It’s Friday, January 24th, 2020. Earlier this week I saw a Facebook ad about Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s upcoming talk in Charleston. Seeing the ad released a bank of memories usually hidden away in the shadows of my previous life.

In my previous life I was a college student studying to be an engineer. Today I share the story about what brought that life to an end. It’s the story about the moment I realized I wanted to drop out of college.

Truth be told, I never really enjoyed school. I liked goofing around with friends, playing lacrosse, and watching march madness during class, but the “school” part of school was a bother. Most of my intellectual development during those years took place on YouTube after school.

Curiosity flows like a stream of water on dry ground, cutting its way into the land ahead with no predictable path. In my youth and teenage years, the stream of my curiosity followed my gaze upward, pushing into the deep blue sky, past the airplanes, to the moon and beyond, into the cosmos.

With YouTube as my courier, I developed a strong appreciation for the work of people like Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Tyson in particular drew me in with his everlasting enthusiasm and digestible descriptions of celestial bodies and processes. 

My nurtured curiosity brought me to Aerospace Engineering, my chosen college major. It fit my interests closely enough, and I thought I was reasonably smart, so I figured what the hell.

Three semesters later I was on academic thin ice. I had barely passed physics and calculus, failed chemistry, and was on the brink of failing calc 2. I really didn’t enjoy the school work. My heart didn’t care, so my brain was left to its own devices, doing just enough to get by. But some hope still remained. In December 2013, during finals in my 3rd semester in college, my school held an event hosting Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. For years it had been a dream of mine to see this man in person. I viewed him with the same reverence a bright student has for his most impactful mentor. 

Like an ironically cruel plot-point etched into my destiny, the time of the talk conflicted with my calc 2 final. My momentary disappointment was quickly overtaken by youthful optimism after I concluded that this was probably the only reason an administrator would ever approve rescheduling a final exam. It’s not like I wanted to go home for Christmas early, or skip class for a concert. I genuinely wanted to see a scholar talk about ideas relevant to my major, and more importantly, my interests. That’s the entire purpose of education, anyway.

So I emailed the dean of mathematics. I didn’t know this guy, but his title gave me confidence that he would understand my dilemma and help me out. I explained my situation. I thought that my attempt to pursue my academic interests beyond the classroom was noble, in some small way, and so I went to sleep with a good bit of optimism.

The next day, that same optimism was flattened by the dean’s response. He told me that if I was going to skip the arranged test time, I would receive a 0 on my exam, fail the class, and there were absolutely no exceptions. His response was devoid of any hint of encouragement, and made me feel like some troublemaker who didn’t quite understand how things worked.

I was honestly flabbergasted. It was at this moment, standing toe-to-toe with the goliath of higher education, that I saw it was never about curiosity, knowledge, and truth. Those values I held so closely, the values I had been taught to nurture, the values at the core of education itself, are no more than empty words plastered on the mission statements of school websites. 

The dean’s response forced a new reality into my field of view–the reality that the institution itself had become more important than those values it was built to stand for.

I understand where he was coming from. I understand that there are hundreds of kids taking these finals, that there are too many people, students, professors, and TAs, involved in the administration of an exam like that. Their no-exceptions policy was a practical way to keep things fair and efficient.

But it still didn’t sit well with me. My gut felt twisted. My whole life had been organized around this goal to get through college––a goal that was thrust upon me and all of my peers since before I could remember––a goal that nobody in my sphere of influence had thought to question–a goal that wasn’t my own. School didn’t fit me. Or maybe I didn’t fit school.

At that moment, that truth, tied deep inside the web of my life-long internal conflict, revealed itself for the first time. And for a moment, I looked straight at it. I saw its simplicity and its solidity. Looking at it almost stung my whole body. And almost as quickly as I noticed it, I buried whatever that moment revealed to me back into the depths where it had been held for so long. 

I obeyed my dean and skipped the Tyson talk to take my exam. During the test, I sat there for the whole hour, looking at words and symbols on a paper, feeling betrayed only by myself. I didn’t yet have the courage to stand tall. I felt weak. There was no anger, just a still emptiness inside, surrounded by the knowledge that I don’t believe in what I’m doing.

Seeing reality and changing your course according to it are two different challenges, so it took me more than a month after that to actually quit. In fact, my brother quit first, and the day after he told me that dropping out was as simple as talking to the Bursar’s office, I was officially a free man.

I scored 40% on the exam, and failed the class. It was the last final exam I ever took.

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