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Hi Dear Captain,

I’m an 18yr old just on the last legs of high school. I’ve got this Huge! Life! Affirming! Exam!(equivalent to SATs) coming up on April, and I am so not prepared.
So, I’ve got a family that’s lowkey hellish to live with.My siblings are all nearly a decade older. My mum is diagnosed with a mental illness that manisfests in instability and extreme anger.I rarely get to see my dad. Growing up in this household surely messed something up, because I have low esteem and anxiety. Pair that up with subtle put downs and remarks about my intelligence and vague body shaming from my sisters, my feelings for my family are mostly contemptous and distrustful now.A big part of my life plan is GET FAR FAR AWAY THIS IS NOT HEALTHY RUN.

Unfortunately, to fulfill my escape plan, I’ll need to study well enough to land a scholarship to uni. Or else it’s forevermore being stuck in this place. As it currently stands, I’m officially unable to give a crap. About anything. Being overly sensitive and fragile,I tend to shut down and be an unresponsive zombie in the face of conflict of any sort. In previous letters you’ve said you have never been as unhappy later on as once a kid, I’d genuinely like to get to that stage from where I am right now. But it’s either running away or uni for me.

It feels like I know the starting position, I know where the finish line is, but I can’t muster enough willpower to work towards my goals. It just doesn’t register in my numbed brain that I need to study my butt off. I just can’t care about anything. It took me six days just to write this email.

I don’t know how to get out of this funk.Time is running out,I can’t afford to be depressed or I’ll be in even of more a clusterf**k.

So in short,how do I stop being a zombie and care about my future and everything else?
Sorry to dampen your holiday spirits,Captain. Merry Christmas to you and your awesome cat.

Fingers Crossed

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My siblings and I were all home-schooled, and we all turned out all right, finished school, have decent jobs…until tale-end Charlie was born twelve years after the rest of us. My parents decided to home-school Charlie (PUBLIC SCHOOL EVIL! DRUGS! GANGS! ROCK MUSIC!) except by then they were both tired of the time commitment and just…didn’t.

They kept Charlie home and didn’t teach him anything. Since they live in a state with zero government oversight (BECAUSE FREEDOM!) they got away with it. One of my other brothers taught Charlie to read when he was ten. I’m the oldest and I moved to another state when Charlie was seven, and moved out the house when he was four. I knew on one level things were slacking, but I was wrapped up in my life, finishing college, and getting the hell out of my hometown. I never spent very much time at home for various reasons I won’t get into, but my cousin would tell me Charlie doesn’t know this, or Charlie doesn’t know that so I’d talk to my parents and they always had a reason.

“We haven’t started the unit on that yet, that’s the next grade, we’re taking break for Nov/Dec because of all the holidays and we’ll start again in Jan, I just ordered this great new curriculum…”

I should have called the police on them years ago. But I didn’t. I still believed my parents could turn this around and teach Charlie like they taught the rest of us. I didn’t want to call the police on my own parents. But I should’ve. If I could go back in time I would.

Last fall, I had a heart-to-heart with Charlie via skype and his desires to join the military and Do Exciting Things do not at all jib with what he knows. Every time I asked him about school he’d say he was really studying hard, then (over skype) I got him to show me his ‘Math reviewing’. It was a third-grade adding-columns-of-numbers book like the dollar store sells. Which he couldn’t do because he didn’t know/had forgotten how carrying works. I flipped out on my parents, who promptly blamed everything on Charlie (who was deeply addicted to WoW and ‘wouldn’t study’, therefore it’s Charlies fault).

I live in another state so I started tutoring Charlie over Skype every second we were both home. We covered third and fourth grade math in three months. Charlie’s smart, he’s just *NEVER* had to study/take tests/learn how to push through frustration to comprehend information before. Right after he turned eighteen, he moved in with me and my wife. Using a hodge-podge of elementary school/middle school resources, we covered the basics up to sixth grade, and now he’s doing seventh grade work at a REAL, ACCREDITED, online middle school.

The problem: Charlie WILL NOT study/do school unless I sit at his elbow. My wife and I both work full-time. Charlie has a job with erratic hours at a cleaning service to pay for his car and insurance, so there’s no regular time we’re all home, and he’s got to cover five years of school. I want to send him to school, but since he’s eighteen he’d have to go to the alternative school in town and each grade takes a year to cover…and he couldn’t go past the age of twenty anyway. This is bullshit. I can’t hire a tutor, we don’t have the money. I would like to do other things besides stick to Charlie like a tick on my few hours off. (I work 4 12s and a 6).

I am so angry at my parents for allowing this to happen, and I’m so angry at Charlie for screwing off and ‘catching up on Netflix/assorted bullshit’ instead of studying and working through his classes. I can log onto the website and *see* he only spent twenty minutes on a lesson, when I know (because I rolled him out of bed at seven before I left) he doesn’t go in until noon). If he’d bust ass and do it, he could finish school in about two and a half years but I don’t know how to make him understand working at the cleaner is not a successful life-choice. He’s really good at faking knowledge to get by. He says he doesn’t like learning all this because it makes him ‘feel dumb’. His solution is to ignore all the things he doesn’t know instead of learn them. He has no interest in a trade (probably because my parents have always sneered at trade-schools). When asked, he claims he wants to join the military and be an infantry commander. I have explained the military does not want him with his lack of education, he says he understands, but he’s NOT TAKING THE STEPS TO FIX IT.

What do I do? How do I motivate an adult? I want my brother to have a shot at a decent life. But he won’t do school without me right there and that’s not going to work for the *years* this process is going to take.

Please help me.

This is slightly edited – I missed the detail where Charlie lives with the LW the first time and thought he was still living with the parents.

I am going to start with a moderation note because I’ve seen the shitshow of amateur debate shenanigans that happens when you mention the word “homeschooling” on the internet:

Successful homeschooling exists. The Letter Writer had it. It in no way looks like the above model of how “Charlie” was educated. If you are here to talk about why homeschooling is the best idea ever, how it worked for you, and soapbox in favor of it, I will delete your comment. If you are here to talk about why homeschooling is stupid and useless and shouldn’t be allowed, I will delete your comment. It can be right for certain kids. It can be abusive and neglectful for other kids. This is not Debate Club, and I don’t want to read your arguments or collect anecdata for an unwinnable argument (since we don’t have a time machine and can’t go back and get Charlie what he needed as a kid). Please keep your comments to the above  specific situation and focused on constructively, actively helping the LW and their brother. If your experiences apply to that end, like, you were neglectfully homeschooled and then got an education later, by all means, share them. But if you want to write extensively about the merits or evils of homeschooling, may I suggest your own blog.

Thank you. We now return to your regularly-scheduled programming.

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poster for sliding doors

Spoiler: Whether or not she caught the train, her shit would have worked out pretty okay in the long run.

Comments on this thread are closed as of 8/17. Thank you. 

 

Hi Captain Awkward,

My mother and my boyfriend HATE each other. I know you’ve heard this all before, and until now I’ve learned to just deal with it. Until now.

My mother is my supporter, I am currently a 19 year old undergraduate, about half way done my B.A. My mother has supported me my whole life, she always babied me. I didn’t have to work, pay any bills, as long as I was in school and getting good grades all was okay. Then this summer my long distance boyfriend from France, who I’ve been dating for 1 year and a half decided to come visit for a few months in our house. This is where they started hating each other. This won’t change no matter what, she even kicked him out of our house just last week, because they argue about stupid pointless things. Even though it has only been a year and a half, I love my boyfriend more than anything in the world. I know I want my future to be with him, and its important to me that I start my future with him.

My mother began agreeing that she would support me as long as I am in school, but recently she’s changed her mind. Now, either I go live with my boyfriend in France for 1 year (firstly, I don’t speak french so University and working is not possible), and then support myself in University in my homecountry Canada, or I am unable to live with my boyfriend for another 3 years or so. My mother has made it clear that whether were in the same city or not, if she’s supporting me, I am not allowed to live with him, and even if I attend school and live with him, her support for everything is gone. I need your help, because my mom is not someone you can sit with and have a reasonable calm conversation. She is illogical, and for her, as long as she’s paying, she doesn’t care what I have to say unless I’m doing exactly what she says.

Here’s my issue. Do I stay in school and stay in long distance/ not live with my boyfriend and basically say whatever to my relationship? I don’t want to do this because he makes me so happy, and I want to be able to live with him, we’ve been trying for this for a year to transfer schools to be together. Or do I go to Paris and then go back to school in Canada and depend significantly on him, and loans from the government? Should I leave school all together, and work until I am stable and can pay for myself? This option is also hard for me, I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never supported myself and I know absolutely nothing about it, how would I make ends meet with no savings, no money at all?

Cautious Canadian

So, basically, “solve my entire life, my two most important relationships, and my economic future in a blog post, please?”

I cannot promise to do any of that, but maybe I can help you form a basis for making a good decision.

I don’t know your mom or your boyfriend or what these arguments were about or who was starting them. It is possible that your mom is being unreasonably controlling and trying to sabotage your relationship with a really good man, and that this is a story about how you fight for your autonomy & your right to choose who you love. It is also possible that your mom has a little bit of age, experience, & distance from the situation and sees something about him that you do not. Maybe your boyfriend is an argumentative tool who picks a lot of fights. Maybe she thinks he doesn’t treat you well or that you will be unhappy. Maybe this is a story about a concerned parent wanting you to complete your education and figure out who you are and what you want outside of the context of some guy, even if he is a good guy.  Maybe this is “I love you, but I do not think you are ready.”

Using purse strings to control & compel the personal life of an adult someone who is not you is:

a) Doomed. Even if the controlled person outwardly conforms to the rules you lay down, your relationship with them is destroyed forever and they will never trust you again. This is what your mom is risking by making this ultimatum.

b) A point in favor of narrative #1.

I can relate. When I was 19-20, I was involved with a guy I’d been with about a year. My second year of college we were long-distance, with me in DC and him in New York. My mom did not really like him and definitely did not want me taking the bus up to New York to see him. It was fine if he visited, but she did not want me to be running around New York when I was supposed to be studying (quite expensively & at considerable financial sacrifice to her) in D.C. I visited him anyway, she found out, and she threatened to pull financial support. Into this story-stew, shake a giant shaker of slut-shaming, teen pregnancy fears, and Catholic guilt & judgment and stir it up reaaaaaaaaaal good.

Guess what.

1) I think she was wrong to use money & education as a bargaining tool to control my sexuality & romantic life and it damaged our relationship severely.

2) That guy was an awful boyfriend and she was completely right in her assessment of his character & whether he was worth my time.

I don’t think my mom reads this blog, but just in case:

YOU WERE RIGHT ABOUT GREG

HE TURNED INTO A CLINGY STALKER

HE WAS TERRIBLE IN BED

THE MEMORY OF HIM MAKES ME CRINGE

MY GRADES & COLLEGE EXPERIENCE WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER IF I HADN’T GONE TO NEW YORK SO MUCH

Letter Writer, you are not me, your mom is not my mom, your dude is not that dude, but that’s been on my chest for a while and if we solve nothing else in this post, I appreciate the opportunity to say Happy Mother’s Day, 1993-present. To counterbalance, a family member met her current husband when she had just started college and “her whole life was ahead of her” and a lot of voices were telling her not to settle down just yet. She took the lumps & the judgment, did what she thought was right, and in return got the love of her life.

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My mom’s mistake was to try to control when she could not persuade. And that is one of your mom’s mistakes here, too. (There are others. We’ll get to them). And this relationship & these questions are things that you might want to sort out, at length, with a mentor or counselor.

However badly designed, your mom has put some choices in front of you and issued you a test. That test is called, “Okay, How Badly Do You Want This Dude?”

It is but one essay question on a larger test that you were always going to have to take eventually. The bigger test is called “What Do You Want Of This One Life That You Get?”

With the caveat that I think your mom is wrong to try to control you in this way, I want to try to look at this test as a thing made up of things that you would have to figure out for yourself anyway.

  • Where do I want to live?
  • What do I want to do?
  • Is this guy a person I can make a happy life with?
  • How will I support myself?

Here is your terrifying/comforting thought for the day:

Even if we could answer all these questions “correctly” right now, today–

Even if we could make a pretty good guess at an optimum path that will make you the most happy in the long run–

The only way to really know is to choose something and see how it works out.

Terrifying: Mistakes carry real costs. Opportunity costs, sunk costs, relationships strained to a breaking point, and time that you will never get back. You got exactly what you wanted and then found out you wanted the wrong things.

Terrifying: Things are always in flux and many things are out of your hands. You can prepare very hard and make yourself a good candidate for a certain career….and still not get a job. You can swim in a lake and a bacteria amoeba can swim up your nose and eat your brain from within. People get sick, die, leave you. Tornadoes. People who drive while texting. Men in expensive suits behind expensive doors making expensive decisions. A butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the world and the envelope with your resume in it accidentally falls behind the file cabinet.

Comforting: These questions are asked and answered over and over again in the course of your life. The “right” answers will change because you will have changed.
Plenty of people have chosen the wrong partner, the wrong college major, the wrong place to live, the wrong roommates, the wrong paint color, the wrong career, the wrong pants for those shoes, etc. and lived to tell the tale and do better.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.  ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia was eating from a pretty privileged fig tree. Certainly not everyone has the same crisis of “All the choices are awesome, how do I pick just one?” But your choices are not horrible, either. Keep going to school with full financial support of your mom and no need to take out student loans, on the condition that you do not share an address with this guy vs. Take a year off from school, live in Paris, make sure that this guy is really who you want to be with, at the cost of supporting yourself much sooner than you planned.

Here is a helpful process for me when making a big decision, developed from one part therapy, one part storytelling, and, weirdly, about four parts management consulting.

1. If I choose this, and everything goes really well and works out exactly how I want it to, what does that look like? What is the fantasy/best case scenario/perfect world version of this? Does that seem like a good goal to have in the first place?

2. If I choose this, and everything does not go well, what does the worst case scenario look like? What do I stand to lose? How likely is it to happen?

3. If the worst case scenario happened, what would I do?  DO NOT SKIP STEP #3. STEP #3 IS WHERE POWER, RESILIENCE, CONFIDENCE LIVES.

4. What are the questions I still need to ask myself? What research do I need to do? Is there some way I can expand my information base to anticipate potential problems and set myself up better to succeed? Are the logistical issues (money, space, time, etc.) surmountable?

5. What is the real obstacle here – The risk, the cost, the thing I am not seeing? Where is my blind spot?

6. What would Old-Me tell me to do? On my deathbed, what will I regret NOT having done? This is the call to adventure

If we were to take your dilemma briefly through that process, here’s what it might look like. These are not meant to be comprehensive or even likely. This is just storytelling. What *could* happen?

Team France

The Dream: You move to France with your boyfriend. You find some kind of au pair or tutoring gig, your housing & visa situation works out, you spend the time that you would have spent on your schoolwork studying French and becoming fluent in it. Taking some time off from school gives you some more clarity and focus about what you do want to study if & when you go back. Gaining independence and distance from your mom helps you gain breathing space and confidence in your own abilities. You figure out how to apply for grants and loans and some way of supporting yourself and/or continuing your studies, leading to [vague future happiness]. You and your boyfriend are incredibly happy together, and you feel confident that this is the person for you. Or, maybe things don’t work out between you, but you are confident that you tried and know more about what you want from life & love.

The Nightmare: You burn your bridges with your mom, and then…..You hate France. You hate this guy. You hate croissants. You need to break up with him and come home and admit that you made a mistake, but your mom enacts your worst “I told you so” nightmare. Now you have no dude and no promise of college and no mom’s house to go to. So you stick it out in a bad relationship. Or you leave him and find yourself stranded. In France. Student loans and debt force you to stay in bad situations, bad jobs and curtail your freedom.

I’m not going to go through all of the questions – that’s between you and your journal and actual discussions with your boyfriend and your mom – but I do want to say two things:

-Being 19, not quite sure what you want to do with your life, and having no parental support or safety net describes A LOT of people’s circumstances. Couch surfing, roommates, a string of part-time jobs, thrift stores, furniture you find in alleys, rice & beans, work-study jobs, student loans, military service, scholarships, night school etc. – If you had to do it, you could do it.

-The “what am I going to do with my life?” question is not going away whatever you decide.

Team Debt-Free Degree

The Dream: You finish your degree. You figure out what you want to do when you grow up, or at least what you want to do next, or, at least a thing you can do for money while you figure the rest of it out. Because you have parental support and no student loans, you are able to take on many internships, volunteer opportunities, and interesting projects that you might not otherwise have had. You are also able to throw yourself into student activities and non-study related passions and friendships. You keep seeing your boyfriend- long distance when you can, visiting when you can. Maybe he manages to transfer to your school. Eventually, you find a way to be in the same place at the same time and start your lives together, and you feel confident about the health of something that can survive so much time and distance. Or, you break up, which is sad, but you meet someone else at the student newspaper or at your theater group and that person is also great. You leave college debt-free, having gotten the most you can out of your education and having tried out many interests.

The Bad Dream: You feel constantly torn between your boyfriend and your college life. You spend all your time Skyping and writing emails and fantasizing about the future at the expense of the now. You miss out on friendships, opportunities, and experiences because you are tied to the future and the distant. You wonder constantly if you are doing the right thing and should have made a different choice. Your relationship with your mom is full of controlling behavior and resentment. The conflict with your mom and distance from your boyfriend drag you down and affect your mental health, and you spend three years of your life feeling resentful, depressed, and torn.

Again, not going through all the questions here, but DO NOT SKIP STEP #3. Step #3 is where you have power & agency, always, no matter what happens. There is no shortcut for Step #3, and no one can do it for you – even if we listed 10-,000 helpful & exciting suggestions, Step #3 is not complete until YOU can articulate what YOU would do if things went wrong.

I am going to cheat and tell you about Step 5 (What is the real question or obstacle here?), as I see it reflected in your letter.

I do not think that you feel particularly invested in or confident in your studies and in your ability to take care of yourself away from your mom’s influence and protection. You cannot quite envision the future where you know how to take care of yourself. “I’ve never supported myself and I know absolutely nothing about it, how would I make ends meet with no savings, no money at all?”

Whether or not you stay or go, I think that is the question you must work on. You don’t have to solve it immediately – there is no shame in not being ready to leave the nest and in needing some time and help to figure this out, and college is a good time and place to do that. You are right exactly where you should be, so don’t use that as a stick to beat yourself up with.

I said earlier that being controlling isn’t the only mistake your mom potentially made here, and that we’d circle back. So here’s my (rhetorical!) question: How the hell did your mom raise a 19-year old with no confidence in her own abilities to take care of herself and no idea how jobs and money actually work?

Because one way I used to win arguments with my mom when she was judgmental or worried-in-a-way-that-basically-adds-up-to-judmental about my choices is, “Well, you either raised me to be able to handle this or you didn’t. I guess we’ll find out.” (She did).

It’s awesome to take care of your kids and provide for them and give them a safety net, but controlling parents can foster dependency pretty hard. If that’s what is going on here, it’s another argument for sorting this out with a counselor. However the problem originated, “but that’s how I was raised by my controlling mother” does not age well as a thing you say out loud to people who are not your therapist.

I’m not under the illusion that capitalism = freedom, or that having good skills and education automatically leads to a paying job, or that the ability to get and hold a job is a statement on a person’s value. We know too much to believe in that anymore, and you’re not stupid or naive to be anxious about this aspect of planning the future. But the ability to earn a living (or at least envision a future where you know how!) is a kind of freedom. It’s the freedom to say “Mom, I am sorry you feel that way, but this is the right choice for me.” It’s freedom from finding yourself in a foreign country dependent on some dude you even aren’t sure you like anymore.

Whatever you decide about France vs. school this year, work on building autonomy and confidence. Get a part-time job – ANY job – and earn a little money with your own sweat. Learn some concrete, practical skills that someone might pay you for at some point down the road. Those skills don’t have to be tied to any college major or degree. Fully half of my professional skill-set comes from managing and being a part of performing arts groups. Seek out counseling & advising through your school, if available.

Finally, if I do all the work of putting my choices through a detailed analysis, and I still don’t feel like I can decide, I add a 7th step. When that fails, I go to an 8th step. I know, they conflict directly with each other. Life is complicated.

7. In the absence of a clear right choice or best choice, which choice preserves the most options for me down the road?

8. I’d generally rather regret a mistake than stay stuck and afraid forever.

I wish you well, Letter Writer. This is an exciting journey that you are on, and these are big, hard questions that you are tackling in a brave and honest way.