It was the biggest decision of my life and I didn’t want to blow it.
I sat cross-legged on the old yellow carpet in my bedroom, surrounded by college applications. Notes were crammed into every margin available in “The College Book,” the bible for high schoolers looking for general outlines of schools across the nation. My father had taken me on several road trips to visit countless schools, during which I had taken more copious notes. Now the applications lurked around me like a sea of sharks and my notes were kelp to my need for a lifeboat.
This decision was the door to my adulthood; I had to choose wisely. First, I had to apply to the schools that would accept me; rejection wasn’t an option. Then I had to choose the right school to actually attend. If I chose the wrong one, then I’d major in the wrong subject, get the wrong job and be stuck in that wrong job for the rest of my life. I’d be miserable until I died. This one decision meant success or failure to me…for now and forever. It was too much. The applications were due in a week and they were all blank.
I’m a weeper; always have been. This was the perfect storm for a quiet shower of tears. Quiet enough to not be dramatic, but deliberately expressive enough that my mother heard me, came into my room and sat with me. By that time, she had been working out for three years (it was the mid-eighties) and had changed our diet from traditional American carb-loaded dinners to fish. She had lost a good 20 pounds and busted out in some lady-like muscles. Her biceps were just one more way she veered from the path encouraged to all women of her generation – to strive singularly for the “Mrs.” degree.
My mom had not only gotten a Bachelors degree, but two Masters degrees and was a well-respected special education teacher – a job that required work before, during and after school. She planned our food for the week, shopped for that food, cooked that food and cleaned the house. Instead of just “helping” me with my homework, she encouraged me to discover my own answers. She had a dirty sense of humor and didn’t hide it. She held me when my world fell apart after my first break up. She taught me how to use a tampon. To teach me about sex, she showed me a book diagram and answered all my questions (which convinced me at a young age that I would never do anything remotely resembling that diagram.) She told me that I was not only pretty, but also smart. It took years for me to hear her.
So my mom and her Masters degrees and her muscles sat beside me and listened to all my fears of the future. Red-faced, I told her that this one moment would decide my fate and I was terrified of being trapped for the rest of my life. “I’ll fuck the whole thing up,” I said. She taught me how to swear, too.
She listened. And then she said something brilliant. “Robin, you’ll choose a school. You’ll go to that school. And if you don’t like it, you can always transfer.”
Transfer. It was like learning a word in a foreign language. It was like learning that there were eight other planets besides the earth. It was like I had been in a room with only one door until I turned around and saw three others that had been beyond my peripheral vision. I just hadn’t looked for them.
I can always transfer. I can make one decision and then, if I don’t like where I am, I can actually make another choice. In other words, I always have choices. I’m only trapped if I believe I’m trapped.
Suddenly, those applications turned from sharks to dolphins and they were ready to play.
With just four words, my mother taught me that taking risks is the only way to make your life the way you want it to be. That’s what she did when she put in the time and effort for three degrees, kept working and started pumping iron. Those words became my mantra.
I ended up staying at and loving Skidmore College, but that mantra buoyed me up constantly. It helped me realize I didn’t want to be a therapist. It got me out of a bad relationship and into New York City to pursue acting. It pushed me through soul-sucking jobs, laughed with me through horrible dates, and cheered me on as I jumped a plane to California. I had it in my back pocket when I moved in with my man (10 years running and the only thing I’ve transferred is from a PC to a Mac.) Without those words, I wouldn’t be juggling – and enjoying – three careers today. Why?
Because I can always transfer. I will never be trapped. My mommy said so.