I took the PSAT in my sophomore year, just for practice, and again in junior year, that time for real. I scored pretty high; so high that at the beginning of senior year, the school administrators gathered me and five other students into a conference room, handed us our test results, and told us we had all qualified for a National Merit Scholarship.
Around the table, there were three boys and two other girls besides me. One of the girls was a religious, part-time homeschooler/part-time high schooler; as for the other girl, I sneaked a peak at her test results--she had scored one point less than me. That made me feel good.
The principal congratulated us by name over the intercom. I was filled with pride, and I was hopeful for my future.
A Merit scholarship would definitely help me get into the college of my choice. I was dreaming of exotic sounding schools like Carnegie Mellon, Colgate University, UCLA, Sarah Lawrence. . .
All I had to do to get the scholarship was score well on my SAT.
But first, I needed to register for the SAT. Luckily, it was still early on in the school year. I had plenty of time.
Months went by before I finally got around to it. I signed up for a test date in the spring and spent some time studying. I wasn't too worried. I was a great test taker.
At least, I didn't think I was worried. The morning of the test, when my mom opened the door to my dark bedroom, the light from the hallway seemed to split open my left eye. I had a massive migraine, my first ever. Not only did my head hurt, but I felt extremely nauseous. I told my mom there was no way I could take the test. After gently asking me if I was sure, she brought me a cold washcloth and let me lie in bed.
I signed up for the next test date. Six weeks later, the same thing happened--another migraine.
It was the weirdest thing. It felt like some sort of divine conspiracy to keep me from taking the SAT, thereby keeping me from going to college. . .
Or it could have just been a coincidence. By that point in senior year, I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to college right away.
Before, when I lived and moved and had my being in my French teacher's love, my choices would have been clear: undergrad to study linguistics, psychology, and languages, then grad school, then a job developing a program to help babies learn foreign languages or something. Then she and I could have something to chat about over tea at her house for the rest of our lives.
But now, I was drifting, aimless, rootless. I had plenty of academic interests and talent but no clear direction.
I made a mental note to register for the SAT again soon and went back to enjoying the present moments of my life at school, which were never dull.
Then one day I came home to a letter from the Merit folks letting me know that I needed to have my SAT scores by such and such a date if I were going to be considered for the scholarship. I panicked. I checked online. By the time I registered, took the test, and received my scores, it would be too late.
I let that reality wash over me. I had missed the boat, and there was no way around it. No loopholes.
I was surprisingly chill.
The more I thought about it, the happier I was knowing that some other, more passionate, college-bound student would get the scholarship instead of me. I probably wasn't going to need one. I hadn't even applied to any schools yet.
For the past few months, I had been mulling over an article I'd seen in the latest edition of the US News & World Report's College Rankings catalog. It was an article on gap years, and it profiled three students who had chosen to defer college admission for one year to spend time traveling, volunteering, or completing an internship. The first student had undertaken an urban restoration project; the second had volunteered on organic farms across the country; and the third had gone and monitored sea turtles in Costa Rica or something.
I bet Freshman Sarah wishes she would have tied herself to the mast to ensure the fulfillment of her original plan--an impressive-sounding, ultra-erudite college experience right out of high school. But Senior Sarah was really digging this idea of a gap year.
Somehow, I had transformed into some sort of Big Lebowski, go-with-the-flow Sojourner of Life. No, I hadn't started smoking pot or anything; I had merely started dabbling in philosophy, thanks to Thoreau. Also, I was listening to Radiohead's mind-bending OK Computer album on repeat, thanks to an enlightened friend who had burned it for me.
And thanks to a devastating breakup and identity crisis in the fall, I spent my senior year pondering not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but what I had done wrong in that relationship and how I could rectify it and avoid the same catastrophe in the future.
I felt highly educated as it was, yet all my education hadn't helped me hang on to the most treasured relationship I ever had. I was a fool, and I knew it. I figured the last thing I needed was four more years of academia; in all likelihood, I would only emerge a more educated fool.
I forgot about the whole Merit scholarship thing until one day when all five of the other students' names were read over the intercom at school; they had all received one.
I burned with embarrassment not to be included in that list like I had been in the fall. I was just as smart as those people, I just. . .never got my shit together. I could have gotten one of those scholarships, I just didn't want to go to college right away. Argh, people would never know the truth of my smartness!
Plus, if my name had been in that list, my French teacher would have had to think about me for thirty seconds, about how much promise I held and how much she was going to miss out by not being associated with me in the future. I was destined for great things.
Did she think of me anymore? I hadn't seen her in months.
I calmed down over the course of the day. It was easy to see my reaction was pure vanity.
The same vanity flared up in me again at graduation, when I looked at the program and realized all the Merit kids had a special asterisk by their names with an explanation at the bottom. Again, I talked myself down. Good for them, I thought. Going to college right away hadn't been what I really wanted to do anyway.
I had a different plan.