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What a Good Girl, What a Smart Girl

Growing up, I knew I was supposed to be a doctor. It was my answer, for as far back as I can remember, to every adult’s favorite question. Exactly what kind of doctor would change periodically – when my sister was born, a pediatrician; when my close friend’s brother died of cancer, an oncologist. I thought I would make a much better psychiatrist than the inept buffoon I saw monthly, who couldn’t be bothered to know my name before the appointment, checking my folder when I was already sitting on her couch. And my teenage years subtle rebellion was to plan to become a forensic pathologist. Why not, I figured. I had enjoyed some early dissection classes, already had smartass responses when I was incredulously asked why, and I took the snarky pleasure reserved for teenagers when mothers disapprove.

My mother had grown up in Communist Poland when she was a girl in the fifties. Her father was a professor, then provost, of a university in Warsaw. She took the opportunity to remind me every time grades came out – if I didn’t stay at the top of my class, by eighth grade, my fate as a laborer would be sealed. I would have to work a blue collar job, and I’d never be a doctor; I might not even be able to marry one. While I rolled my eyes through most of the lecture delivered in her heavy accent, the thought of not being a doctor shook me. That was the final goal, the brass ring – I’d become a doctor and she would be pleased. The lines of disapproval that carved down from her lips would soften, and she would be satisfied with me. I would still have to find a doctor for a husband, but surely that couldn’t be as difficult as becoming a physician myself. 

I did not know that I did not want to be a doctor until I was twenty years old. By this time, I had passed off thoughts of other careers as dreams; fleeting, nonsensical visions that lived in the twilight, never given the light of day. I wanted to write, to be artistic and expressive. I wanted to teach and coach and have kids and cook. I had passions and desires, wishes buried so deep with that I could hardly acknowledge them to myself. But those weren’t acceptable, those weren’t in the plan. My sister had the artistic talent. Teachers didn’t make money. Having kids was expected, one day; coaching and cooking would go hand-in-hand with that, something to fill my time with after I came home from a day of medical practice. 

It was a clear day in the early spring of 2006. Everything felt heavy, the chilly New England breeze refused to hint at any warmth as it snuck around the edges of my basement windows in my dorm room. I was a sophomore; I was hunched over my laptop trying to tease out a midterm paper from a deep well of apathy. My desk lamp was on, a spotlight over the only action; the watery light the high windows let in did nothing to push back the gloom. The shadowy room showcased my depression and I wanted to see the evidence as little as possible. The dorm was on the far reaches of campus, and was set up as an apartment. It boasted an actual kitchen, bathroom, and two separate bedrooms. It was meant for upperclassmen, but the campus housing lottery had shown us favor this year. It was a great starter apartment, a set up to adulthood; you lived on your own and were responsible for your day-to-day, but you still enjoyed utilities included, on-site cheap laundry, and professional building maintenance. To get past the real-world isolation, I had to cross the tracks and walk ten minutes steeply uphill; and, of course, half my classes were at the other end of campus, up more inclines and culminating in 55 stone steps. 

I had a roommate to start the year; she spent little time in our apartment and moved in with her girlfriend partway through first semester so at 19, I had the apartment to myself. My boyfriend spent a lot of weekends with me. I wonder if the powers that be chose twin mattresses to reduce cost or to dissuade technical teenagers from exploring their sexual autonomy, out from under the parental gaze. But, like you do at 19, we made the skinny mattress work. When my roommate moved out, we dragged the mattress off the built-in box springs and filled the floor in her room with both, and rolled around the wall-to-wall bedding like puppies. 

This particular spring Saturday, I was alone in the apartment. My boyfriend hadn’t stayed over in a while, as he was figuring out his own situation with school and transfers. I had slowly given up on things like dishes or laundry; the dirty plates and flatware overflowed the sink to cover the tiny counter and stovetop. My clothes were in piles of “probably clean, I dunno,” and “whatever, it doesn’t matter.” My shelves were in disarray, books scattered; notebooks and pens wherever they landed. Rings from coffee cups circled every surface, and the dregs in forgotten mugs looked like overgrown petri dishes that had escaped the lab to live freely in my squalor. 

I was carrying an average of about 70 in chemistry lab, but half that in the class itself. My first midterm in the class I had earned a 17. I had no idea that it was possible to score so low. All my life, I had been told I was gifted, talented, brilliant. I could not understand why I was doing so badly. I don’t remember my grades in other classes that semester; I’m sure they were absolutely fine, but all I could focus on was my failure. I didn’t dare tell my mother. My father had completely lost ability to communicate, but I couldn’t face the disappointment that would show in his eyes as they tracked me around the room. I was convinced I would fail out of school and have nowhere to go. My mother would never let a dropout move back in, she had made that clear. School had become a razor-edged rock façade; if I slipped off the precarious cliff, I faced nothing but the abyss. I didn’t know what life could possibly look like if that happened.

I had come to realize what so many others in my class already had: I was not gifted or talented, and certainly not brilliant. I had fallen; I no longer led the pack, but rather wallowed in mediocrity. I lost all motivation and all self-esteem. Depression took me up in her gentle jaws and carried me back to her lair, a lost cub that had grown homesick on its adventure. I could not be a doctor if I couldn’t even pass pre-med chemistry. I was finished, and I had barely begun.

That Saturday wasn’t special. I don’t remember the date. It was after most of the snow had melted, but rugby hadn’t started yet. I don’t remember what other classes I was taking.

But I remember slowly straightening up, lifting my head from its proximity to the keyboard, one cheek every so slightly warmed from the heat emanating off the laptop. My back straightened; the muscles in my neck tensed in a new position. Every cell of my body, every fiber in my muscles was on high alert. My breath hitched and came quicker. I could almost feel my pupils dilate; my hands stilled and my calves flexed above my cold feet. I felt the adrenaline pump in my blood and the activation of my fight-or-flight response.

I did not want to be a doctor. 

The anarchist thought flashed red on the ticker that wound its way along the contours of my brain.

I did not have to be a doctor. 

I stood up quickly, pushing my chair back with nothing but the surge of my legs. My fingertips pressed the desk on either side of my laptop. 

I was not going to be a doctor. 

Heart pounding, I stood there in the heavy gray room, my hands and wrists lit by the desk lamp, trembling.

I was going to do something else.

I don’t know what caused this revelation. The aftermath of it remains soft and blurry in my memory. I didn’t immediately come out of my depression. I wish I could say that I felt like I woke up from a fugue and didn’t recognize what had become of me. I didn’t start cleaning. I didn’t start anything. I don’t think I finished my term paper that day, but I don’t honestly remember what I did. Everything I had believed about my life trajectory and what I had worked so hard for was shattered, a table of glassware upended at a yard sale. The pieces of my identity, so long dusted with acceptance, refracted blindingly. My mind wheeled with fear and trepidation; but there, slowly, rising up through the layers of shock and disbelief, was excitement. There was possibility. I did not yet know where I was going, but I knew that it wouldn’t be med school. On a chilly spring day, I left the safe harbor of a life planned out for me, and found myself in uncharted seas of the unknown.

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