At age 20 I finally graduated high school.
This wasn’t because I had been held back but because in my first attempt at grade 12, I dropped out. I was sixteen and my life was tumultuous, to say the least. I had missed a chunk of time thanks to my stay in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt and when I returned to class I was at long last able to understand something I already knew: I was getting almost nothing out of my education. I was never much for school anyway. I did okay for marks in most of my subjects except math and gym, but the impersonal standardized system was one I simply was not able to thrive in. So I said, "I quit, let's see what this whole 'real life' thing is all about."
This, as you can imagine, did not go over well at home. When I told my parents, stating clearly that I intended to finish at some point when the time was right, they sighed the sigh of people who had put up with all manner of shenanigans and shot back that I could do whatever I wanted but, thanks to life outside school being very tough, only a handful of dropouts ever went back and they didn’t believe I was capable of being one of those people. I was informed that if I chose to go down this path, that I would be kicked out of their home. Our relationship at that point was pretty strained so, not going to lie, that last part was exactly what I wanted to hear. I said I had already found a place and a roommate and would be out in a month. From the look on their faces, it was clear: they were attempting tough love and it hadn't gone how they'd hoped.
Believing I had everything figured out, I was filled with smug satisfaction.
My first apartment was in Saskatoon’s downtown core in the basement of a run-down building. The location was amazing and the property seemed to have charm, but our particular unit was really, truly a piece of shit. We did our best to get it looking decent. I don’t actually remember much from this period of my life. I spent most of it under the influence or at work.
I was a host at the local Earl’s Restaurant which, at that time, was one of the hottest spots in the city. I partied a lot with the older servers and bartenders. So much that I was pretty consistently late for work which eventually led to me being fired. This loss of steady income and the fact that one of my roommates ran off with a month’s rent meant that I was forced to clean my act up for a bit. A very teeny tiny bit.
When I found a job at a local coffee shop, I quickly resumed my old ways. Despite being as prone to depressive states as I am, I had not yet made the connection between my level of melancholy and the amount of alcohol I consumed. Yes, I knew alcohol was a downer but in my mind, drinking was the best way to stop those low feelings from overwhelming me. It helped that drinking happened when I was out having a good time, exalting in my emancipation. The feelings of joy I got from the music and atmosphere became tied to the feelings of loose liberty.
Consistently though, the scale always tipped back hard in the other direction. I would find myself in intense melancholy, unable to fully pinpoint why I had fallen so deep. The truth was I was spending all my money on partying and rent so I almost never had any groceries to speak of. I wasn't great at cleaning the apartment or making it homey. These elements conspired to exacerbate the already cavernous emptiness I felt inside. I remember one night, I sat down to watch the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I hadn't seen the movie since one day when I was pretty young and we put in the VHS. The moment E.T. was left behind and started screeching for his family, the sound terrified me so much that I ran out of our basement and stumbled out into the sunlight in a state of panic. For some reason (I was probably tipsy) I had become determined to face whatever had caused that fear. But, as I sat there alone in my piece of shit apartment, feeling hungry, tired, and stupid I started bawling from the second E.T.'s family left him to the very end of the credits. This was not a small cry but instead, a big heaving cry that I truly will never forget.
After my overdose on ecstasy, I was allowed to move back in with my parents. I began to learn more about my body and what made my depression worse. I started working out, trying to eat better, get more sleep. Then, one day, I woke up and found myself ready to return to school. I told my parents and, although they seemed proud, they also seemed surprised. I reminded them that I had maintained all along I would return eventually, they had little to say in response.
As we discussed options to go back to school, we kept returning to a junior college in our original hometown of Rosthern called, surprise, Rosthern Junior College. RJC was a Mennonite faith focused private school that boasted a dormitory for out of towners and small class sizes with teachers we were encouraged to call by their first names. Having been raised in Rosthern in a Mennonite church, the school was always a part of my life. Many of the adults in my congregation had attended followed by their children who will likely be followed by their children.
I think when I finally conceded that the best course of action to complete my high school education was to immerse myself completely - to remove all other distractions from my life - I was in part fulfilling a dream my parents had had for me since I was young. I can’t tell you how many times they had mentioned RJC as an option when I was originally attending high school. I had always turned it down. First, because it meant moving back to Rosthern, a town I associated most heavily with ugly memories, and second because I knew they didn’t have the money and, as someone who has spent basically my entire life relatively poor, I've always hated asking people for help.
But now that my sister had moved on to university and I only had a year to complete, my parents scraped together enough for a year’s tuition including room and board. Whatever issues my parents and I have between us, I cannot deny that they always provided for us materially as best they could. Helping me to attend RJC is something I will always be grateful for.
So, at 19, my parents drove me and my bundle of belongings to Rosthern and moved me into the dormitory. What a strange experience. After everything I had been through in the last few years, I was now expected simply to be a good student. The school being as small as it was, most people were super close with each other and were, for the most part, the kind of good, kind Christian people that have always scared me a little. They’re so friendly! So welcoming! So humble! They must be hiding something.
When my parents left, I went back up to my room, wanting to avoid everyone. The dorm was a simple space: concrete walls painted white, a bunk bed, two desks and two small closets. I moved to the window and looked out. A field stretched into the distance. Memories of my childhood flooded back. Here I was, committed to spending a full school year in a place I had never ever ever enjoyed returning to. And yet I was so thankful for the opportunity. Not everyone gets a second chance at high school. Overwhelmed, I began to cry. Not a big, sobbing cry, but rather a small, contained one. Maybe the best word to describe it is bittersweet. Here I was about to repeat a portion of my childhood but no longer as a child. Instead of the usual flailing about I was so accustomed to, I was now armed with the wisdom of a (stunted) adult. Or so I thought. There was in fact a great deal of wisdom yet to gain.
It took a while for me to get settled in. Everyone seemed so young and so damn friendly. I started hanging out with a small band of "weirdos" and "misfits". We would run across the highway and smoke cigarettes and talk smack about the utterly foreign helpful teachers and welcoming atmosphere. I had my dorm room to myself for a day or two but then my roommate showed up. His name was Liam* and while he was a sweet enough human being, he was also a bit of a nightmare to live with. I had actually gone to school with him briefly in Saskatoon.
When my family first moved to the city a small group of older kids (strange sorts who my parents immediately disapproved of) came over to my house to get the lowdown on who exactly I was. He was part of that group and there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about him. That was the last time I saw him until he came bounding into our dorm room like a twister. Rumour was that somewhere along the way he’d had a very bad acid trip. He was now less like someone a year or two older than me and more like the Ozzy Osbourne you see in MTV’s reality show The Osbournes. He was messy and had a habit of staring off into the distance and then suddenly piping up with some crazy sentence that had nothing to do with anything.
I started to worry that his presence would negatively affect my schooling and I managed to convince the deans that because I was older than most of the students and had lived on my own off and on, that I would be better off in a room by myself. Once I was moved to a solo room I started settling in for real. I tried to stay involved. I auditioned for the extra-curricular choir and for the Christmas theatre production. I didn’t make it into the choir in that first semester but managed to get cast as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. As has happened to me several times in life, once I was able to show that I had a talent, people who had previously written me off as quiet and cold started to find they could respect me. I solidified friendships with some of the “good kids” and became more comfortable in the school social environment. Later, when mid-year auditions came up for choir, the director told me flat out the reason he didn’t let me join the first time was that I was hanging out with people he deemed unsavoury. He later went on to gush to my mother after one of our performances as if he had been the one who had truly seen my potential and managed to unearth my talent. My mother, even with all her own reservations about my pursuit of art, could not have made a better “Girl, please.” face to me after.
I spent most of that year not drinking and just focusing on my schoolwork. It was a huge privilege to have that experience. It’s insane what a difference it makes to have educators who care about your success. The teachers I had during that year were the most supportive I've ever had. Thanks to them I managed to believe that I could actually do maths for a moment, I got to believe in my acting ability again, I believed in my writing. And all the students, who I had so many doubts about off the top, ended up being truly beautiful souls who welcomed me into their environment with open arms.
It’s strange though, I haven’t spoken to almost any of them since we graduated. Looking back, I can see I kept them at arm’s length even then. In part, because I really didn't know myself (the truly necessary digging was still a few years in the future) and in part, because Rosthern is a place I still have not made peace with, a place I may never make peace with. Despite the warm memories associated with RJC, my fellow students were sucked into the same memory abyss I tend to send that whole town into. The funny thing is, I spent almost no time in the town proper during that year. While the school is on the outskirts of town, it’s not separated from town. But I still rarely ventured off campus unless for something school related. On weekends I would return to Saskatoon. Still, each time I think of RJC I think of the dread that accompanied every single drive back into the place I grew up.
I think often of my former classmates. I know many of them are married, quite a few have children, many still live in Saskatchewan. As much as all those things are the complete opposite of what I’d want, I do wish them long, happy, and prosperous journies. Some might see it as rather tragic that the people who contributed so much to my blossoming are no longer in my life. I don’t. I’ve always believed that very few relationships are forever. That people stumble onto each others paths, teach each other something, then move on. I try not to be too sentimental about it because I think there can be just as much beauty in that brief, concentrated connection as there is in a connection that lasts for many years. But if I manage to make it to old age, I will absolutely look back on 2004-2005 as a year filled with positivity, kindness, and love.
That's a huge deal. Because the older I get, the more I see that years filled with that much pure joy don't come around nearly as often as you'd wish.
*Names have been changed.