My elementary school did not encourage hard work or commitment. Anyone who exhibited these traits was targeted. So, for the first six years of my academic life, I found myself the victim of harsh bullying. High school changed everything, though. I thought a small, all-boys, Jesuit school, would be the same, but the bullying stopped. In fact my peers became my family. My high school spanned six years, 6-12th grade, and for my first year there everything was perfect. My classes were superb, and my friends were even better. Over time it would become more than just school for me. It would become a solace, my home. After years of unhappiness I had found my place. That is, until the fall of eighth grade when I became seriously ill.
My stomach felt as if it was burning. Sharp pains stabbed at my abdomen every second. It was too much. I could not walk, much less attend school. Every doctor we went to had no explanation. So, for months, I laid in my bed alone, isolated. These months turned into years and my school had no choice but to expel me due to my absences. It destroyed me. I had lost my health, my friends, and my school, which was my second home, but I still had Eastman Theater.
Eastman Theater is one of the most prestigious places in my hometown. The word “palace” would be a better description for the venue. It is adorned with ornate brick and mosaic. At the center of it all is a massive chandelier with hundreds of small crystal beads refracting light into every corner of the hall. With dimmed lights the chandelier glows a burning orange; a thousand sunsets condensed into a single drop. I can see it so clearly. Eastman Theatre was the pinnacle of my high school career, and it was my dream to walk across that stage. Eastman Theatre is what kept me going.
I pushed through a total of two years with my illness until I was finally treated, but I was still two years behind my graduating class. They would be entering tenth grade in the fall, and I was stuck in eighth. My plan was to catch up, to study all the content from eighth and ninth grade over summer break, take the final exams offered by my public school district, then present the credits to my high school and get re-enrolled. The idea was crazy, but I had to try. I would not settle for anything less.
My parents were supportive of my decision and scheduled a meeting for the three of us to speak about my plan with the principal of the local public school. As we entered the building for the meeting, my plans began to feel impossible. Strangely, a meeting with one man scared me more than the pain my illness caused for the last two years. It was summer, so the halls were empty, adding to my anxiety. My parents and I were walking through a strange and unfamiliar ghost town. Around the corner, there was a long, dark corridor with thin, tall windows lining the right wall, with the only light coming in from their small slits. It was something out of a horror film. At the end of this hall stood the principal, pacing like a caged animal, a predator. When we finally reached him, he exhaled a curt “this way,” and we followed.
The entire wing of the school was pitch black, except for his room. There was a tall wooden table with three short chairs placed around it. When we sat down, our shoulders were barely above the tabletop. The principal on the other hand, brought over a tall stool and loomed over us from the other side. Before I or my parents could utter a word, he shot down my plan.
“You shouldn’t have even bothered to come,” he said. “This plan is absurd. Competency of the material doesn’t matter. You need seat time!”
Seat time. I hated those words. An idiotic bureaucratic construct. I would not be allowed to graduate, to walk across Eastman’s stage, because my learning would not be in a classroom, even if I completed the material on my own time and performed well. I asked him if there was any other way to see my plan become a reality. Less than indulgent, he seemed annoyed that I did not take his word as final.“Your plan will only result in you failing the courses. Like I said, you wasted your time coming here.”
And with those words, we were dismissed. Those words ate away at me for the rest of the day. I was defeated. Eastman Theater seemed a million miles away.A few days later, after having wallowed in the failure of the meeting, I remembered what my old principal once said: “You each sit in this room today as strangers, but when you walk across that stage, you will be brothers. Six years spent at the grindstone, toiling and toiling. Roadblock after roadblock. But it’ll be worth it. You’ll cheer each other on every step of the way.”
This was just another roadblock. I thought to myself, screw seat time, and planned to do it anyway. The next few months were, without a doubt, the most hectic of my life. I collaborated with teachers without the knowledge of the principal in order to acquire textbooks and be administered tests. I studied everything on my own, from 7 am to 7 pm, every single day of the week. I documented each hour of my work into over a dozen binders. It was arduous, but I steamrolled through my assignments without a second thought.
In August, three days before the final examinations began for summer courses, I walked right back into the principal’s office with all my materials and no more fear. He was not expecting me this time. I placed all sixteen of my binders side-by-side on his tactic table until its entire surface was covered. He paged through my binders in disbelief. I had everything I needed. The documented “seat time,” test grades proctored by his own faculty, and recommendation letters from them too. A hungry predator no longer stood before me. Instead, there was a tiny mouse.
“Why, of course you can take the exams!” He exclaimed, “Just… you will be attending here in the fall, won’t you?”
I most certainly was not. After taking the exams, I went back to my high school. With credits in hand, there was no question about readmission. Returning to my friends was surreal; it felt like no time had passed. It was a true victory.
Last spring, I graduated with my class, my friends, my brothers, on time. Walking across the Eastman Theater stage was an experience like no other. As we entered the grand hall, my school’s band began to play “Pomp and Circumstance,” a tune I’ll never forget. I felt sick for the entirety of the ceremony, until my name was called. As I was handed my diploma, clad in my school’s traditional white tuxedo, it became clear: high school was over. I worked hard to graduate and was lucky to have experience this with my friends. I had spent time at the grindstone, and I had toiled away at each roadblock. My old principal was right again; it was worth it. I had found my home.