I never thought I would hear these words come out of my child’s mouth, “I really think I want to take a year off before going to college.” I looked at my youngest child like she was nuts, “What exactly do you plan on doing?” “Where do you plan to do instead of going to school?” “Where do you plan on living?” Her plan was simply, find a job and take the SATs. She missed them once before because she was sick and didn’t register for it the second time. Knowing how difficult it is to find a job, period, I didn’t want her sleeping in late all year when we have sacrificed so much for her to be able to finish school.
But my cradle to college plan for her wasn’t working. I raised her to be independent and self-aware, and yet she was full of self-doubt and uncertainty. She managed to push through her sophomore year, hiding a relationship with an older boy and a pregnancy – all while maintaining a B in Trigonometry. Her postpartum depression, subsequent hospitalization sent her spiraling. She struggled her Junior year, and barely skated through her first semester of her senior year. My usual straight A student had a really rough year, and needed desperately to find herself. My plans and hopes for her future would have to wait.
And after all, I took a Gap Year. We just didn’t call it that back then. And I didn’t take an entire year, I only took a semester.
I moved out of my parents’ house at 16. Fighting with my mom was incessant. I was growing up and she wanted me to stay a little girl, raising me in the 80s with the same iron fist her father had raised her with in the 60s. Since I wasn’t allowed to have boys calling in middle school, my friends would call and we would get on the party line or three-way calling with our boyfriends. She would drop me off at a movie theater to meet friends and my boyfriend would meet me there. She had no idea I was ditching school to have sex, making out with my boyfriend in theaters or that I once drove from Chicago with my best friend and 2 older guys to see a friend perform as a Prince impersonator. By the time I moved out, I was simply ready for something new. I had spent the summer before my senior year of high school going to nightclubs, dancing, drinking, smoking pot and writing. I shared an apartment with 3 guys and one of their girlfriends, ages 21-24. I worked at a concession stand at the IMA Sports Arena, and paid $65/ week rent for my room. Mind you, this was Flint, Michigan in 1990.
When the school year rolled around, one of the guys, my best friend’s boyfriend Dwight, told me I absolutely had to enroll in my senior year, so I did. I started my year but was so completely bored of my AP classes, my classmates and my coursework – I just… left. I had lived in Los Angeles my sophomore year with my Aunt and Uncle and met a guy, Lawrence. He was my first love and kept asking when I was returning home. One night, I called him and said I would love to return. He told me I could stay with him. I bought a Greyhound ticket, packed my luggage, and left Flint for the West Coast.
I lived with him for a month, grew restless and took off for Venice beach one afternoon. I found a group of hippie kids and started hanging out with them. I did hair wraps on the beach and sold incense during the day to make money for food and a hotel room on the beach, (back then it was only $35/ day for a room on Ocean Ave overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica,) and got a job at an artsy movie theater in the mall. I traveled up and down the coast of California in a VW van with other hippie kids, following reggae concerts and The Grateful Dead, and learned the words to every Beatles, Steel Pulse and Bob Marley song there was. I had the time of my life.
My Gap Year only lasted a semester. I eventually moved in with my relatives and enrolled in a community college as a High School Senior. My GPA was so high, my teachers back home didn’t dis-enroll me, instead they all gave me D’s despite my not being in school. I only needed 2 classes to graduate with a high school diploma, Economics and a Semester of English, so I took English 101 and Macroeconomics. My college counselor in L.A. arranged for my high school counselor in Flint to receive my transcripts when I completed my coursework. Even after taking a semester off school, I still graduated with a 3.962 Cumulative GPA. While all my friends were preparing for prom and graduation, I was dancing in drum circles on beaches in California. I hung out with homeless kids in beach cities and Hollywood and learned to navigate the “system” – Salvation Army for weekly toiletry kits, Community Centers for showers and clean clothes. I learned to love Aardvark Vintage Attic for cute clothes which fit my bohemian lifestyle.
I gave myself permission to step outside the box I had been in for so long, and find myself.
I was fortunate, taking a semester off from the pressure of senior year was the best thing I could have done. I attended college without taking all the “finding yourself” classes many students take. I started with a solid idea of what I wanted to study, where I had no clue beforehand.
Realizing I too had taken a Gap Year sabbatical, helped me to see the obvious. My daughter really needs some time off. She needs a break from the pressure of school and trying to please everyone else and just… be. She needs to find herself, separate from being my daughter, separate from being her son’s mother. She needs to discover her interests, who she is as a young woman and most importantly, as a human being. My concerns for her taking a year off are completely warranted; she’s fairly lazy & has no idea what she wants to study and has passed up opportunities to apply for paid internships in fields she has expressed interest in. She’s a talented illustrator and writer, with zero hustle. I worry a year off will turn into my supporting her sitting on her ass doing nothing.
So last night after our conversation, I sat up doing some research. The Gap Year is standard in Europe and Australia. Harvard considers the Gap Year to be so important, they strongly encourage admitted students to defer enrollment for a year. Statistics show students who take a Gap Year, usually start school more focused, an have higher GPAs when they do. The Gap Year is beginning to become a “thing” here in the United States. There are companies which serve a Gap Year Counselors, helping to arrange semester or year long programs for students taking time of before starting college.
There are opportunities to spend the year volunteering at National Parks, paid opportunities to teach English in foreign countries to small children and helping Orangutans in Borneo. There are programs for living with host families abroad, or simply backpacking through Europe, Asia, Africa or South America. Language Immersion programs are available in Japan, China and Spain, or volunteering with AmeriCorps domestically or Internationally as well as Habitat for Humanity right here at home.
It is recommended to take on The Gap Year with a plan of action. Students still have to treat The Gap Year as though they are still going to school – apply for college, then requesting a deferment once they are accepted and have paid their College Tuition Deposit. A quick glance a the CUNY website, students can take deferment for a semester or year for travel, work or special opportunities, this includes community colleges. Parents are encouraged to have their children not only create a plan for their Gap Year, but to have them sign a contract. Laying down the rules for adjusted curfews, and contribution to household expenses during the year off at home are also on the list. Most young people work and fund raise to afford their year abroad. Taking a year off before going to University shouldn’t just be a year vacation, even if its spent traveling. Young people should use this time to not only find themselves, but learn to budget and be self-sufficient, away from their parents. Traditionally something only the rich indulged their children in, the Gap Year is seemingly more accessible for all.
So… she has some work to do if she truly wants to take the year off. Even if she just stays right here in New York City, she can build her skills sets, study her craft, find internships, and volunteer for organizations to give back to those less fortunate. I spoke to my partner about it, and while he shared my concerns, he agrees this may be the right thing for her.
Funny how life works… you can raise your child to be free-thinking, but what do you do when their path takes them someplace you never imagined? You support them to find their own way in the world. After all, isn’t that what parenting is all about?