Ask Gayle is a weekly column in which New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman answers fan questions about love, life, and everything in between! Submit a question anonymously via our Ask box. Today’s question is:
Just One Day’s Allyson is the first character that I have ever felt truly and deeply embodied myself. Like her, I think I’m an “AP automaton” in the making. How do I keep myself from snapping without giving up my GPA?
Somewhere in my brain I know that Allyson is fictional, but she feels real to me, and it makes me so happy that she feels real to you, too. So you’ll excuse me if I carry on talking about her as if she’s right here, drinking tea with us. “Would you like another cup, Allyson?”
Allyson’s problem was not that she was an AP automaton (which wasn’t even her description of herself; it was Melanie’s). It had nothing to with how well she did at school. Allyson’s problem was that was living a life determined by others, in her case by a well-meaning but controlling mother. She wasn’t getting As in high school because she was so transfixed by cellular biology or because she completely fell in love with Tolstoy. She was getting As because she had to get As in order to get into the right college so she could go to medical school and become a doctor. This was the life that was laid out for her. And it was a life that didn’t fit. Hence: snap.
I think there are a lot of well-meaning parents/teachers/guidance counselors out there who push teenagers incredibly hard with their best interests at heart. There’s a perception that the world is so competitive that if you make a wrong turn, if you don’t take all the right classes, or get all the best grades or score high enough on standardized tests and get into the best colleges, you are Screwed For Life. Nobody wants you to be Screwed For Life.
The thing is, I don’t think this is how life works. I know it’s competitive and the job market is tight, but I think if you see life as a race instead of a journey, you’re in for serious disappointment or drudgery, which will hamper your ability to do good work. Because if life is a race, it’s one without a finish line. Just when you think you’ve arrived, the line moves. This is particularly true for ambitious, type-A people, not that I know anything about those sorts (ahem).
I think the fact that you’re asking how not to snap is a good sign. It shows a self-awareness that will probably protect you from straying too far from a sort of authenticity, doing what feels true and good. I know, I know! It’s high school. You have to take trig, regardless of if it feels authentic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find things (classes, clubs, activities) that nourish you, excite you, exhilarate you. When you tap into those things, the work might be hard, but it’s rewarding, because it’s about discovery. You don’t often hear about people snapping from too much discovery.
At the beginning of Just One Day, Allyson talks about memorizing a Shakespeare speech in high school. “I didn’t give it much thought. I just wanted to get the words right and collect my A.” Later on, in college, after she snaps and is trying to rebuild a more honest, meaningful life for herself, she takes a Shakespeare Out Loud class and discovers whole worlds of resonance in the Bard’s plays.
She gets an A in each class. But those grades mean entirely different things. And therein lies the answer.
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