birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

A Hop, Skip, and a Plane Ride Away

After I took the PSAT, brochures for colleges all over the country started arriving in the mail. College looked so alluring in those brochures, young people of all colors having intellectually lively conversations under shade trees in front of impressive stone buildings. I was especially drawn to the liberal arts school called Reed College in Oregon. It looked like a kind of paradise.

I was tired of living in a town where everyone looked and acted the same, but I also felt afraid to leave my family. So after some searching up and down the east coast with my mom, I finally settled on a little college in the middle of Pennsylvania called Elizabethtown. It was where my best friend was going, and it seemed nice enough. My mom asked me if I was sure. I said I was.

I was sure, but I wasn't enthused. I was mostly just tired of thinking about it and relieved to have an answer to the question everyone was asking me.

So I headed off to E-town, as it was known, that fall. My roommate was from Connecticut, was Puerto Rican, and was from "the ghetto," as she said. I had absolutely no idea what she meant. She must have thought I was the most privileged, oblivious white kid in the world, but we made each other laugh. Jillian taught me a lot that first year.

I was a piano performance major at Elizabethtown, and I was the most talented pianist in my class. I started to feel restless, and even though my new best friends at E-town were Jillian and a Japanese student named Saori who was just learning English, the town felt so similar to where I grew up that it was like an extension of high school. So I transferred to a conservatory in Princeton, New Jersey, about an hour and a half from my hometown.

I was a medium fish in a bigger pond there, and even though it was still largely white, there were people all over the LGBTQIA spectrum. I liked that. Still, it was small and cliquey. I never truly found a group of friends I felt at home with. So I put my head down and tried to graduate on time, and got a job at the video store in town so that my world expanded off campus a bit.

After I graduated, I taught piano full time and lived with my best friend from childhood in an apartment on the border of PA and NJ. I still had that urge to go somewhere far away, but I didn't see how. Then, on NPR, I heard an ad for a program called Teach For America. It was a program that brought ambitious young people to underserved classrooms all over the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to New Orleans. I thought I was perfect for the job.

I got through the rigorous application process, far along enough that I was invited to participate in an in-person interview held at a fancy consulting firm in Manhattan where Chelsea Clinton worked. Part of the interview was teaching a mock five-minute lesson to the other applicants. Mine was about density, and I asked my mock students to predict whether things would sink or float in water. As I spoke, I whipped out a bowl, two bottles of water, "yes" or "no" cards, and several objects to test. I managed to teach that entire lesson, including sinking and floating test objects and checks for understanding, within the five-minute window I had. I can't imagine actual 2nd graders would've learned a thing, but I got in.

About three months later, I got the email announcing where I'd be headed: Las Vegas. I had never been before.

My mom and I packed up my Honda Civic and spent five days driving from Pennsylvania to Nevada. We were exhausted when we arrived, and the strip rose up around us like a dream. We stayed at the Venetian that night. It was the fanciest hotel I'd ever been to.

I spent three years in Las Vegas. When I was finished with my commitment there, I realized that I didn't want to go back home. That I still had a lot of growing up to do. And that in order to do it, I couldn't be within driving distance of my dad. I'd visited Los Angeles often during that time because I had a friend here, and I decided to try it.

Telling my mom that was very difficult. Teach For America had sent me to Vegas, but this move was all me. I was afraid to hurt her. But in the years since, I've come to understand that living your best life is sort of what it's all about. And if that quest for authenticity hurts someone else, it can be sad, heartbreaking even, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

That was 9 years ago this August. I'm still here.


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