I took a gap year after graduating from high school, and it was amazing. I wrote this essay during my freshman fall here at MIT and thought it might be of interest to you! Enjoy, and comment.
Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. – Arthur Schopenhauer
Blood dripped down the metal post that connected the bed to the wheels. Fluorescent lights flooded my eyes, and I couldn’t think. My heart was pounding, and I felt slightly dizzy. Four trauma nurses quickly wheeled the bed into Exam Room 1 as I watched, clutching a clipboard to my chest. Exam Room 1 is not a normal Emergency Department room. Curtains don’t separate it from the countless other rooms; walls do. The room contains equipment to treat the most severe life-threatening problems. Two doctors strode into the room, not wasting a second. As he started to close the door, Dr. Egan looked into my eyes, and said quietly, “Do you want to see this?”
“Yes, I do.”
During the fall of my senior year of Deerfield Academy, I began wondering about my life after graduation. For decades, almost every student to graduate from Deerfield had gone straight to college. Therefore, the question wasn’t really what I was going to do; rather, it was where I would attend college. As my peers grew concerned over SAT scores, GPAs, and extracurricular activities, I realized that I didn’t want to worry. I didn’t want to go to college like all of them. Not yet. Even now, I can’t really explain why I came to this conclusion. I simply wasn’t willing to commit the next four years of my life.
I decided not to apply to colleges, and instead to try to experience the real world. I was not welcomed by the College Advising Office, who viewed me as a potentially embarrassing statistic on their otherwise spotless record. “You don’t want to go to college?!?” my College Advisor demanded.
“No, Mr. Albertson, I do. Really. I am just not ready yet. I need to do something else for a while. You know, take a break from homework, from tests, quizzes, and exams, from essays and from Shakespeare.”
“Well, I am your advisor, and I want to make it clear that I strongly advise against this. However, I’ll let you make the final decision for your future. Good luck.”
My close friends lamented my decision, as if the possibility of anything other than more school had never crossed their minds. Perhaps it hadn’t. From the day they started preschool, they had been on track. From 1+1 to the derivative of a sine function, they had cruised through 12, 13, even 14 years of school. What is four more at that point? Or even six?
My closest friend, James O’Brien, was devoted to becoming a neurosurgeon. As I grew more and more nervous about what I was going to do with my time off, I started wondering what made James tick. And why I didn’t seem to be ticking as fast. Or as consistently. Or with as much purpose. What motivated him so that he could devote 22 years of his life, without a significant break, to schooling? Plus residency. Plus fellowship. As I mulled the numbers over in my head, I realized that many of the bright, motivated doctors in the world have never taken serious time off. From preschool until medical school graduation, they had never had more than a summer break to pause, to think, to reflect on what they were doing, and why. I was sure James would be happy as a neurosurgeon. I was sure that he was more confident that he was making the right choices for himself then I could ever even pretend to be about my own decisions, so I never spoke with him about his decision. James was accepted to Brown University, and enjoyed a relaxing senior spring. So did I, but it was undermined by a tinge of uncertainty about the coming year. We graduated.
The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Seven days after graduation, as the festivities settled down, I began my hunt for a job. My first few inquiries were utterly unsuccessful. My parents concluded I was shooting too high, and falling quite short. At the conclusion of an interview for a prestigious internship with a law firm, I was told, “Gabriel- I understand that you need some time off from school. However, we are looking for a bright, young, motivated individual who is seriously considering law school. I’m sorry, but you are not on the right track for this internship; It would not be of any benefit to you or us.”
‘Right track’ I pondered. What is the right track? Was James taking the right track, along with all of my Deerfield buddies? What was my track? Better yet, was I on my track? Did I have one? Maybe I had broken down beside my track- perhaps I was just derailed. I tried to assure myself that this was only a temporary breakdown.
I pressed forward. Finally, desperate for something, I applied for a sales job at a local outdoor store- Adventure Outfitters. “Can you start tomorrow?”
“Yes! Yes, I can!”
I was thrilled, sort of. I would be selling tiny orange life jackets to drooling toddlers, expensive expedition sleeping bags to rich thrill seekers, and North Face jackets to the stylish city crowd. This was real life, with a real job. The first few weeks on the job were tough. All of my colleagues had graduated from or were enrolled in college, which I found bizarre- they were being paid $8/hour just like me, even with their degrees. I quickly befriended Keith, a 24 year old who had just graduated from Gettysburg with a degree in marine biology. I asked him what his dreams, his ambitions were. “I want to start my own scuba shop,” he replied.
The owner stored the kayak inventory in the basement, which had two inches of stagnant water on the floor and mold growing everywhere. I spent hours on end scrounging through boats, trying to find the make, model, and color that each customer requested. I rolled my eyes every time a customer wanted to see a boat. “Are you sure you want to see a red Old Town Loon 120?” I would ask, not wanting to retrieve any more boats then absolutely necessary.
40 hours, $296.12… My first paycheck had officially arrived.
Food for thought is no substitute for the real thing. –Walt Kelly
I quickly pulled out my TI-89 Silver Edition. At this rate, I would make a tad bit over fifteen thousand dollars if I worked full time for a year, without any weeks off. Fifteen thousand? I stared at the 8-digit display. Fifteen thousand dollars? The number in dollar bills sounded huge. Fifteen thousand dollar menu items. That’s a cheeseburger at McDonalds for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for almost 14 years. However, the number in college tuitions sounded rather small. Perhaps this is why James is on his track, I pondered. If I found and retrieved kayaks from the moldy basement for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 4 straight years, I could afford my freshman year. Or, almost 60 years of McDonalds.
Medicine, the only profession that labors incessantly to destroy the reason for its own existence. –James Bryce
A month later into my gap year, I picked up another job in the Emergency Room at a Hospital in Springfield, a nearby city in Massachusetts. I had always been interested in becoming a Doctor, and wanted real experience in a hospital. I was a medical scribe, which meant I followed the doctors in to the ER rooms to see patients. I documented the patient encounter for the medical charts. As a medical scribe in a busy Emergency Room, I saw doctors try for 90 minutes to start an IV on a dehydrated old woman. I saw John, a narcotic-seeker who came into the ER daily complaining of lower back pain, expecting, or at least hoping for morphine, Demerol, Percocet. John would take whatever we gave him, which typically was nothing. I saw a college freshman who had lost her virginity the previous weekend with a stranger at a party. She was now peeing blood and had noticed ‘pimples’ where they shouldn’t have been. I saw a mother sob in the corner as her 22 year old son grew cold after a heroin overdose. I saw an old man who was having a stroke. He couldn’t move his left arm, and his speech was becoming slurred.
As my friend’s matriculated in the fall, I grew more and more excited about the possibilities of my time ‘off’. I began feeling right on track. Not my parent’s track. Certainly not my college advisor’s track. My track. My own track. With the exception of family commitments, I was doing exactly what I wanted to, when I wanted to do it. I had no agenda, and dictated my own time. Other than the frequent shifts at the hospital and adventure shop to cover my costs, I was free to roam, to ski, to skydive, to contribute to a medical journal, to engineer an electric car, to coach a JV hockey team at my middle school, and to form bonds with my younger brothers stronger than I had thought possible.
Breaks are inevitable. We all sleep at night. We all take weekends off. We all take vacations. Typically, at the end of these breaks from the daily grind, the rat race, we return. We are as certain when we tuck ourselves in, pack the car for an adventure, or pack the suitcase for the beach as we are when we spring out of bed, enter our garages, or shower the sand from between our toes that we will return to our typical routine. During true time off, there is no guaranteed returning. No commitments, no deadlines, no expectations. It is threatening, but liberating. Scary but rewarding. Truly free.
With freedom come new perspectives. Fifteen thousand dollars isn’t much. Life is hard for a lot of people. There isn’t just one right track. Many can lead in interesting and rewarding directions. Now I’m a year behind James. Or am I?
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.-Albert Einstein