I did so poorly that the school kicked me out just as I was deciding to leave. I could have enrolled at another school, but I had so few credits that I would have to spend at least one extra year in high school. I knew that I couldn’t go to high school anymore. When I made the choice to leave a second time, I decided I would have a conversation with my parents rather than just announcing to them that I was never going back. We sat and talked for a long time. We discussed what went wrong at my various different schools, and I explained how terrible school was for my health. I told them that I planned to get my GED instead. My parents told me that if I was not going to go to high school, I would have to get a job, or find some other way to be productive. They also made clear that dropping out of school did not mean I could just neglect my responsibility to learning, whether it be through some other type of institution or through self-education.
I took their advice and got two part-time jobs as a nanny and sales associate at a clothing store. Because I was only 16, I had a harder time finding a job: Most places only wanted to hire people who were 18 and over. Nanny jobs were easy to find as a 16-year-old, but to land my retail job, I lied and said I was 18 (Not endorsing this! Just want to be completely honest here).
I felt really relieved to be out of school, to have time to myself—and time to write. I began to feel like an aligned individual again. At the same time, I was terrified about the future, and spent a lot of time worrying about whether I would be able to succeed in the unfamiliar world of careers and college without a high school diploma, or a proper formal education. To keep myself afloat, I spent most of my time reading, making new friends, exploring my city, and trying not to think too much about the future.
What helped me most during this period was setting small goals for myself, and trying to discover what I liked and what I wanted to do with my life. After about six months of being out of high school, I began to get very good at making schedules for myself. It was important that I had that extra free time to have fun and go to parties and meet new people, but it was equally important for me to have interests and goals and something to wake up for the next morning. Even if you don’t have a job or any responsibilities, it’s good to plan things to do during the day that you try to complete. This can be a plan to go to a coffee shop and finish a book or a piece of writing, a plan to meet with a friend, a plan to finish a puzzle or a song, attend an event, or a plan to exercise. I can’t stress how important it is to have something to wake up for in the morning. To keep myself busy and happy, I made sure to plan little things to do every day.
I had help with that, too: My parents were really smart to tell me that I should find some other way to be productive and make sure to provide myself with structure. I kept my parents regularly updated on what I was up to and what sort of jobs I had or projects I was working on so that they could give me moral support. They asked me to make schedules for myself and email them to them, and then let them know if I followed through with everything I planned to do. Reporting to your parents about your self-education or new job or activities can help them support you. In my case, my parents weren’t expecting me to go to college, so they found it easy to support me being out of school. What they had a difficult time supporting was the fact that I had stopped practicing the religious customs and traditions. Keeping in contact with my parents even though we drastically disagreed on how I should live my life helped me feel more grounded. We would fight (a lot) about how religious I was, but they were happy to see me taking care of my mental health, doing well at my jobs, and spending time with my friends again. It felt good to have them ask me how my work was going, even though they didn’t like that I wasn’t wearing skirts anymore.
If you’re worried about what your parents will say and whether they will still support you once you leave high school, try and reassure them of your alternate plan. Of course everyone’s parents are different, and there’s no guaranteeing they’ll support your decision. The best advice I can give on that front is to try and explain how high school is detrimental to your health and goals and detail what you’ll do instead. Make sure they can feel confident that you won’t just be sitting at home wasting time and feeling sorry for yourself. If they’re really staunchly against your decision to transition out and refuse to budge, you might want to consider getting a job and moving out for a while, or until things have cooled off a little.
The very best advice I could give on leaving high school would be to make sure you have an idea of what you want to do instead. Leaving high school presented me with much more time to fill, and that can potentially be very dangerous, especially if you’re already struggling with depression, like I was. If you’re considering leaving high school, don’t just leave because you hate it. Leave because you hate it AND want to do XYZ other thing, be it music, dancing, a job at a café, aggressive reading, coding, writing, road tripping, really anything. In my case, I left because I wanted to pursue interests and a career my school wouldn’t support or prepare me for.
I got pretty good at self-educating around the same time I got good at self-scheduling. I tried to do as much learning as possible, and there are so many ways to learn out of school! To name just a few: You can sign up for dance classes, or art classes, or any type of creative classes at local art centers. You can also learn thousands of things just by reading plenty, and taking advantage of the giant school that is the internet and all the free classes available online. Many university websites upload video lectures and course materials. The Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) has a program called OpenCourseWare where you can find plenty of wonderful learning materials. So does Harvard, as part of an open learning initiative with MIT. There’s also Khan Academy, where you can watch comprehensive videos on math and/or any of the sciences, among other things. I used to use Khan Academy all the time because of how approachable they make algebra seem. Also, there might be classes and workshops offered for free around your city! I used to go to free writing workshops in Chicago offered by Young Chicago Authors. These also turned out to be a great place to make friends, find a community, and flex my writing muscle. It was only when I started to learn on my own that I realized I actually really liked learning—I just couldn’t do it at the institutions where I had been.
When I turned 17 (a year after I left high school), I got my GED. I took the test in Chicago, and the process was fairly simple. I filled out an application form, paid a small fee, and showed up at the testing center to take the exam, which was pass or fail, so I didn’t have to worry about getting a high score. I prepared by taking pre-tests, which you can find at the back of a GED prep book. I bought mine so I could write in it, but these can be easily found at the library for free.
Eventually I felt ready to be back in school again. I enrolled as a part-time student at a community college. Attending community college was completely my own decision. No one was asking, forcing, or expecting me to go. I took the classes because I felt healthy enough to succeed in an academic environment, and because I felt like I was ready to benefit from learning in a classroom. The accommodating pace at community college and the fact that it was my own decision to attend made for a perfect combination. The teachers never assumed I came from a traditional educational background, but they didn’t patronize me or simplify the material either. I was happy learning there and felt that it was the right place for me. (I’ve also written a lot about this for Rookie already!)
There were many times I worried about my decision to leave high school, especially when I decided I wanted to transfer to a university from my community college. But I was never worried because I regretted the decision, or because I felt like I missed out on some important experience; I only worried because of how other people perceived me or the sort of impressions they made because I didn’t finish high school. Eventually, it stopped mattering that I dropped out, because so many other things spoke for me.
If you, like me, can’t stay in high school but plan to eventually attend a university, be prepared for the difficulties leaving high school will present you. You will need to have some high school equivalent to present when you apply. Though GEDs are high school equivalents, most universities don’t treat them that way. GEDs are often stigmatized, and some schools won’t consider students who don’t have standardized test scores. One of the reasons I chose to attend a community college before transferring is because most community colleges don’t require a high school diploma or test scores. I’m not trying to be discouraging, and community college isn’t your only option if you’ve left high school. It will probably be harder to get into a university of your choice, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Just don’t let your GED be the only qualification you’ve got in your arsenal—try to demonstrate all the other ways you’ve been learning on your application. Universities want to be sure that you won’t drop out. If you can show that you’ve been consistently holding down a job, and have some good recommendation letters from your bosses that would definitely help.
At the beginning of this year, I transferred out of community college and started at a new university. High school doesn’t really come up any more, but when it does people are always surprised to find out that I didn’t finish high school—and I am surprised that they think life is so linear! There are endless ways to learn, live, and be successful. High school isn’t the path to all of those ways. It happened to work out that I ended up attending university, but I truly believe that I would still be doing great even if I didn’t go back to school. A friend of mine who works in music left high school, and it made perfect sense, because he had more time to practice his music and excel at it. In fact, he never went to college, either, and he is an excellent human being. I once heard someone say that instead of going to business school, he wished he got an internship at a business and learned that way. I’ve met people who dropped out of high school and college in order to start their own companies (which gets increasingly easier with the internet and social media), write for websites, teach themselves photography or video production, or fix bikes all day because that makes them happy.
There were also a lot of things I wanted to learn that my high school would have never taught me. In my case this was heightened by the fact that we learned mostly religious subjects, but in general you’ll find high schools to be valuing a certain kind of intelligence and skills. Leaving high school didn’t get in the way of my learning, my friendships, or any of my most valuable teenage experiences. It helped create them!
Again: I am not advocating for everyone to drop out/transition out. Leaving high school is not the best idea for many, if not most, people. If you can make it through—if you are learning something and you have good friends—then there’s no reason to leave. But if not, trust yourself. You will be fine. Probably even more than fine. Don’t underestimate your ability to make smart and considered choices. Trust that you will do well, with or without a high school diploma. ♦