We lived on the outer fringe of a large centralized school district comprised of several small towns and extensive surrounding rural areas. The few close friends that I walked to classes with and met for lunch were only seen at school. The late bus didn’t travel as far as my house and I was not permitted to walk the mile from the closest drop off point, eliminating after-school activities. Invitations to sleepovers were met with the routine “no” even when other parents offered to pick up and bring home. Our phone line was long distance from the rest of the district so telephone conversations were not even a consideration. The closest kids in the next house two miles down the road attended school in a different district. Every window in our house framed the same landscape – trees, and more trees. Walls of isolation, both manufactured and naturally provided by the acres of woods that surrounded our home, kept me locked in from the time the bus dropped me off until it picked me up again. Control was easier in a world kept small.
Discussions, about anything, were rare. When they did occur they were one way – my father’s. It wasn’t surprising that plans beyond high school graduation were never mentioned. Unspoken assumptions placed me down the road married with kids. How that was supposed to happen when I was not allowed to date, or even go to school dances, was one of those unknowns left dangling like a half broken branch, waiting for a gust to come along to determine which direction it would fall.
Friends started talking about the colleges they wanted to attend along with possible careers. New yearnings took root in the territory of my unease, grew beyond my habitual silence and blossomed in my mind’s eye as one word – FREEDOM! Winds from a bigger world began to whisper possibilities in my ears, then began to howl until that was all I could hear. I did not want to miss this bus, not this time! I wanted to run for it, let it take me somewhere, anywhere. A plan germinated in the rich soil of my academic success. Somehow, I would find my way to college, use education to escape, draft a different life. There was no family path in this neck of the woods, but I was fortunate to have friends to help me navigate the way. Education equaled independence and independence equaled freedom.
One night at dinner as I asked for more potatoes I also blurted out “I’m going to college” before my jaw clenched. My father simply responded between bites with: “No you’re not.” “Why not?” “Because I said so.” Mom and my brothers sat wide-eyed and silent. College had never held a place in the family plan. I finished eating, then left the table accompanied with the flavor of failure. Could he really stop me?
I had never asked for help, never asked for anything. My throat tightened and the dreaded flush traveled up my neck as I made my way to the guidance office. I sat on the edge of the chair, spine sagging and books clutched to my chest as the counselor described financial options I hadn’t even known existed: grants, student loans, work study jobs. A flicker of hope started to ignite a possible plan in my buzzing brain – until I was handed financial aid papers for my parents to fill out. They laid in my closet for days before I finally set them on the kitchen table. “There are ways to get money to pay for college”, I sputtered. My father picked them up, ruffled through them with lips pressed firmly together and that crease between his eyebrows I had learned to dread. Our eyes met for one sharp glance. “None of their damn business how much money I make!” “But I can’t get any help if you don’t fill them out.” He just walked away, playing the power card from the hand I had just dealt. The deadline approached, I asked one more time with silence as my answer. My power card was knowing I would leave one way or another. Then, without my knowing, the papers arrived in the guidance office. My bewilderment was only exceeded by the realization that I had been given wings to fly away, above and beyond the tallest trees. I never asked how the papers arrived there and they were never mentioned again. After all, that’s how things were done.