One year ago today, I graduated from Kenyon College. My time at Kenyon was spectacular—four years of fascinating classes and amazing friends—and when it was all over, I went out into the real world, totally confident that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Or so I thought.
My plan: I was going to go to Italy and teach for a year, and I was going to love it, and then I was going to go to graduate school for a Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing, and then I was going to teach creative writing—hopefully as a college professor—and of course, write. I might, if I decided I wanted to, get a Ph.D in comparative literature. Sounds perfect, right?
So I graduated, submitted all of my applications to MFA programs, and went off to Italy. And it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t enjoy teaching. Sure, there were times when the lessons went great and everything was perfect, times when it felt like it clicked, but more often than not, I was battling exuberantly inattentive students or just plain bored . I have had some truly excellent teachers, and I have the utmost respect for them, and I really wanted to be like them. I tried to convince myself that things would get better. I’d just started teaching, after all. I was in a foreign country with students who didn’t speak English as their first language. I was working with high school students, and I’d always thought I would want to be a college professor. I was living far away from home, I wasn’t teaching the subject I thought I wanted to teach, and I was a teaching assistant, working with another teacher, instead of in my own classroom. But things didn’t improve, and by Christmas, I was positive that the problem wasn’t any of these things. The problem was I just didn’t want to be a teacher.
By this time, I’d also realized I didn’t want to be a full-time writer either. I’d always thought having the ability to write full-time would be the dream. I was only teaching in the mornings (school in Italy finishes at about 1:00 every day), and in the afternoons I was still too terrified of the crazy drivers to venture far from my apartment, so I spent all the time I wasn’t in school writing. It was as close to full-time writing as I’ve ever come. At first, it was great. I was so productive. But then it started to get a bit lonely, even for my inner introvert. And then, after I submitted all my revised short stories to the Dell Award, I was totally burnt out and didn’t know what to do with myself. I realized that, if all I’m doing is writing, I tend to write in giant bursts and then stop and not know what to do next and not have the energy to do anything even if I know what I want to do. But if I’m writing while doing something else, as I’ve been writing all my life while in school, I could write regularly and complete projects without burning out.
So, I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to write full-time (I still wanted to write, of course, just not full-time). Add to that the fact that being in Italy, which was my dream for years, was not what I’d expected, and I felt pretty awful. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and even if I figured that out, how could I trust myself that it was what I really wanted to do? Everything I had thought I wanted was a lie, after all.
I felt like this year was taking me apart, piece by piece, and putting me back together again all wrong. I felt like I would reach for something—an idea, a dream, a goal, my self-confidence or sense of humor—and it was not where I had left it.
I’m not one to wallow in confusion and misery—though it was very tempting this time. I would find something else I wanted to do, and I would try it, and if it didn’t work out, then I would try something else. Eventually I would figure it out. And I was starting to have another idea.
In November, I was invited to a dinner at the International Lions Club in Assisi. The Lions Club is an association promoting independence for the blind around the world. In Italy, they run a guide dog school, and they had heard that I was living independently in Assisi with a guide dog. At the dinner, I was very disturbed to learn that, due to financial constraints, their guide dog school could only match twenty to thirty blind people with dogs each year. The Seeing Eye, where I got Mopsy, matches at least two hundred guide dogs with blind handlers each year, and I know of at least five other guide dog schools in America. It is very expensive to train guide dogs, certainly. The Seeing Eye is funded by grants and donations, but as far as I could tell, the people at the dinner for this guide dog school were most interested in complaining about how hopeless the situation was. I understand I didn’t have a full picture of the situation, but to have a guide dog requires a certain level of independence on the part of the blind handler, so this was the first association I’d seen in Italy that was really promoting independence for the blind. And yet, when I cut up my own potatoes, my hosts broke into applause.
It was almost 2:00 in the morning when I got home that night, furious with the world, and while I was trying to calm down so I could get to sleep, I had the sudden thought, “You know, I could do something about this. I could work to make this sort of thing better.”
Since I stand by the fact that no idea at 2:00 in the morning is a good idea unless it still seems like a good idea in the light of day, I put that thought, and my frustration, to rest. But in the light of day, it did still seem like a good idea, and it kept growing. And after I was denied access to the Leaning Tower of Pisa with Mopsy—even though I called ahead to say I had a service dog and then presented my letter from the Fulbright Commission citing the Italian laws that allow service dogs access to all places open to the public without paying extra fees—I knew my idea was a good one.
It’s been a year since I left Kenyon, and it’s been a crazy year, filled with a whole lot of uncertainty and confusion and fear, but I know what I want to do, at least for now. It’s been a bumpy road, but I’m certain that every bump was important for getting me onto this path.
I have three more weeks of school here in Italy. Then I plan to visit Venice, Ancona, and other small towns around Umbria and Tuscany before I return to America. And I’ve decided that when I return to America, I will get a job and apply to law school so I can become a disabilities rights attorney. I have always had someone advocating for me—that’s how I got to where I am—and now that I’ve really had to advocate for myself, I’ve realized just how important it is. Plus, I like arguing. And I will always continue to write. I have some other projects planned as well. And I’ll see what happens. This feels right now, but you never know, and I’m okay with that. So I’m going to enjoy my last weeks in Italy, and then, let the next adventure begin.