butterfly wings

Forrest Gump’s catch phrase is, “Life is like a box of chocolates.

Lisa Rabey’s catch phrase is, “Life is like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’.”

The “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series was built on the premise that the reader would direct what would happen to the main character, instead of following the linear path other books provide. As you read, you were given the option to decide where the character went. Choose to go down the stairs? Turn to page eighty-nine. Go back out the front door? Flip to page sixty-two. Each decision changed the outcome of the character’s fate, no matter how insignificant it seemed at the time of the decision.

Fate? Destiny? Are we in control? Does it matter?

The “butterfly theory” is another example of fate and destiny. The theory suggests that the simple flap of a butterfly’s wings in Australia is responsible, via a chain of events, for powerful storms in California. Sounds hooky, but I believe the theory to be true.

Every decision I make, significant or insignificant, alters the roads I will later take. The idea of the “butterfly theory” is so popular that at least two modern movies explore this idea: “Sliding Doors” and the French film “Happenstance.”

In “Sliding Doors,” the viewer watches the parallel lives of the leading character. One life showing if she caught the train one day and the other, showing what happened when she missed it.

For most of my adult life, I’ve played the “butterfly theory” game. If I decide to take surface roads instead of 131 to school, how much of my life is going to be different because of this decision? While that may seem trivial, and in may ways I do concur that it is, I still choose to play this game. However, long before I heard about the “butterfly theory,” I often got pangs of guilt realizing how radical my life would have been if I made a different decision presented to me in high school: the chance to attend a local prestigious high school to further my academic career. At the time I was presented with this choice, I choose not to accept the offer. Years later, I dreamt of the opportunity to write a letter directed to myself, at the age of fourteen, to tell me just exactly how much different my life will change based on this simple yes or no decision.

Dear Lisa,

What you are holding in your hand is a letter from your thirty-one year old self. As you enter high school, a decision will be presented to you to transfer from Ottawa Hills to City High. This request will come to you, via student counselors, who have (based on your I.Q scores and state tests) decided you can compete with the best. After much hemming and hawing, you will choose to decline this offer. What I am presenting to you is a look at how much your life will change based on this simple decision. Because you have always believed that education will be what you make of it, this decision may not seem that drastic or life changing.

You are wrong.

In order to understand this more fully, it is important that we go back into time. The point is to establish how, at many times, your own intelligence was stifled for the sake of the common good of the class as well as it being assumed that because you were of above intelligence, no one really gave you the push to succeed. It was assumed that you would just do it, on your own.

Remember St. Joseph’s Elementary school? Let’s go back to your fourth grade year, when your teacher was Mrs. Zwang and the change that shook the school.

It was decided that classes with low teacher to student ratios (which was all of them) would start setting aside time for students who had tested higher on state tests, to work on special projects to help promote and encourage them. It was also suggested that this be accomplished because a few of your classmates, such as yourself, were bored with the current curriculum. The curriculum was designed to teach the middle curve, with no special attention given to those who scored higher than average or those who scored lower than average.

Several times a week, an hour or two was laid aside to work on special projects. You were the only girl out of four students who were selected for this test phase. All four of you were doing seventh grade or higher mathematics, eighth grade or higher reading levels and scored higher than average in other subjects on state tests. The project, which at fourteen you no longer remember much of and even less later on, was killed less than a month later when parents complained of the special attention placed upon you and the other three kids. The parents thought it was “unfair” that their children were not given the same attention. Teaching went back to the middle-of-the-road approach.

Fourth grade will also be the year that you won the school spelling bee and took a decent level in the city wide competition. This is something your adult friends will find ironic due to your atrocious spelling later in life.

The reason why I presented the story of your fourth grade year to you first was this is the year that you learned that being intelligent was a bad thing. People were unsure on how to react to a child who had learned to read when she was two-and-half and who, at the age of five, was skipping her kindergarten classes. It was distilled into your head, at a very young age, that the curriculum is designed for those who are average. Your elementary school was ill equipped to deal with students who have special needs, regardless of what they are.

Oh yes, you were the precocious one! You knew how to read, tie your shoes, all your colors, simple arithmetic and could tell time. You were bored. You led a few little boys with you across the street to another playground because you could not deal with the boredom. While you were punished and felt guilty for being bad, yet you could not understand really what the problem was. However, as you grew up, the question that will continue to predominate your thoughts about the kindergarten incident is, “Where the HELL was the teacher when this was going on?”

But I digress.

You will spend most of your academic life being told how wonderfully intelligent you are and yet you will receive little to no encouragement from your teachers because they figure you can do it on your own. The teachers are spending most of their free time dealing with the students who cannot do the coursework. Due to the lack of encouragement, you will choose to be an underachiever. You will continue to score highly on tests but in-class work you slough off. Amazed, you will find that all of your middle-high teachers will recommend you for advance placement classes in high school. This placement will tell you they think you are capable but not one teacher will tell you verbally this is how they will really feel.

What you have realized, as you know by know, is that you have attempted to stop being intelligent. You have “dumbed down” yourself in order to fit in, to make life easier. As you grow older, you will all the missed opportunities with your education due to these simple decisions. What you will not realize at fourteen is how wrong this attitude is. You will, slowly but surely, start to decline in high school. You will drop out twice. You will return both times. You will attend high school in Toronto and feel so inadequate as the Canadian education system is so much more superior than the American system. You will get your GED. You will attempt to go back to college several times, never quit making it through.

One day, you will realize what you have missed. You realize that despite the lack of encouragement, you do the capability all your teachers will allude to. You will realize that all the decisions you thought were insignificant were really, in fact, quite significant. You will make a vow that one day, in the future, you will finish college. Not only will you finish college, but that you will do well. You dream of graduate school. A PhD attached to the end of your name.

You will blame yourself. You will blame the education system for allowing you “dumb down” and slip through the cracks. You will blame your parents. You will belittle yourself for not having completed college by the time you are twenty-two. You will feel like your life is wasted for not completing your education.

When you are twenty-five for the sixth time, you will make a concrete decision. You will take back the control you gave up so easily in pursuit of a few minutes of fun. Homework or to go out? This time around, you choose homework. You had your fun, it’s time to buckle down and get serious about your future. You will avow to head back to college, give up that high paying job in the technology industry to live the life of a student. You will go full time, you will stay dedicated and hardworking until you graduate, regardless of when that graduation date arrives. You will plan for graduate school and the dream of having a PhD attached to the end of your name will become more of a reality with each passing day.

You will finally learn that you never really did need that verbal encouragement. You will learn that you could do this on your own. You will no longer be afraid to speak your mind or to have debates. At the age of thirty, you will be given that same opportunity you were given at the age of fourteen. This time you will say “yes.”

You are fourteen. You are sitting in the counselors office, being told of how they want you at City High. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, you are armed with the information from your future on what your life will be like if you say “no.” I have yet skimmed the surface will happen to you, but enough is given to you to show how radical your life will change if you say “no.”

Choose your own adventure.