Life lessons from a College Dropout

Today I quit my job. It’s the fourth and best job I’ve had since I took my first job at 17, and I’d be lying if I said I left it easily. I worked as a valet, parking cars for the local Indian Casino in my home town. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was fun and it paid the bills. Getting my job there also helped me through some of the roughest transitions of my life.

Leaving the casino is a strange mixture of freedom and melancholy. In a lot of ways, the year and a half I worked there has shaped who I am and changed my perspective on the world. Of course, I’m glad to be moving on with my life – going to university has been something I’ve looked forward to since I was seven – but at the same time, I’ll be leaving everything, everything, behind to start a new life someplace else. All the friends I’ve made, all the haunts I favorite, all the memories (good and bad) that have shaped me, they’ll soon be hundreds of miles away.

Of course, this latest change in my life is precipitated by a whole host of other changes. My father got a new job. My family is relocating to a different side of the state. My friends are moving on with their lives and entering the work place. At the age of 22, it would be ridiculous and unhealthy for me to expect my life to remain static. But, it is still depressing to realize that the consistency that I once took for granted is now unobtainable to me. To be uprooted from the life I’ve lived for the last decade is… disorienting, to say the least.

In a lot of ways, I owe the casino a great deal. Receiving my job with them provided stability in the rocky and out of focus world around me. It’s difficult to look back from where I am now and realize just how far I’ve come in the last year.

In 2011 my mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Illness always seems so distant and irrelevant until its bitter realities come crashing into your life. My mother and father did not hide my mother’s illness from my siblings and me. They explained the risks and changes very forthrightly. We were fortunate; my mother had excellent care. By spring of 2012 she was completely cured of her cancer, but it did not leave us unmarked.

My mother’s treatment was hard on everybody. For me, it meant more chores and responsibilities in a life that had been succinctly devoid of these before. It was also hard to see my mother struggle with the throes of cancer treatment. I wish I could say that I rose to these challenges admirably, but people have a nasty habit of not responding well to change. And so, rather than shoulder the burden like an adult, I took the opposite route.

I dropped out of every single one of my classes at the local community college I was attending. I began to withdraw from friends and social interaction. I spent increasingly large amounts of time in my room playing video games. I’m not proud of the person I became then.

By the end of 2012 my parents had had enough. I was out of work, out of school, and out of shape. They gave me an ultimatum – ‘pack your things, or get your shit together’ – and I was just stupid enough to take them up on it.

I was thrown out of my house. I had no job, and was living off the charity of one of my few remaining friends. My budget for food each week was $20, which I obtained by selling off what I had left of my possessions (an Ipad, some gift cards, my tools). For four months, I slept on a broken old couch and survived off of ramen and bulk chicken. I’m not proud of that time in my life either.

But I will say one thing about it. It did make me get my shit together. Entirely out of necessity, I was forced to look for work. I had to stop being so irresponsible because I had to find a job and I needed to present myself well to do so.

When I say that I owe the casino a lot, I mean just that. A job parking cars is not a glamorous job, but to me, it was godsend. When I got my job at the casino, I was desperate. I was living off of fumes. Having a real paycheck that I could care for myself with meant the world to me.

I have been as far down the path of self-destruction as I really ever care to go. As I sit here and type all of this out, warm and well fed, it is easy to lose touch with the humility that comes of sleeping in a freezing house on an empty stomach. It’s hard to connect myself now, confident and competent, to the pitiable character I was then. I never could have transitioned – would not be making this next great leap into the unknown – had it not been for the compassion shown to me then.

So to help bridge the mental gap between here and there, and to help give me closure, I would like to offer the reader the following truths taught to me by the last year and a half of my life:

1.)    You are never alone. Everywhere around you are people and resources willing to help you. The hardest part is swallowing your pride to accept them. Realize that people do not look down on those who ask for assistance. Heros arise not from those who can do by themselves, but from those who can collaborate with those around them.

2.)    Maturity comes in many shapes and sizes. One of the most important is called consistency. Be fair to people, show up on time, make good on your promises, and be honest. Not just sometimes, but all the time. People will respect you more and feel as though you do too.

3.)    Burning bridges is much, much easier than fixing them and fixing bridges is crucially important. Baggage ways down everything you do and strive to do. You owe it to yourself not to allow your problems to have free rent in your head. While it’s easy to advise someone to “get over it” it’s much harder to do in practice. Mend conflicts whenever possible.

4.)    Teamwork and leadership go hand and hand. You cannot be a good leader without being a good team player. Being the person in charge is not a dominance race. Good leaders understand and respect the people they lead. The other intricacies of management are smoke and mirrors.

5.)    You can make friends with anyone. People are just people. There are mean people, creepy people, rough people, and weird people. Getting along with someone doesn’t mean the same thing as agreeing with them. Deep down, most people just want to be appreciated for who they are.

6.)    If your boss every asks you to fill in for graveyard “just for a week”, politely decline unless you have a particularly strong desire to not see the sun for the next 6 months.

In a little less than three weeks, I’ll be headed off to university. It’s exciting and incredibly nerve wracking. But, I’m confident in my ability to pull through. If my time at the casino has given me one thing, it’s the drive I need to continue onward. I’ll never forget my roots or my experiences. The goods and bads of the small town I grew up in have shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I learned here will carry me on well through the rest of my life. Though I might have wished for more glamour or more adventure. I wouldn’t trade it away. Any of it.

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