the sky seems, the things I remember my mom first remarking on when our family moved out west ten years ago. It’s weird (though certainly a pleasant change) to go downstairs to the kitchen, instead of walking across a courtyard and swiping into the dining hall. It’s so different to see my parents and my sister, instead of my friends and my professors and the college staff. It’s particularly bizarre to think about how going anywhere—the movie theater, the bookstore, restaurants, Starbucks—now involves getting in a car. I haven’t driven since I was last here, at spring break, and as I remarked to my dad last night, I have been in a car exactly three times since then. I hate driving. I don’t miss it.
But the culture shock is more than the physical, apparent differences between being at home in the suburbs on the west coast and being on a college campus in a small (admittedly suburban) town on the east coast. I have changed so much since this time a year ago, when I hadn’t yet graduated from high school. I may not quite be an adult, but I am by no means a child anymore. My world is now so much larger than these California suburbs, than my high school. My circle of friends has widened to include people from all over the country and all over the world, from many different backgrounds and many different outlooks. Last summer, I worked for minimum wage at a movie theater, driving five days a week to a strip mall that is the perfect embodiment of gaudy American materialism. This summer, I’ll be living on my own in Washington, DC, interning at Campus Progress. It’s a change, and it represents how far I’ve come, and the degree to which my center of perspective has shifted from west to east, from suburbs to cities.
I’ll also be doing some research-assistant work for one of my last-semester’s professors, learning as I do so what a history professor actually does, and whether I’m making the right decision in focusing so single-mindedly on that as my life goal—oh yeah, last summer I feared that academia was an inevitable career path for me, but kind of regretted that I didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter. Now I welcome it, and I think about all the steps I will have to take to get there. I know I’m going to study history and American studies now, in college; I talk to my parents about grad schools. On the flight across the country, in between wading through historical documents for the research-assisting and dozing off while listening to Ginsberg recordings, I suddenly thought of a senior thesis topic: a way to do Ginsberg in the context of history/AMS and work in the LGBT theory and cultural stuff I’ve gotten so passionate about this semester. I’m not ready to really explain it yet; I don’t even know if it’s a viable project. And it’s a little early, anyway. But it’s a start, a very first step on the road to becoming the person I want to be, to being an academic and a writer and a public intellectual and never leaving the college campuses. I may be looking outside right now at the cacti-and-succulents-decorated backyard my parents are in the process of fixing up (very nicely, I might add), and I’m glad for the brief vacation being here provides. But mentally, I’ve left the suburbs, and I hope for good.
I was telling someone about what’s changed in my outlook in the past year, and particularly the past semester; how I feel as if I’ve mentally realigned myself to a world beyond these suburbs and that high school. And he sat, and listened, and said, “I think this year has been empowering for you.” And I nodded vigorously. That’s exactly it. My world is large. I’m full of the things I want to do and accomplish and study and learn. I feel so very self-assured right now, not ready to let anyone make me feel inadequate, not caring how I compare to the folks whose performance I once would have measured myself against. Mentally free of the suburbs, I feel as if the demons I once battled are gone—or, at least, that they’re different. Because I know I’m on the right track, I know I’m making good choices and responsible choices, and I know I’m getting back what I put in. In everything from my grades to my friendships, I’m seeing the results of a year of self-discovery.
In the next three months, I’m going to miss my campus desperately; already I can’t wait for fall semester, to see my friends and to be in classes again, and to take up residence in my secluded little fourth-floor room (I’m really excited about that part). But mostly I’m just excited about everything. Life at this point feels limitless and I feel like I can do anything. My god, everyone should leave the suburbs and move across the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough.