When I was a Senior high school there was nothing I enjoyed more than slipping out of class and visiting my guidance counselors office to talk about my future. I’m being serious. I loved it. As a serial narcissist there is nothing better than sitting down for a long chat with somebody else when the only topic we will be addressing is about me. I really like me. I’m the best! Why would anybody ever want to talk about anything other than me? Although it is probably certain that the poor lady who was charged with offering me college and vocational advice had a different perspective on our extended conversations.
I was not the easiest of students to counsel due to my real lack of interest for anything that dealt with my future. I didn’t care where or if I went to college. I was only going to move on to higher education to appease my parents when really I had other plans for what I wanted to do with my life. These conversations with my school’s counselor, Beth Bashor, who was a living saint, were simply an excuse for me to get out of a class at least once a week. I would send her a message at around lunch time that said something like, “I was worried about a couple of upcoming college application deadlines”. This, of course, was a lie. I didn’t give one silver shit about any college application deadlines. The only thing I cared about was not having to sit through my afternoon consumer math class. I was forced to take consumer math for six straight years because my brain could never wrap itself around the abstract concepts of algebra or geometry, so I was relegated to endless worksheets that tried to measure how well I would be able to balance a checkbook – which ended up being a practice I didn’t take into my adulthood. Like most things in life I just learned to round up or down to the nearest large number. How many children do I have? 100.
“Okay, John.”, Mrs. Bashor, would start while rolling her cheap office chair from behind her desk to directly in front of me. Mrs. Bashor always preferred to have our interactions without any furniture between us. I used to think that was because she wanted to look like she was being emotionally accessible to my needs, but as time has passed I have changed my theory on this. I’m pretty sure now that Mrs. Bashor wanted to be seated within arms length of me in case she decided that the risk of getting sentenced to the electric chair was worth the satisfaction she would feel from choking me to death. She was a small woman who I was guessing was in her mid-sixties and she was as positive of a person I have ever met in my life – which at the time was a personality trait that I enjoyed exploiting. She always had glasses on a chain around her neck. I never actually saw her wear them even when she was reading something that had fine print. I always meant to ask her Mrs. Bashor why she lugged those glasses around all the time if she didn’t actually need them – but that would require me from allowing our conversation to drift away from the subject of me. That was not something I would allow, because that would require me to have any interest in another person. Did I mention I am a narcissist? The mystery of the glasses that she never wore would have to go unsolved with me to the grave.
“Have you given any thought to which colleges you want to apply to?”
College? Barf. More school? Four more years of sitting behind a desk and transcribing notes on something that I didn’t care about? No thanks. I would rather perform a homemade enema with only products that would have been used in the early 1800’s – which I’m guessing were all made out of barbed wire and leeches. I had other plans with my life. I was going to go to Chicago and try out for Second City Comedy. I was only going to use college as a way to keep everybody’s expectations of me in check. I planned on going to college for a year or two and then slip away to pursue what I really wanted to – which was making people laugh. That was all I wanted to do. Mostly because it was one of the only talents I had. I was self-aware enough to know that I wasn’t that smart or ambitious enough to ever go through the hoops that would allow me to someday have a career as a doctor, lawyer, or bank executive. I had to work with what I was given, which was pretty limited. I learned early on that whenever I spoke to any adult figures in my life about my desire to follow the comedy road, I was met with a chorus of deep sighs and a sermon that was usually entitled “Why That Is The Single Stupidest Idea I Have Ever Heard.” I was told that a life of ruin would await me if I went in that direction. It was made clear to me that The World had different expectations for me. It was time to grow up and start to play The Expectation Game. It was nice to have dreams – but dreams don’t put butter on the bread.
I was given a list of expectations:
1) Go to college.
2) Get a GOOD job.
3) Buy a nice car, but not too nice because nobody likes a show off.
4) Invest in a 401K. The stock market is a really safe place to plant your retirement seed into. Nothing bad ever happens in the stock market.
5) Then…maybe….MAYBE you can try comedy, but only after you have accrued enough vacation time.
Eventually I stopped telling people what it was I wanted to do with my life because it felt like I was letting them down by even bringing up the conversation. It was easier to just lie and say the things the I knew people wanted me to say. I played their expectation games. Like a sleeper spy I rehearsed my answers ahead of time so that I would sound convincing in my replies.
Adult: John, you’re almost eighteen. What are your plans?
Me: To get an amazing degree. Then I will work for the U.N. or NASA. After that I plan on slowly dying inside for the next seventy years until my heart finally stops.
Adult: Perfect! Welcome to the club. Here is your membership card. We meet every other Wednesday night.
It may sound as if I am condemning any adult who took the time to tell me that I needed to have a more grown up plan for adulthood, but I really hold no ill will against them. There have been millions of successful people who defied the expectations that other people placed on them and kicked ass. The blame squarely lands on me. I let the expectations from others shape the course of my life. I wasn’t the writer of my own story. My narrator became every well-intended person out there who offered unsolicited advice on what I should do.
“John?”, Mrs. Bashor interrupted. “College?”
I grabbed a handful of M&M’s that she had on the bookcase next to us and shoveled them into my maw while I acted like I was deeply pondering her question – but then my thoughts turned to the nature chocolate itself. Chocolate always helps me feel better when I get anxious. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the same chemical reaction I get from chocolate that also causes me to grow a crop of back acne that makes me look like I’ve been involved in some sort of industrial accident. It was a conundrum. Chocolate calms my brain while disfiguring me. It’s a horrible curse that seems a lot like something that would happen to a Disney Princess. Choose between your love of chocolate or physical beauty. I had made my choice. In this case I was simply using The M&M’s as a excuse to delay having to answer her question. How could I possibly respond to her with a mouth full of chocolate. Plus, asking me to talk with this much candy in my mouth was a choking hazard.
“Earth to John.” Obviously she was not worried me choking.
I swallowed. Annoyed.
“Yes?” I replied.
“Colleges? We are running out of time to get some applications filed out.”, Mrs Bashor said leaning forward in her chair.
“Right.”, I said. “I am trying to decide which Ivy League school I want to send my application into. I was thinking that Brown is my best choice – but I find the Crew Program at Colgate a little more evolved.”
She frowned. This is was not something I have ever seen her do before. In fact, it looked like the very act of doing so caused her pain. There were muscles in her face that had never been used before. I was sure that was first time that her usual perma-smile had even been forced to distort itself into a scowl. We both knew that my ACT and SAT scores weren’t very good and there would be no way an reputable school would even use my transcripts for anything other than emergency toilet paper. I think an average ACT score back then was around 20. Mine came back without a score, but rather with “Probably smarter than tree bark. Probably.” scrawled on top of my results.
“I’m being serious.”, Her tone was decidedly firm. I imagine that since this was our 40th session she was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress she had made with me. “Why won’t you fill out an application anywhere?”
“I’m going to. I’m still figuring things out.” I said reaching for another handful of M&M’s. Mrs Bashor slapped her hand on top of the bowl to prevent me access to the shelled candies that I was hoping were going to buy me more time.
“Do you not want to go to college?” she asked.
Ah snap. There it was. This was my chance to spill my guts to an adult that I trusted. Could I trust her with my dream of heading to Chicago? I felt like I could – but I was terrified that she would give me the iconic “You’ll shoot your eye out” answer that young Ralphie kept getting from his adults in his life in “A Christmas Story”. I really wanted to tell her that I didn’t find any fulfilment in education. I was a freak like that. I only found a sense of purpose when I was making people laugh. That was it. Creating laughter out of silence was magic and I was certain it was the reason I was put on this planet. It was the only talent I possessed. To do anything else would be living a lie. I needed to tell her right now so she could help me explain to my parents and others that I needed to follow this path, if for no other reason than to know whether I was right or not. I so wanted her to help me defy the expectations that everybody had for me. I was going to tell her…
But then I didn’t.
“Of course, I want to go to college.” I lied.
“Good! Then let’s get to work.”
By the end of the day I had completed three applications to various local colleges. In doing so I signed the death certificate to my dream to move to Chicago and try comedy – I just didn’t know it yet. I have no regrets for how any of that turned out. Had I moved to Chicago would my girlfriend (who eventually I badgered into becoming my beloved wife) followed me out there? If not, then I wouldn’t have the amazing family I have today. I would be nothing without my family. If I had to choose between learning the craft of comedy and my family there would be no choice. My family is all I have. It is the only treasure in my vault.
The only regret I have is that was the day I surrendered to playing The Expectation Game full-time in my life. That was it. I became a slave to what other people expect of me. I went to college and sucked at it. I got a job and sucked at it. I jumped through all the hoops that were expected of me and never once did they make me feel good about myself.
My hope is that I don’t curse my children with any material expectations I may have for them. I don’t expect them to go to college but I expect them to find happiness. I don’t expect them to be successful but I expect them to be kind to people. I don’t expect them to follow the beaten path but I expect them to have adventures. I want them to set their own expectations for their life – and frankly I want them to scare me with them. The more my grown up brain bristles at want they want to do, the better plan it probably is.
Every now and then whenever I find myself in the early moments of a lecture to my kids on the importance of “Education and Career” I rush to the nearest bowl of M&M’s and cram a couple dozen of them down my throat in hopes that it will shut me up. I don’t want them to join me in the Expectation Games. I want them to dream big. I want to be their biggest cheerleader – even if that means that I do so with chocolate in my mouth.