A clearing along the mountain trail emerges to reveal an open ledge, and I cannot help but briefly stop to behold the vast vision below. Dense trees, boulders and thicket once clouded this view from sight, but no longer. Though the rock face beneath my feet urges me onward, the sight draws me to a standstill as I contemplate this beautiful vista and wonder… How far I have come since beginning this journey 23 years ago…
Growing up in a modest household, the beaches of Quogue stand out from childhood as memorial landmarks of the summer seasons. During those three sacred months of the year when the perpetual battle between students and teachers cease-fired, it was how you spent your time that meant the most. Thankfully, I had strong familial roots to hold onto in this early cultivation of self-understanding. Now, as I wade into the murky water called adulthood, those memories reinforce how significant a place it was in shaping the person I have become.
I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the rural northwest corner of Connecticut. It was there that I went to Indian Mountain School (IMS), where my father taught Spanish, and proceeded to attend Salisbury School, where my mother tutored English. Such an opportunity to partake in the elite, private educational niche of New England is typically reserved for the nation’s – and the world’s – most affluent families. Yet there I was – one of four sons of two divorced teachers, each struggling for socioeconomic stability – acing tests and tennis serves alongside classmates of mine who would otherwise be strangers.
In the time I made friendships, visited their estate-like houses and swam in their in-ground pools, I could not help but compare what I lacked to what these friends of mine had in abundance: wealth. But I had motivation and I wanted to succeed, I only had to discover what success meant to me.
As a student in my father’s class, and after seeing too much of my mother around Salisbury’s hilltop campus, I wanted to escape from all that had preordained my academic career – and consequently my life – thus far. So when the time came to choose a college, I did not want to play it safe. Without any idea as to what I wanted to study while applying to schools in droves, I knew that I had had enough of small town Connecticut. I wanted to break free. And as long as I got a good financial aid deal, my parents would be happy enough. That is how, for the past four years, the suburbs of Dallas, Texas became my home.
Southern Methodist University (SMU) was not the right fit school for me, and yet, I could not have chosen a better place to learn about myself. The campus, its buildings, the cars, even the students – they are all, as a whole, extremely attractive. Despite annual water shortages in the state, SMU maintained lush grass comparable to the greens at Augusta National. The main campus entrance at Bishop Boulevard is a shaded strip of tree-lined wonder that brings you to the front of campus, where the legendary Dallas Hall building looms like a proud relic never to lose its shine. In the mornings, I walked to class as students arrived in BMWs, Land Rovers, or Audi R8s that have become standard automobiles on campus. As a whole, it was an overwhelming effort by the institution and its students to contrive meaning in what could be outwardly shown off with money.
Soon I realized that these images of wealth and artificial beauty were ideals vaulted highly, and not only throughout the student body. As a freshman who lacked such things, I bought into these delusions of excessive consumption, but as the years went on I recognized the shallow depths that such a materialistic culture could only reach. Coming to terms with this realization was disturbing because it upended a part of me I thought I needed in life. During this brief crisis of self-discovery in my educational career, Quogue stuck out like a glacier from the subconscious sea of my mind, a landmark to guide my decision making process. I started looking back at my life and drawing a narrative between each turning point to make sense of where to go from here. Quogue was that rock to which I kept returning. We did not have a house out in Quogue, but instead relied on our Grandmother’s hospitality to visit the beach for a week or two each summer. She owned a small house on Lamb Avenue that my mother, my three brothers and I camped out in. It was a tight fit, and my grandma often had to quiet down our obnoxious giggling at night, but those moments in Quogue were the happiest of childhood. Why? Because I did not lack any thing. Slowly, the mental fog dissipated behind my eyes, and I could see clearly. Quogue was more of a home than Dallas ever would be, and I knew this because of my time spent there with loved ones, not due to anything I owned. In my mind I looked out upon the Atlantic Ocean from the sandy dunes at Quogue’s beach, and I was presented with a distinct measure of value with which to gauge the meaning of my future – here was true depth.
So, I sought to integrate a practically viable life with meaningful work that I could stake endless time and effort into with joy. I chose to study Film. Though it seemed that nearly every one of my friends was studying Finance or Accounting at SMU’s esteemed Cox School of Business, I strayed from the pack to pursue what I value most: storytelling.
As I write this, three months have passed since graduating from SMU. I have returned back to my home in Salisbury, CT, and never appreciated it more. Still, after a week’s stay in Quogue with family, I was sad to leave the East End.
When I came to Quogue as a kid, despite leaving school behind, those earlier feelings of lack followed me. Driving to Grandma’s cottage on Lamb Avenue, we passed by the massive houses adorning each street corner, and country clubs more exclusive than tea with the Queen of England. Yet I was able to escape these conscious shackles limiting my sense of self because they were false. Whether swimming freely with my brothers amidst the waves, or smiling beside my grandmother as we gaze across the bay at the violet sky, I somehow knew it.
Though seen solely in retrospect, SMU was the culmination of my prior educational experience at home. In Connecticut, among the wealthy prep schoolers, I saw my economic disposition as a disadvantage to my future. So I went to Dallas to get away from what I thought was holding me back from being a free, happy, independent self, but I did not know then that it was my family who cultivated those aspects of self I truly wanted to grow. Wealth was never the goal, but the means to an end that each of us must choose ourselves. My choice is art, and the stories told through it. I only had to leave home and experience what it was that I did not want, to learn what it was that I did.
We all cannot help but see ourselves as the tragic heroes of our own narrative tale, but many forget we are the authors of it as well. Though I lack the security of a stable career that so many of my classmates toiled for, I have in abundance the confidence to look forward to the uncertain climb ahead. Before I continue marching onward up the mountain, I close my eyes and inhale the beautiful view before me once more. Despite being hundreds of miles away from the East End, I smile as a salty sea breeze from Quogue wafts through my senses, and I know that I still have a long ways to go yet…