For several years I have been working on versions of an essay titled “Why I Quit School,” and now it has become my memoir project. From the moment I stepped into my kindergarten classroom to the moment I walked out of my university office for the last time, I’ve had a tortured relationship with formal education. Instinctually, I knew its obsession with compliance, uniformity, and competition was antithetical to real learning and growth, but I couldn’t keep myself from participating, from trying to show my classmates and teachers I could could excel within the system while giving it the finger at the same time. At times I succeeded, but ultimately the battle I was waging exhausted me and I had to walk away.
My most profound educational successes and failures involved writing. In sixth grade, three classmates and I started our own newspaper after being told only eighth graders could write for the official school paper. We were shut down after two issues because the principal feared a student publication that existed without administrative oversight. When I started senior high in a different district, I began writing for the school paper—the official one this time. I did some straight reporting, but my real talent was commentary. Each month my column critiqued a school policy, norm, or procedure. Not shockingly, this didn’t sit well with the administrative types, and on the mornings the paper came out I regularly found myself in the assistant principal’s office before the end of homeroom.
My peers loved my column, and hearing my name on the PA system those mornings became a running joke. I basked in my rebel’s glory. In the office, I leaned back, smugly, in the chair across from the principal’s desk and listened to my lecture about respect for authority and voicing complaints through the appropriate channels—that is, doing things in in a way that doesn’t make them look bad. The day the school board showed up to inspect the student bathrooms after my column called out their dismal condition was the highlight of my journalistic career. I thought I had cracked the code, that I was untouchable. Honor roll, honor society, all the honors. I had beat them at their own game. I forgot that if they own the game, they can change the rules. They knew those honors meant everything to me, so on graduation day they took them away. Removed my name from the honors list so I had to walk onto the stage without the shiny tasseled cords around my neck. It was my first personal experience with the oppressive power of the educational system.
But rather than quit, I vowed to work harder, to rise to a power position and make change from the inside. I went to college and got an education degree. Becoming a teacher would be the thing.
After graduating, I did a lot of substitute teaching while looking for a job. On one occasion, in an attempt to help a struggling group of seventh graders understand negative numbers, I had them up in front of the room working as a human number line. Another teacher poked his head into the room. He stared at the scene in disbelief, looked at me, and asked, “You let them get out of their seats?” Right. I had forgotten.
So I went to graduate school. Surely at the Ph.D. level I would have the freedom to think and write independently.
My job was to conduct research that venerated the scholars that had come before me, to build on their work not contradict it. But even as I sat on the floor in my hallway in the middle of the night clutching my pillow trying to stave off the dissertation writing panic attack, I told myself I couldn’t quit. Even though rewriting my final chapter to meet the demands of my committee felt like paying ransom, I had to keep going. It would be foolish to quit now.
Then I got the tenure track job. I would be able to write what I wanted, say what I wanted.
Now I was being policed by the tenure requirements. Don’t collaborate. Don’t publish online. Submit to only the top tier journals. In the classroom, the course requirements made me feel like I was policing my students’ writing, making sure what they wrote was approved by the proper authority, making sure they stayed in their seats. I realized that if I stayed I would become an enforcer, part of the very machine I tried so hard to break with my writing back in high school.
Academia was no longer serving me. And perhaps it never did. When I was a child, quitting was not an option. School was a requirement, and it tricked me into believing my only option was to find a way to exist within that system. I could try to change it, but I couldn’t leave. As I got older, my writing, my identity, my sense of self worth became so wrapped up in that system I couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t bring myself to quit, to walk away from a “good job,” one with benefits and security, one that thousands of others would kill for. Instead, I ran out my time, stopped pursuing tenure and waited for my contract to be up. It was similar to how some marriages end. After years of knowing it’s over, she wakes up one morning, leaves town, and when she doesn’t arrive home for dinner her partner is quietly relieved. After seven years as an assistant professor, I walked out of my office at the end of spring semester and didn’t return in the fall, and we were all relieved it was finally over.
I was free to write anything I wanted. No one was telling me what to do or punish me for what I wrote. But nothing counts if you quit. The awards won, the honors bestowed, the degrees earned. They don’t count if you don’t continue to struggle, to suffer, to sell your soul for approval and respectability. I knew that was bullshit, but I couldn’t get outside my own head until I read Isabel Abbott’s essay, “this is a love song, not an apology: in praise of quitting.” She calls out that cultural messaging and argues quitting is often the bravest, most life affirming thing we can do:
In addition to quitting some work and ways of being and leaving a place I’ve loved for a long time because it just wasn’t working anymore and it’s so exhausting to try to force something that isn’t happening or that is only ever effort, and quitting programs and degrees and even some loves, I also discovered that I was quitting holding out for the escape plan and quitting waiting for chronic pain and illness to leave and quitting living as if there was something up ahead that was going to be my own version of the land of milk and honey. To just stop. To set it down. To quit. Because in all the working that is really a form of waiting, I will miss my whole life. My real and human and broken and crashingly beautiful life.
The writing life I created for myself had become a prison because it was built on a foundation of external approval and rebellion. Underneath it all, I wanted those in power to give me permission to write what I wanted. I wanted them to say, “you were right and we were wrong; your way is better.” If I had failed, it was because the game was rigged. I was trying to publish the Communist Manifesto in the Wall Street Journal. I chose the wrong venue for my message, and so I quit. Closed my office door and stepped into the void. And finally, after two years, I no longer regret what I left behind. I am making friends with my fear of writing without walls.