I’ve finished writing a memoir about the Reschool Yourself project and am currently looking for representation. Below is the book’s first chapter. If you enjoy it and want to read more, please subscribe to the email list and follow me on social.
Chapter 1: Beginnings
It wasn’t until I saw some photos of myself one November afternoon that I realized that my life was heading in the wrong direction. In the mirror every morning, I’d seen the dark hollows deepening under my eyes and the layer of padding slowly expanding around my middle, but I didn’t recognize these as warning signs.
I came across the photos while putting together a graduation slideshow for Spark, the summer and after-school program that I’d co-founded and had been running for three years. On that sunny California day, my seventh- and eighth-grade students were seated at tables in the classroom that we used as our meeting space. They were bantering and giggling as they worked on their presentations of learning about the apprenticeships they’d done that semester.
I opened my laptop and began sorting through the pictures, pulling the ones that captured the best moments of the program. I chose a snapshot of Laura, an energetic twelve-year-old, who was grinning as she showed off her new dog-training skills. I added another of thirteen-year-old Eduardo and his mentor, a police officer named Jesse, who were both beaming as they stood next to Jesse’s patrol car.
Then I saw a photo of me, and it stopped me cold. In contrast to the kids, I wasn’t looking at the camera with wonder and delight. I was pressing my phone tightly to my ear and furrowing my brow, as if I were talking through a crisis. I kept scrolling through the photos. More happy, goofy kids. Then another shot of me on my cell phone, my face pinched with stress. My clothing was different, but my expression was the same. I went through a few dozen more pictures from the program, and I didn’t see a single one of me smiling.
I looked across the room at my impressionable students, whom I’d grown to care very much about. They were the ones who had taken most of the photos. Was this the way I looked to them? Was I the kind of bitter grown-up that they’d vow never to end up like? I didn’t want them to think that becoming an adult meant living joylessly. Even more, I didn’t want to be the person in those pictures.
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that my tendencies to push myself to the limit had reached threat level orange. I’d been a high achiever for as long as I could remember, driven to excel, skilled at doing what I was supposed to do. In school, I wasn’t the best athlete in the class, or the best artist, so I became the best student. It felt good to be recognized by my parents, teachers, and classmates; it gave me a sense of belonging, a feeling that I mattered. Chasing gold stars soon became as involuntary as my breathing or my heartbeat.
As I moved into high school, external pressures to achieve began layering on top of the pressure I already put on myself. To get into a good college, I felt like needed near-perfect grades, high SAT scores, and a full slate of extracurricular activities. I packed my schedule with club meetings and the school newspaper and a part-time job, staying up late every night doing homework and waking before dawn to do it all over again the next day.
I have nothing to look forward to, I remember thinking. All I could see in front of me was hundreds of days of the same, with graduation so far away that it was a faint point of light at the end of a dark tunnel. And I had no guarantee that things would get better once I graduated. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was starting to slip into a depression.
Chris, my co-founder at Spark, had experienced school as the same kind of endless slog. Playing the cello in the school orchestra and watching Seinfeld after a long night of homework were the only things that had gotten him through high school. When I met him at a conference in our early twenties, the two of us set out to give other kids the kind of education that we wished we’d had. To both of us, school had seemed like a lot of jumping through hoops, without much connection between the classroom and real life. We wanted to “spark” that connection by matching students with apprenticeships in their dream jobs during their formative middle school years. Students who worked with professional chefs saw that math was useful for doubling recipes and calculating food costs. One boy learned about physics and engineering when he took the controls of a small plane, supervised by a very brave pilot.
Seeing the kids light up with excitement as they talked about their apprenticeships was the best part of the experience. The worst part was that I gave so much to Spark that I didn’t take care of myself. My To Do list had no end: There were mentors to recruit and training materials to update, scholarship applications to process and carpool routes to map. The success or failure of the entire program rested squarely on Chris’ and my shoulders.
Though all of this work added up to a program that truly changed students’ lives, I let it tip my own life seriously out of balance. My growing list of health complaints included a stomach twisted in knots, painfully tense muscles, and the feeling that I was a rubber band stretched to its limit, ready to snap at any moment. Because I didn’t leave any spare time in my schedule, I didn’t attend to things like clearing spam from my inbox or managing my money. When I remembered to check my bank account, I was shocked by how quickly I’d depleted it, while at the same time my credit card bills were mounting. I couldn’t seem to break myself out of these bad habits. Things felt like they were spinning out of my control.
On some days, I’d stay at the office until nine pm, seeing the sky darken outside my window, then drive straight to the gym and not get home until ten. The next morning, I’d start the routine all over again. My co-workers could hear the stress in my voice when I spoke with them. Hell, they could feel it when I walked into the room. They noticed my nervous nail biting, snacking, and gum chewing. They saw the plastic grocery bags under my desk stuffed with junk mail and pages of yellow pad notes that I didn’t take the time to file or discard.
Chris, who had the patience of the Buddha, would diplomatically say things like, “Hey, let’s pick up the office before we have visitors this morning!” He’d begin tidying up the few stray papers on his desk like a news anchor at the end of a segment, and he would subtly glance over his shoulder to see if I was taking the hint. During one of our annual staff evaluations, he told me, “Sometimes your stress can affect other people in the office.”
I knew that he was right, and I tried to do better. But it wasn’t until I saw myself objectively that I knew I had to change. I couldn’t get the photos out of my mind as I drove home that evening.
The evidence couldn’t be clearer: I wasn’t happy at Spark and needed to move on. I’d known it deep down for a long time, but I hadn’t let myself even entertain the idea of leaving. If I weren’t dedicating my life to the organization, I didn’t know what else I would possibly do with myself. But I couldn’t deny it any longer: I needed to make some major changes in my life. If I didn’t, I could imagine seeing similar photos of myself before the next Spark graduation, and the one after that. Thinking about running in place for another few years, worn out and dispirited, scared me much more than venturing into the unknown.
As I mulled over what I was going to do, I came back to a thought that had grown familiar over the years: I wish I could be a kid again. This was my touchstone, the place where I returned again and again when things got hard. I’d long for the days I’d spent riding my bike down to the creek with the neighborhood kids and throwing foxtails at each other. I wanted to be playing hide-and-go-seek tag, reading books, or learning songs on the piano like I had as a child, instead of sitting at the kitchen table doing hours of homework.
Even more, I wanted everything to make sense like it had back then. I’d known what was expected of me, and I did it, simple as that. It was as if for the first twenty-one years of my life, I had a GPS that told me exactly where to go. It planned out every turn to reach one milestone after another: work hard in school, get the highest grades that I could manage, and go to a well-respected college. I followed every instruction, not knowing exactly what was at the end of the road but trusting that the destination was worth the grueling trip. Then, when I finally had my degree in hand, the pleasant voice of the GPS suddenly announced, “You have arrived at your destination,” and abruptly shut off. What lay ahead was a vast landscape of possible paths to take, and I felt totally unequipped to navigate them. I’d grown so dependent on following other people’s directions that my own inner compass wasn’t working anymore.
Six years after college graduation, I found myself still waiting for the big payoff that I’d expected to come from the years I’d invested in school. When I saw those pictures of myself at Spark, I woke up to reality: The payoff wasn’t coming. My hard work and sacrifice didn’t guarantee that I’d be happy, or financially stable. I was almost thirty, and I was living paycheck-to-paycheck doing a job that was burning me out. I thought back to all of the times in school when I chose working hard over having fun, holing up in the library instead of spending time with my friends. There were too many to count.
I felt like I’d been lied to, like I’d wasted the last two decades of my life chasing a delusion. Even worse, I could see now that though I was largely able to design my own work life, I had turned it into a carbon copy of my repetitive school days.
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, I thought, a line by T.S. Eliot drifting through my mind. I couldn’t sleep much that night. I didn’t know where to go from here.
My only comfort was that Spark’s graduation marked the beginning of the holidays, which gave me two weeks off to think through my next steps. I would be getting out of San Francisco and going home to Sonoma, where my parents still lived. They had moved to the small, rural town long before it would become known for its wine and food. I couldn’t wait to be inside the safe haven of my childhood bedroom, and to feel the warm reassurance of my family’s holiday traditions.
Unfortunately, this time being home made me feel even worse. Nothing—not even decorating the Christmas tree, baking buttery cookies, and opening presents with my family—could lift my spirits. I just felt numb. I sat on my bedroom floor and listened through the closed door to my mom and my sister laughing in the kitchen. Normally I’d walk down the hall and ask them to let me in on the joke, but this time I would have just dampened the mood. When I’d struggled with depression in high school, this is what it had felt like. I sat there on my bedroom floor just staring into space, at a loss for what to do.
After Christmas, you need to get away from everything, I told myself. Go and clear your head.
I had dreamed for a long time of taking what I thought of as a reading retreat, just me and my books and no distractions. Now seemed like the time to do it, at a moment when everything else seemed to be making me miserable.
I pulled out my laptop and started searching for places nearby that were inexpensive and close to nature. Within the hour, I’d booked two nights at a hostel in Point Montara, on the coast of Half Moon Bay. The San Francisco Chronicle had described it as “perched dramatically on the cliffs, offering a vista that you will be hard pressed to find in any five-star hotel.” This sounded like just what I needed. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would come out of this retreat with exactly what I was searching for: a clear path into the next chapter of my life.