It was my sophomore year of college, and I was taking one of the most challenging classes I’d ever had. I was an engineering major at the time, and that department at my college was known for having a robust set of “weed out” classes. These were intentionally, deliberately difficult courses early on in the degree plan, aimed at being a skill gate to completing the major.
Students who couldn’t hack it at those would switch to some other field of study, and students who made it through the muck proved that they were ready to tackle the more advanced stuff the major had to offer. Engineering is not easy, so the weed out classes were a way of making sure that nobody was wasting their time: professors didn’t want students who weren’t going to be able to succeed, and students didn’t want to get years into a major only to realize they were in over their head and unlikely to pass their remaining requirements.
The class that I was in was one of the last weed out courses I’d have to take. If I could make it through this one, the upperclassmen in my program would tell me, then it would be smooth sailing from there. It’s not that the higher level classes weren’t hard (they absolutely were) — it’s that the setup was less antagonistic. In weed out classes, the professors and curricula were practically trying to make you fail. Beyond those, however, the script flipped and they did everything in their power to try to help you succeed.
We had an exam coming up, and I’d studied extensively for it. At the time, campus buildings were mostly open and unlocked, even overnight (I doubt it is this way now). My study routine was to go to the room I’d take the exam in — the same lecture hall where we’d held classes. Something about being in the room helped me process things, as if my memory was dependent on location. I’d plop myself in the same desk I sat in for classes, only this would be at 8:00 PM instead of 8:00 AM, and I’d be the only one there. I’d then put on my headphones and study into the early hours of the morning, trotting back to my dorm at 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00 AM for a few hours of sleep.
I’d do this night after night, working my way through problems and flash cards and study guides.
In my later years I got a bit more brazen and would go to the front of the empty lecture hall. I realized that I liked working the problems out on the whiteboards themselves. It felt more substantial — more real — than doing them out on paper. Plus, it made me feel like a professor! I’d look up at the 100 seats facing me at the front of the room, imagine for a moment they were full, and feel a a full-body frisson: a tingle in my spine and goosebumps on my arms.
This particular night, I didn’t go back to my dorm. If ever my exams were early in the morning, I would be paranoid about sleeping through them, so I generally pulled all-nighters before morning tests. I’d simply stay in the lecture hall until the light of dawn, grab a coffee or energy drink when the campus cafes opened, and then head back to wait until other students filtered in to join me in the lecture hall I’d been occupying solo for the past 12 hours.
On schedule the students and professor arrived, and on schedule, we started the exam.
Sure enough, it was brutal. I’d studied for dozens of hours and I still felt unprepared. I’d come to expect this from exams, especially in weed out courses, so it didn’t feel unfair so much as it did frustrating. All this work, and for what? Why was I trying so hard on all this anyway?
The fact of the matter is that I couldn’t answer that question.
Genuinely. I didn’t know why I was trying so hard.
I went into engineering not because I wanted to but because it was what I was supposed to do. My dad was an engineer; it was a good job; I was good at math. That was how the conversation went, if there even was one. It might not have even been something that was ever said — just a set of implicit, unmovable assumptions about my life. The railroad tracks of my future went only in that one direction. Whether I wanted them to or not was immaterial, as what I wanted never really entered into the equation.
The tracks were tracks. I just followed them.
I finished the awful exam and, as I did after all my exams, returned to my dorm room and crashed into a deep and well-deserved nap.
The next week the professor announced that he would be handing back our tests.
He also announced that the class average was below a 60.
I can’t remember if he said he was going to curve it or not, but I doubt it. This was a weed out course, after all. For many of us it was the last one — the final hurdle. Low grades were the entire point.
The pain in the room was palpable as the professor called students’ names and they approached him to take their graded tests from his hands. It was an educational massacre. We all sat there thinking about our GPAs, our scholarships, our futures — how finals were coming up and we’d have to do this again soon, but even worse.
He called my name, and I retrieved my paper. I walked back to my seat without looking at it, hiding my grade from both myself and any nosy classmates who were trying to see where they stood in the hierarchy of scores.
At my seat I discreetly flipped over the test.
I saw the following, circled in red ink:
It was truly unnerving. I’d thought I’d done okay — definitely better than the class average — but not that well. As I looked through the exam I learned that I’d missed only one question on the test, but I’d also gotten the 5-point bonus question, bringing my 97 up above the 100 mark.
It’s hard to state how happy I was. The accumulated stress from days of study and semesters full of weed out courses eased in that moment. I wasn’t relieved because of my high score; I was relieved because that high score made all the academic pressure in my life go away for a little bit. It’s not that my hard work paid off; it’s that my hard work let off.
I called my parents later in the day, dizzy with excitement, overly eager to share my good news:
“Hi Mom! Hi Dad! So, I had this big exam and I studied for it for days and it was SO TOUGH, like, the class average was below a sixty and you’ll never guess what I got on it! You want to know? I got 102! ONE HUNDRED AND TWO!!!”
My dad responded not with joy, as I had been expecting, but a serious question:
“How many points were on the exam in total?”
“Oh... uh, 105”, I replied.
“So, why did you miss those three points?”
It felt like a literal gut punch. I was outside at the time, walking back to my dorm, and it was like all the oxygen had disappeared from the surface of the earth. Suddenly there was no air to breathe. I was surrounded by so much vacant, empty nothingness.
My dad wasn’t happy. He wasn’t proud. My parents weren’t wanting to celebrate — to share in my success.
They wanted to know why I hadn’t done better.
Meanwhile, I should have known better. This wasn’t the first time my As hadn’t been A enough. I had a long history of that.
But in this moment, I’d scored over a hundred on one of the hardest exams I’d ever taken after over a year of slogging away at shitty courses that were trying to make me turn away and run. I’d pushed through it all and done really fucking well at it because... why, again? Isn’t this what I was supposed to be doing?
Why was I working so hard at this?
I recently asked my parents if they remembered this moment. They said they didn’t at all. When I described it to them they said that it didn’t sound like them. I said it sounded exactly like them.
My dad told me that, if he did ask me why I didn’t get the 105, he probably meant it as a joke.
“Did you usually joke about my grades?”
“So why would you joke about this one?”
“I don’t know.”
I fully realize that memory is faulty, and I fully realize that, in replaying that phone call about the 102 over and over again in my mind, as I did for many years, I likely tainted it. The real story — as it actually happened, if observed by a camera — probably has some differences.
What was real then and what remains real now, however, was how I felt about it. I remember the feeling of the wind getting knocked out of me when I heard my dad’s words. I remember the emptiness. I remember how even though the conversation moved on from that moment, I didn’t.
We talked about other things, but I did so hollow. Devoid. Stuck in that terrible moment.
After I got the 102 I was so relieved. The heavy weight in my life was gloriously, delightfully lifted.
But when I talked to my parents that weight came crashing down.
I felt it more then than I ever had before.
I didn’t remain in engineering.
It wasn’t because of the weed out courses. It was because engineering was never my decision in the first place. Up until that point in my life, I accepted the script I’d been handed. It was one that was mostly written by my parents. They had my name right there in the cast list, with my role clearly labeled.
There were lines and scenes written out for me, in every act to come.
Did I want that role?
That wasn’t a question I ever even knew to ask. It hadn’t ever been about what I wanted. It was about what I was supposed to be, and that was decided by other people. Those people knew best and loved me, so who was I to question their path?
All my life, who I was going to be was a neat ball of yarn: tightly wrapped, organized, presentable, respectable, predictable. There was not a loose thread in sight.
But after I called my parents that day, after the air left the universe around me, I noticed a string sticking out from it. A big one.
And I pulled on it.
I pulled on it hard.
And that ball of yarn completely unraveled.
A few months after the exam, I’d tell my parents the news I’d spent an entire decade of my life hiding. It was a weight far heavier and more burdensome than the weed out courses ever were.
Tossing out the script for my life meant tossing out the plan they’d given me: the “when you get married” and the “one day your wife” and the “when you have kids”. In the first truly self-defining act I’d ever done, I came out as gay to them.
This news was their turn to feel the gut punch. They had no idea. The script, after all, was mostly written by them, and they were so bought into it that they’d missed a decade of clues and hints.
A decade of their son hiding his sadness and his loneliness and most of all his fear from them.
A decade of their son not as he was, but as they believed he should be.
When I broke the news, my mom cried and told me that I needed to go to conversion therapy. My dad was actually relieved when I told him I didn’t currently have and had never had a boyfriend, but he about-faced quickly. In full seriousness, with all commensurate gravity and threat, he told me that I would be disowned if I ever brought one home.
I loved my parents. I needed, in that moment, more than anything, to be reminded that they loved me.
But all they could see was their script going up in flames — the yarn unraveling before their very eyes.
I was not reminded of their love.
They instead demonstrated their distance from me. I was suddenly not the script.
And they seemed to love the idea of that script far more than they loved me.
A few months after that was when I left engineering. This was another act of self-declaration — another move I made because, for the first time in my life, I was living under the lode star of “I want to” rather than “I’m supposed to”.
I ended up making a lot of new decisions under this scriptless framework: some good, many bad. Because I’d tossed my designated story out, I was now free to write my own. I could do what I wanted to and be who I wanted to. I didn’t have to answer to anyone.
This was, initially, exhilarating. I had freedom and control in manners and degrees I’d never experienced before. I had nothing to live up to for the first time in my life. The weights and burdens I’d carried for so long were cast aside.
That’s not to say I didn’t still struggle. I absolutely did. My heart hurt, constantly. Even just thinking of my parents would bring me to tears. The depths of pain I’d hidden as a way of staying in the closet and following along with the script no longer had any reason to stay down below the surface. At times — most times — it felt like my life was overflowing with sorrow.
But there was a countermelody there too — at times barely audible but always soft and soothing. My life was overflowing with possibility as well — new avenues that I could choose to take if I wanted to. Off-script choices and decisions and feelings and paths and outcomes.
Teaching was one of those choices.
When I was studying for my exams and I’d stand in front of the empty lecture hall, doing practice problems on the boards late into the night, I sometimes imagined myself doing it for an audience. I imagined someone asking me about one of my steps and me having to explain it to them. I imagined what I would say, and how exactly I would phrase things. I imagined sharing my memory hooks and mnemonics — tricks I’d come up with to hold on to information instead of letting it slip through my mind without catching.
I imagined that the room was filled with my students.
I imagined one of my students studying really hard for an exam and getting 102 on it! ONE HUNDRED AND TWO!!!
And I imagined telling them, as their teacher, that I was proud of them.
I liked the way these ideas made me feel. They felt like when you climb under a warm blanket or sit by the fire on a cold day. This was new for me. I wasn’t used to close comforts. I’d always just weathered the cold.
Teaching, more than anything, felt like something I wanted to do, rather than something I was supposed to.
My parents were disappointed when I told them, but by the time this happened I was numb to their disappointment. It no longer meant anything to me.
Because of the teaching position I’d taken, I’d be moving away. Far away. Another choice of my own.
My parents were again disappointed when I told them.
I, myself, felt nothing.
I am much older now. I haven’t seen a college campus nor the inside of a lecture hall in a long time.
However, I do still stand in front of a whiteboard every day.
My audience is a little younger than I originally envisioned they might be back in the day, but, honestly, I prefer it this way now.
Have you ever told a kid you’re proud of them and meant it? I have. I’m lucky that I get to do it all the time. It’s a feeling like no other.
My parents and I are on good terms now. Things were really rough between us for a really long time, but we’ve done a lot to repair our relationship. It’s not perfect, and it won’t and can’t ever get back to what it once was — the type of familial intimacy and affection that I see between some of my friends and their parents, even at our age.
For a long time I naively held onto that other script — the one where there’s a perfect narrative ending with them — a full resolution. For a long time I wanted my parents to be not the parents I actually had but the ones I wanted them to be. I wanted our narrative arc to end in a neat, heartwarming, and thoroughly self-serving moment.
I should have known from experience not to expect others to be someone else. My parents are not the script I had for them, just as I am not the script they had for me.
We’ve both learned to get rid of those and write a new one. It’s clumsier and less thought out and requires a lot more revisions, but it’s one we’re writing together, and that’s what matters.
I think about this with my students a lot. About what I and my parents have learned.
I never want to give my students a script of my own. I don’t want them to feel obligated to act out a script they’ve been handed — from parents, society, friends, etc.
Instead, I want to sit beside them as a co-author or an editor.
I want to take a look with them at the script they’re wanting to write.
And I want to help them figure out how to make that script — the one that they’re working on — the absolute best it can possibly be.