I really struggled after I left my mom’s house at 14. I had nightmares and would wake up everyone in my dad’s house because I was talking and shouting in my sleep. I was having dream after dream all night, every night. Sometimes they were about blue water and tropical islands but mostly they were nightmares of my mom chasing me with a butcher knife.
The most common one was me walking on a pretty spring day along a river. When I looked to the opposite bank there she was, holding a large butcher knife, her face in a rage grimace that I was so familiar with. I would begin running and she would run after me on the opposite side of the river with the knife glinting in her hand. I was terrified she would reach me, not believing the distance the river created could protect me. I’d wake up sweaty and scared.
I was PTSD-ing. I couldn’t remember words or thoughts. I started carrying a small notebook so I could keep track of commonly used words that I couldn’t get my brain to pull up on its own. My mind felt overfull and sluggish. I was trying to recover from my mom’s abuse and the stress I went through to escape her. I was in a fog. I was still scared she’d come for me. That she would show up on my doorstep and wordlessly collect me knowing that I would not scream out for help because who would believe a daughter saying her mother was kidnapping her???
I read books and watched TV, trying to let a quiet empty house calm me. When the school season started my sister and I were dropped off at orientation to figure out how to get ID’s. We were left to our own devices so we never figured out how to sign up for the school bus or where it stopped. I walked home most days, over different hilly neighborhoods, taking my time to get home. I didn’t have anything I needed to do and no one was waiting for me at home.
I felt years older than the students at the high school. I was shell shocked and didn’t have any idea how to make friends and assumed no one was interested anyway. I’d eat lunch far out in the athletic fields and read a book. Every second of school was an endless, self conscious, boring nightmare. If anyone was nice to me or tried to befriend me, I thought they were making fun of me so I just kept to myself.
One day, in the middle of my tenth grade year, I saw a pamphlet for the CHSPE, The California High School Proficiency Exam. I grabbed one and read it over and over at home. I couldn’t believe what it said. If I passed the exam I’d be free from high school! That would be it, I could go. I’d have a certificate declaring it and I could go on to college or do whatever I wanted and no one could say anything because I had tested out of the high school nightmare!
I breathlessly told my sister about it.
“Oh my god Sunde, that would be amazing!” she said.
She was graduating that year so she wouldn’t be around to shelter me from the stress of my latest home situation and my lonely days at school. I was desperate to not spend another year in high school, by myself this time. The exam schedule was in the pamphlet. I signed up for a testing session in the late spring.
On the test day my sister and I got up early and left the house before dawn. She drove me to a high school a few towns over that I don’t remember the name of. She dropped me off at the curb.
“Good luck!” she said, before driving off.
I approached the group of people that were waiting to get in to take the exam. My heart sank. They were all much older than me, and cooler. They were mostly punkers and new wavers. They were dressed like Siouxsie Sioux, Robert Smith or members of The Sex Pistols. They were all smoking cigarettes, wearing Doc Martens and had spiked colored hair and eyeliner. I waited at the end of the line. I was nervous. I hadn’t studied at all, I had no idea what to even study! I was just going to wing it. But when I saw how much older everyone was I felt pretty hopeless.
The test had reading comprehension, vocabulary, science, math and history sections. I just did my best and tried to take educated guesses through a lot of the science and math questions. On the back was an essay question. Okay! Now we’re in business. I can write an essay! I used the full page and double checked my spelling and punctuation. There was nothing more I could do. I got up and handed in my exam.
My sister and her Ford Escort were waiting for me when I came out.
“How’d it go?”
I shrugged. “Probably not great.” I told her.
The school year ended and summer went on and on. I waited to get my test results, checking the mail every day. I assumed I had failed miserably and would be heading back to another year of high school so I was dreading getting the results.
In late July an envelope from the Orange County School District arrived. Oh my god. I opened it on the sidewalk outside of my dad’s house, adrenaline pumping through me. ”Congratulations!” It told me, “You passed the CHSPE!” They gave me an address in Mission Viejo where I could pick up my certificate.
I sat down on the curb. How I passed that test with less than a year of high school I will never know but I did and I was free! The future was wide open to me now! I was a fifteen year old with no job, no car, no education and no support system. But I had a bicycle so Woohoo! Let the good times roll!
And so my glamorous life as a high school dropout began. For the next twenty years I’d be free to scrape together a living by working as a dishwasher, cook, waitress, busgirl, bartender, night janitor, telephone surveyor, errand person, plant care technician, bike messenger, gardener and probably a few other things I can’t think of—oh yeah, late night flower company order taker and baker. Over the years I’ve become good at a few things that not very many people can do but I’m horrible at all the other things that everybody else in the world is good at. Like, what’s a spreadsheet??
I have always felt like a weirdo for a number of reasons but I finally realized that since I didn’t have a mom and didn’t go to high school or college, I missed out on a lot of reference points that the general public has experienced. This always made me feel like an alien from outer space trying to learn about earthlings through TV and celebrity magazines.
But since the day I got the exam notice, I read a lot and worked on my art and skateboarded and surfed and skim boarded and hustled and started little businesses to survive because, who else would hire me? Even though it’s been a hard and unusual journey, I have never regretted leaving school early, not one time.