I’ve finished writing a memoir about the Reschool Yourself project and am currently looking for representation. Below is a condensed version of the book’s first chapter. If you enjoy it and want to read more, please leave a comment, sign up for the email list, and follow me on social.
It wasn’t until I saw some photos of myself one afternoon in November that I realized that my life was heading in the wrong direction. Even though I had been looking in the mirror every morning, and I’d seen the dark hollows deepening under my eyes and the layer of padding slowly expanding around my middle, I didn’t recognize these as warning signs.
I came across the photos while looking for snapshots to use in the graduation slideshow for Spark, the summer and after-school program that I’d co-founded and had been running for three years. On that fall 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, pausing to pull the ones that captured the best moments of the program. I stopped at a photo of Laura, an energetic seventh grader, who was grinning as she showed off her new dog-training skills. I paused again at a photo of an eighth grader named Eduardo and his mentor, a police officer named Jesse, both of whom stood smiling next to Jesse’s patrol car.
Then I saw a photo of me. In contrast to the kids, I wasn’t smiling, or looking at the camera with wonder and delight. I was talking on my cell phone, my face pinched with stress.
I kept clicking through the photos. More happy, goofy kids. Then another shot of me. Again, there I was on my cell phone. My clothing was different, but my expression was the same. I was pressing my phone tightly to my ear and furrowing my brow, as if I were talking through a crisis. I scrolled through the rest of the photos from the program, and I didn’t see a single one of me smiling.
I looked across the room at my impressionable middle school 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 my students to think that becoming an adult meant living joylessly, and even more so, I didn’t want to be the person in those pictures.
I’d thought that starting Spark was a way to find meaning in all of the frustrations that I’d had with school. It would let me take all of the stress that I’d suffered around class rank and standardized testing and college admissions and channel it into a program that focused on what was really important: enjoying the process of learning and growing into a happy person.
My co-founder, Chris, had grown up on the east coast and experienced school as a long, grueling slog. Playing the cello in the school orchestra and watching Seinfeld after he’d finished a long night of homework were the only things that had gotten him through high school. When I met Chris an education conference in our early twenties, the two of us were just naïve and energetic enough to take on the task of starting a nonprofit organization. After nearly a year of research, we knew what its focus would be: apprenticeships for under-resourced middle school students.
Through our own determination and the generosity of a lot of people who believed in us, Chris and I were able to enroll twelve students and match them with apprenticeships in their dream jobs. One girl studied the anatomy of the heart with a medical student at Stanford University, and another learned the basics of massage therapy. One of our boys helped a veterinarian care for animals, and another took the controls of a small plane (supervised by a very brave pilot).
Seeing the students light up with excitement as they talked about what they were learning was the best part of the job. The worst part was that I gave so much to Spark that I didn’t take care of myself. While I was helping my students plan for their futures, my own life was seriously out of balance. I had a growing list of health complaints: bags under my eyes, an upset stomach, 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 cleaning or managing my money. Clutter consumed my bedroom and covered my desk at work. My inbox overflowed with unread emails. 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, which had been going on for quite some time. Things felt like they were 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 knew about my nervous oral fixation – the near-constant nail biting, the snacking at my desk, and the 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 have 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, through the photos at Spark, that I knew I had to change.
I couldn’t get those images out of my mind as I drove home that evening. The evidence couldn’t be clearer: I was unhappy at Spark and needed to move on. I’d known it at my core 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, and that was an unsettling thought. But I couldn’t deny it any longer. I knew that 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.
As I ruminated on 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 wished that I could go back to the days when everything made sense. I’d known what my parents and teachers wanted me to do, 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 it was worth the sacrifices I was making to get there. Then, when I finally had my college 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 was still waiting for the big payoff that I’d expected to come from the years I’d invested in doing 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 times to count.
I felt like I’d been lied to, like I’d wasted the last two decades of my life chasing a delusion. 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 Sonoma when it was full of cow pastures, two decades before it would become known for its wine and food, and they still lived on the quiet west side of town. 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 didn’t feel like laughing. I’d struggled with depression before, and this is what it felt like.
The only thing that I could think to do was to get away after Christmas and clear my head. I pulled out my laptop and started searching for places nearby that were inexpensive and close to nature. I’d 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.
Within the hour, I’d booked two nights at the Point Montara hostel, 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.