By Katie Fustich

I don’t remember my first day of school. When I look at pictures of myself standing in front of the red-bricked, green-roofed Hartwood Elementary, my brain identifies the uncomfortable peach nylon vest and headband slanting too far forward. But I don’t actually remember what I felt or what I saw, who spoke to me first and introduced themselves in the overly-precocious way only uncertain six year olds are capable of. It’s a memory that exists only in the way other people tell it to me.

It’s strange to think I don’t remember my first day of school when I consider the fact that, even since a specific August morning, my life has been in motion on a singular track. My late summers consistently marked by new jeans and blank composition books and heavy-handed attempts at reinvention that would crumble by November. June repeatedly giving way to grass rash, new Harry Potter books, and a family camping trip if I was lucky. These two phases tumbled one after the other without fail for 16 consecutive years. There would be phases of doubt and disorder along the way, sure. Questionable friends, political phases, college applications (followed by college rejection letters). But these were merely additions and subtractions to an ongoing cycle that has remained wholly uninterrupted. Or, should I say, has remained uninterrupted until now.

I have 50 days left. After that, I will toss my cap and be re-birthed into a life of my own design and no one else’s. Approximately seven weeks remain of the only life I have ever known. A life from which I am to be suddenly ejected. In all fairness, I wasn’t totally blindsided by this fact. One is always kept subconsciously aware of their place along the timeline. But, somehow, one’s own mental marker of progress remains comfortably somewhere around the middle of things until there are 50 days left and suddenly it’s tipping off the edge, one breeze away from toppling down into the abyss.

I recognize there is a way to place blame. I firmly believe in the damaging reality of the educational system whether one is academically inclined or not. For the entirety of the aforementioned cycle, I have been pumped with grades and numbers and ideas and true and false. I have been told I am smart and special and consequently deflated and drifted and found my way back to land. If anything, I am lucky to find myself on the other end of this. But to acknowledge my fortune doesn’t alter the truth:

I am scared.

But I am slowly figuring it out. Fortunately, I have 50 days to do so.

I recognize that fear is a response to my body and mind trying to protect my fragile, education-based existence. This fear makes me feel weak, when in reality I am fearful because I am strong. I am so powerful and in control of my own destiny that it makes me tremble with anxiety.

I am scared because I am looking out at the infinite new paths, any one of which I could pick just as easily as another. Dye my hair and move to Japan. Apply to law school and find my inner Elle Woods. Rent a brick house in a Midwestern town and write a novel, undisturbed. All of these concepts equally appealing, but a “step” is a singular noun, meaning that there can only be one path I walk down for the time being.

Choice is not the only factor. Even if, by some miracle, I knew which path to choose, the levels of uncertainty continue. When will my report card come in the mail? When will my supervisor or mentor e-mail my parents to let them know I am doing great work? How does one find validation and success? Or, more accurately–how does one make validation and success for themselves? How do you know everything is okay and that you are doing a good job when there is no one smiling and nodding in the back row?

Slowly, I’m finding peace with the idea I might not be able to answer these questions until I am significantly older. Preferably 50 with a few dachshunds and a literary agent. By then I will have learned to keep a plant alive. Yes, I am finding peace with the thought that I may very well never know which path is correct. I am beginning to realize that the end of the cycle of childhood is not a finale but a grand and flourishing overture to a world of my very own.

People who consider high school or college the best years of their lives fail to realize the splendor of the world around them. In many ways one is made to believe that the growth of one’s identity comes to a sharp stopping place at the age of 22. However one finds themselves on graduation day is precisely the person they should remain for the rest of their days. It is much easier to settle in this way than to continuously explore the ups and downs of exploration. But why not use this pivotal moment as a springboard into the unknown?

I am constantly inspired by the ever-circulating chain e-mails and tumblr posts that describe how many of history’s great minds were not immediate successes. Vera Wang didn’t design until she was 40. Julia Child wrote her first cookbook at 50. Grandma Moses didn’t begin painting until she was nearly 80. And the list continues. My point being: there are so many ways a person can grow and learn that it’s truly a shame how paralyzing fear of the future can be.

Circumstances do indeed dictate, and I along with many others will likely have to find some form of less-than-desirable post-grad employment in the very near future. Student loans unfortunately cannot be paid with rejection letters from The New Yorker. But I am choosing to consider this a stepping stone. I will not let this break my spirit or keep me from believing in something greater. I will not let my job define me as a human being just as I have let academia define me for the past 16 years. For the first time in my life, I will define myself.

In my mind I have an image of my diploma, unrolled and unframed. A heavyweight sheet of marbled yellow parchment with swirling black ink, resting on a fresh bed of topsoil. It would appear that the diploma has been there for some time, baking in the sun, though it isn’t crumbled or damaged. Then, out of the ground, the tiniest and purest green tendrils begin to emerge. At first, their leaves are no larger than the fingernail of my pinky, but with time they grow and spread and tangle into each other. Tall shoots of grass grow upright, stretching out towards the sky. Pink flowers pop open in microscopic explosions. The paper happily slumbers, collapsing under the weight of the beauty all around it. After a time, there is no shred of evidence left that it ever existed. But the garden knows it’s there and will flourish above it regardless of it.

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March 19, 2016