I come from a long line of formal education dropouts. My father never pursued anything further than an eighth-grade education, and my mother ditched her near ivy-league university to join a low-grade cult based out of New Knoxville, Ohio. My brother is currently “taking a break” from school to pursue a promising career in stand-up, in between shifts at Ace Hardware. Most of the rest of my family are broken records of repeated enrollments (and subsequent dropouts) in local community colleges, barely-scraped-by high school diplomas, and lucrative, half-baked ideas of legal weed dispensaries (pun obviously intended, duh). So, really, I had no choice but to pick up the respected family mantle and just not fucking graduate.
It wasn’t going to be easy: at the time, my cousin—six months my senior, and the only other granddaughter in the family—was polishing up a successful high school career in the International Baccalaureate program as one of three valedictorians in our graduating class. Fortunately, my family (and the Washington County Public School System) was behind me all the way.
In the beginning, there was the word…
And the word was pedophilia. The year before high school started, my father was arrested for downloading so much child pornography at work that he clogged their servers.
“I may not know everything,” my mom would say nearly a decade later, “But I’ll tell you what: I felt something coming down that hot June afternoon, and boy did it ever…” Ladies and gentlemen, my mother, the psychic.
Over the next two years, my parents would plow through my college fund, their life savings, and just about every personal and professional connection they had in an attempt to save their marriage, their home, and their painstakingly-cultivated image of normalcy. As I began to learn how to navigate the complex social circles of high school politics (my approach to socialization was not so much “cool cat” as it was “exuberant Jack Russell terrier puppy in a room filled with bacon grease-smeared tennis balls”), I was also raising my brother, emotionally-supporting my mother, and dodging verbal and sexual abuse from my father.
For two glorious hours a day, I would catch the bus to the local high school, argue with the Integrated Science teacher about creationism and evolution, practice French with a woman that hated me (and pretty much every other student in that school), and soak up every last drop of petty high school bullshit and gossip I could find.
“Hey, you’re That Girl Who’s Only Here in the Mornings, right?”
“Tiffany, yeah, hi!” I’d eagerly flip my hair to the side and stick out my hand—I had a nickname! The Prospect would glance at my beady-eyed smile, then down at my hand: chipped nail polish leading to tiny, steady hands, sticking out of what my mom called my “stupid monkey shirt” (it was Paul Frank, mom!).
At the end of my furlough, I would trudge home, walk in the door, and clock in for my daily shift of babysitter/prison guard. The toxic, ectoplasmic sludge that would ooze out of the house and over the brim—out the doors, over the windowsills, dripping into the yard—was palpable. I was responsible for making sure my brother stayed out of trouble and did his homework, but I had no real punishments I could dole out if he decided to tell me—in that endearing way that only five-year-olds are capable of—to fuck right off.
“Aaron, you have to do your homework. Mom said.”
“Mom’s not here!”
“If you don’t, she’ll put you on restriction!” (homeschool kids language)
“I hate you, sis!”
“Shutup and color the damn bear!”
Eventually, my mom would come home from selling shoes at Fred Meyer, my dad would come home from pawing through piles of Goodwill crap and library sales, and we would all enjoy a nice, terse, family dinner together. Just as God intended. When my mom decided to work second shift, however, our dinners were often restricted to me, my brother, and my dad, with me playing the role of that evening’s cook…
“What is this?”
“Jesus Christ, Tiffany, this is still raw.” My dad pulled at the chicken on his plate with his fork, pink juice pooling between the rubbery, white meat.
“Sorry…” I glanced at the oven—the recipe had said twenty minutes???
His piece said, my dad threw his chicken in the trash and went back—grumbling—to tinker with his computer in the garage. I sighed in relief and threw my plate in the microwave.
Whenever I wasn’t at school, or watching my brother, or making dinner or cleaning the house, or doing my own homeschooling, I would sleep. For hours. Days, if you’d let me. When I wasn’t asleep, I lived on the phone. The line would either be busy or go to voicemail. I started eating. A lot. I lost interest in all activities except for writing. My world became gray, and streaked with panic.
This type of home life is not…conducive to a public school setting, and, after so much bullshit for so long, school finally had to drop.
My grades began to slip, and I started to skip school so I could sleep, or aimlessly wander the slug-and-worm-plastered streets of downtown Hillsboro, sporting my cargo pants, men’s hoodie, and my “don’t fuck with me” face.
There was an attempt…
While I played the role of housekeeper, my parents scrambled to rebuild their sandcastle of a life before the tides of the judicial system came in to sweep it all away.
My family—always staunch conservative Christians, but never avid parishioners—started attending the local Foursquare church. Once a week, my parents would meet with the assistant pastor for marital counseling. In addition, my dad would attend a church-based group for husbands and fathers struggling with sexual addictions, while my mom would attend a group for wives of husbands and fathers struggling with sexual addictions. My brother and I would be packed into the back of our parents’ white Mercury sedan, and driven down to the Good Samaritan Counseling Center for an hour of what can best be described as “self-victimization pep-talks.”
“You know…what is happening with your parents isn’t your fault.”
“I…I know? I never thought it was.”
“Do you hate your father?”
“What? No, I—“
“Go ahead, say it…it’s important to feel that anger…say you hate your father…”
“…I hate my father.”
“Good! Let the hate flow through you, young Skywalker.”
We had all the (free, Christian-based) counseling Washington and Multnomah counties could muster. But, of course, my dad fucking relapsed. Or rather, he got sloppy.
Lizzie Borden had it right…
We left my dad, not quite in the dead of night, but close enough to where we needed my mom’s estranged family to provide a lower-class, presidential-style cavalcade. We lived in an RV for a week, then got a little apartment we thought my dad knew nothing about. After many late-night arguments (“You only want to go to public school so you can go to prom, Tiffany!” “What?”), I started going to (a new) high school (full time) with my cousin. That lasted for about three months before my dad started following us home from church and unscrewing our front door knobs while we slept.
Because Dad of the Year was stalking us, my mom became paranoid that he would kidnap my little brother. Because of the paranoia, I had to change schools again—this time, to one that would grant me early release so I could be back in time for my brother to get home from school. Because I had to get early release and change schools, I was both behind in some classes and ahead in others. Fortunately, though, the public school system was on top of it.
“All she has to do is test out of Algebra one, and she can get credit for it and graduate on time!”
*two weeks later*
“Oh, no no no no, ma’am, I’m sorry, whoever you spoke with last time was incorrect. Your daughter must pass Algebra two with a C or better, and then she’ll get credit for both one and two!”
*two more weeks later*
“Oh, no ma’am, I’m sorry you are upset, but your daughter must first show up proof of her homeschooling so we can verify her level of education. Also…her records show that she was not fully vaccinated? Uh-huh…yes…autism…yes ma’am…however, we do require all students to be—yes…religious beliefs…I see…well, back to her studies…if she tests out of Algebra one…”
Two months before graduation, we were finally given a concrete answer:
“Oh, yes ma’am, she can definitely graduate…all she needs to do is enroll for an additional year…some call it ‘super senior,’ yes, but we prefer the term ‘remedial student’…”
Fuck that shit. The likelihood of my graduating on time was directly disproportionate to the amount of fucks I had to give—about anything. Also, I had just 1. got my first serious boyfriend, and 2. discovered sex. These were way better reasons to leave the house than my usually-scheduled 6-8 hours of busy work followed by 4-6 hours of a screaming younger brother who hid empty pudding cups and Capri suns behind the tv.
I started waking up at night from night terrors, and from gnashing my teeth so hard I felt like a fucking wolverine tearing into a t-bone steak (not nearly as badass as it sounds). After calming myself down, I’d fall asleep again, only to be woken up three hours later by my mother screeching at me for sleeping through my alarm. Or leaving a glass on the counter. Or not getting my brother ready for school. Or…or…or…
This was, she believed, surely because of all of The Drugs that she smelled in my bedroom, poorly-disguised as spilled hydrogen peroxide from my last attempt to remove my most recent ingrown toenail.
Congratulations, you’re a failure!!!
My cousin’s graduation was large, festive, and important, and was celebrated afterwards with an extended family dinner at a tacky Chinese restaurant. Not to be outdone, my mother threw me an “off to community college” party, which largely consisted of a patio dinner at my favorite Mexican place, where I got to sit next to my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend and stuff my face with taquitos while trying to melt through the floor when my normally-tee-totaler mother got too drunk to finish her “we’re so proud of you” speech.
“Tiffany…we all love you…very much….and…we just wanted to say…*hic!*” the margarita pitcher was nearly empty as she took another sip from her sticky glass of mostly tequila.
“We just are so very proud of you and know you will go on to do a lot of great things!” Grandma picked up the slack by finishing the speech, which saved my mom further embarrassment, but threw her into an impotent, apoplectic rage. Mom sipped her margarita with spite and slumped back down in her seat.
After “graduation,” I used my connections through an old high school buddy to get a job at Quizno’s, where I spent the next six months telling the owner that I absolutely refused to use a deli slicer that had cut off five people’s fingertips in as many months. I also learned to change the day-dot-labels on our meats so we could pass health inspections, and that Intel should never give their engineers money to start up their own franchises—no matter how many discounted sandwiches he sold their employees. I got kicked out of my home. I got married. I got divorced. I picked up, dropped, picked up again, and dropped again—college. I worked as a barista, a hostess, a call center agent, a data organization specialist. They all asked if I had a high school diploma. I always lied—they never checked. Shit job after shit job, year after year, always salivating over my pie-in-the-sky dream of getting paid to sit at a desk and indulge my (arguably most boring) hobby of filling out page after page of forms for obscure bureaucratic organizations.
If you write it, they will judge…
In 2013, I got my GED from the local community college’s adult education program. You must have either a diploma or a GED to graduate with a four-year degree, otherwise I wouldn’t have even bothered. I have never once been asked to provide a proof of my diploma or GED certificate. Not once.
I live in Kentucky now, where I work at the local university, helping people fill out forms to abide by regulations they do not understand and I do not give a shit about. It pays the bills, and—more importantly—comes with free tuition. I’ve since picked up college—again—and intend to enroll in a Master’s program once I finish my Bachelor’s. My dreams now tend to be more related to my writing: specifically, how long I have to work at this until I can get paid to go to conferences and sign books with witty titles and hilarious-yet-life-changing essays and spend at least one weekend a month making regrettable decisions after freeing the open bar from all the vodka they have. Shouldn’t take more than another 10 years?