The Road Always Forks

December 3rd, 0001

At Thanksgiving this year, someone–I don’t know who, because I came late to the conversation–posed the question, “What single event has changed your life the most?” Answers ranged from “my marriage” to “meeting my friend Dan” to “I’m not old enough to have one yet” (well, it was Thanksgiving and all the generations were represented there). Everyone turned to me at one point for my response and I was going to say something about having my kids–because kids are life-changing, of course–when instead I heard myself saying, “Skipping ninth grade.” And as soon as I said it, I knew I’d picked the right one.

It wasn’t so much because it altered my life noticeably at the time–I went to the same high school I would have gone to anyway and ended up at the same college three of my siblings had gone to–but looking back, I realize that it changed who I was and what I thought of myself. On the one hand, I gained a certain amount of pride in my academic achievements–because I skipped that grade, I went to Harvard at the age of 16 and graduated at 20. But I also lost a lot of confidence: I was over a year younger than almost all of my schoolmates, and had spent my childhood with my nose in a book. Getting A’s in class doesn’t help you when it comes to making good new friends (that took a while) or getting dates (not a single one in high school–although I keep trying to persuade my teenage daughter there’s NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT).

I can look back now and see a clear line from that decision to the things I struggle with today: a sense that I’m disappointing myself and my family if I don’t accomplish enough (“I was supposed to be extraordinary; I’m not extraordinary”) and a constant sense that I’m always on the outside socially looking in. That latter thing isn’t true: I have an incredible group of friends. But I can’t shake the feeling. Feelings are stronger than thoughts, or something like that.

I think skipping a grade was the wrong decision: if I had it to do over again, would I? Well, yes, because it led to where I am today, and who knows where NOT skipping might have led me? Life is confusing that way. You make choices and you’re stuck with them and the story doesn’t end, it just keeps going and you can’t really know whether a bad choice that leads to a good ending was a mistake or a gift.

Back home, I presented the question on my author blog and was fascinated by the responses: again, the range was huge, from giving birth to a child with special needs, to one single casual conversation where a parent changed a child’s mind about quitting band. And one wonderful woman wrote about how several deaths in her family made her stop to think about how important it is to live life thoughtfully and actively.

And in the end, maybe that’s the point of this exercise. I can look back and say that one decision had a huge influence on the person I became, but–for better or for worse–I can’t alter that decision now. But maybe it’s worth trying to keep in mind that we’re constantly making decisions, and even the smallest decision changes the course we’re on that tiny bit . .  or maybe that huge bit–we can’t know for sure when we’re in the middle of it.