ex·pla·na·tion
ˌekspləˈnāSH(ə)n/
noun
plural noun: explanations

  1. a statement or account that makes something clear.
  2. a reason or justification given for an action or belief.

 

“Wait…you were homeschooled?” people often ask me.

“How did you socialize? Weren’t you sad that you didn’t get to hang out with friends every day? What about learning how to interact with other people? Your parents must be really strict.”

Actually, being homeschooled didn’t mean I never left my house.

“What hall are you in?”

Actually, I don’t live on campus.

“You were engaged? Isn’t that a little young?”

Actually, I haven’t figured out how to respond to this yet. Things like my education and where I live are straightforward. My canceled wedding is not so easy to explain.

“Are you ready for the best four years of your life at Miami?”

Actually, after slogging through my first semester, I thought these might be the hardest four years of my life.

Eight months ago, I was still in the middle of this. I had questions. Didn’t anyone realize that this situation is even more confusing for me than it is for them? I still needed to explain this to myself.

I remember my mom telling me that coming to college meant that I could become anyone I wanted.

As with so many conversations I’ve had with my mom, I can’t remember when this one happened. Now that I think about it, she probably had this talk with me more than once leading up to my first semester at Miami.

My mom followed up her advice with stories of her own college experience: leaving home, moving eight hours away, throwing herself into nothing but academics. She was the model student, oblivious to the partying antics of her peers.

I decided to take my mom’s advice and recreate myself.

For me, this could mean a lot of different things, such as leaving that homeschooler stereotype at home, or pretending like I hadn’t broken my engagement just weeks before starting school.

I decided to start with my name.

Jillian is what everyone from my “old life” called me. To parents, friends and exes, I had always been, and would always be, Jillian.

I guess I thought that by introducing myself as Jill at Miami, my prospective new friends would see me differently.

Another factor in changing my name was that as Jillian, I was frequently referred to as Joanne. Almost without fail, when introducing myself, the other party somehow caught a name with no L’s, and one less syllable. It still baffles me.

Changing my name to the simpler version, Jill, did not have the desired effect.

Once last fall, I stopped in King Café for a hot chocolate. Traffic had hit a lull; it was fairly quiet.

“What’s the name?” the barista asked.

“It’s Jill,” I said clearly. Very clearly.

Moments later, I had my hot chocolate. On the side of the cup was written, simply, “Jo.”

***

As my mom describes homeschooling, she taught me to walk and talk and just never stopped. For twelve years, my commute to school was out my bedroom door and down the stairs.

From what I’ve heard of the classic school experience, it involves hours of lecture-style classes during the day and homework in the evenings. But my education usually did not come in the form of a lecture. For the hours that other kids would spend listening to a teacher, and oftentimes longer, I would be doing practice problems, writing papers or reading.

Although this approach to education seems straightforward, school was never simple.

If there happened to be a good week of winter weather, my family and I might pack up our books and spend those days camped out at the ski slopes, fitting in a few math problems between runs.

My mom battled a serious illness for several years and was unable to give my brother and me her full attention. During the same period of time, my dad’s job took him from Cincinnati to Chicago every week. He was home on the weekends, but Monday through Friday often found my brother and I managing alone, carrying on our own education with limited parental guidance and taking over various household duties.

I remember tiptoeing down the hallway outside my mom’s bedroom every day for years, cracking open her door to see if she was awake.

If she was, I would take my books, sit on her bed, and show her the work I had been doing.

If she wasn’t awake, I would contemplate what kind of noises I could contrive to wake her up so we could talk. My mom was my teacher, my friend, and the person I spent the most time with. She was, and still is, everything to me. I had to know what she would say about my work.

Learning came easily to me, and I took advantage of that. In sixth grade, I got away with not doing my math exercises for almost four months. The day my mom found out, she insisted that I catch up as quickly as possible. Within three weeks, I had completed the entire textbook and skipped to the next grade.

For me, school was a weird combination of radical freedom and more requirements. I remember traveling at odd times in the year, but never having a summer break.

When I was 12, I spent a week of my summer studying trigonometry. Trigonometry. I repeat: I was twelve.

Because of the combination of a flexible schedule with intense academic standards, my education never really took traditional “breaks.” My first true summer break was the summer after I graduated high school.

Running errands with my mom when I was in elementary school was always something I looked forward to. One day — I think I was in fourth grade — my mom announced an errand to the grocery store.

I took a book with me, so most of what occurred during the shopping trip is blurry and combined with the plot of Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.

In fact, the only reason I remember this day at all is because of an encounter I had while walking out of the store. Still lost in my book, I wandered farther away from my mom than I realized.

“Are you playing hooky?” It was the voice of an older man, a stranger.

Oblivious to most of my surroundings, I barely heard what the man said. I had to ask him to repeat himself.

“Are you playing hooky? Why aren’t you in school?” he asked again.

I blushed and looked at the ground. I had no idea what “playing hooky” meant, and having a stranger ask me a question that I couldn’t answer made me uncomfortable. I could also sense an ulterior motive, which scared me. Was I going to get in trouble? And where did my mom go?

What was I going to say? I weighed my options carefully.

“No,” I answered him quietly.

Not very many of my memories include my mom being upset at a random person. This is one of them. Appearing from the next aisle, she quickly explained that my brother and I were homeschooled, and we left.

I remember wondering if not being in a regular school was something I could get in trouble for.

Not spending my days in the same classroom every day, surrounded by dozens of kids my own age, forced me into adaptability. Looking back, I spent more time associating with adults than I did my peers, so I felt pressure to be a viable conversation partner for people much older than I.

This adaptability has served me well in college, but it still hasn’t made up for the vast gap I feel in my ability to relate to my fellow students. Chasing down internships has been the easy part — getting along with my peers has proved far more difficult.

Sometimes I’m jealous of the opportunities other kids were given in high school that weren’t possible for me.

For example: Can we talk about group projects for a minute?

Group projects were just not a thing for me growing up. It’s sort of difficult to work in a group when you’re the only one in your school.

It stands to reason, then, that group projects are one of the things that terrify me the most about college. I dread them.

A few of the worst words that can come out of a professor’s mouth are “Find a partner.” How? Who? What do I do after I find them? The social anxiety is unreal.

***

Being a commuter at Miami definitely makes me different. Out of 18,456 undergraduate students, only around 500 are registered as commuters.

My days as a commuter begin much differently than they did when I was homeschooled. Most of them start with a 6:30 a.m. alarm, a rush to get dressed, and a drive that takes at least an hour — not including the perpetual presence of road construction.

Rather than explaining to people that I am homeschooled, as I so often did, I now find myself explaining that, as a commuter student, I don’t live in a residence hall.

“Why did you decide to commute?” This is the dreaded second question after the inquiry about my assumed residence hall.

I have two answers to this question:

  1. It’s cheaper!
  2. I was engaged over the summer. My wedding was planned for July 2017, just before the start of my first year of college, and being married would have meant living in an apartment with my husband. By the time I called off the wedding, it was too late to change my status from commuter to dorm resident.

I am unsure how being a married woman would have compared to being an ex-fianceé in regards to my college experience.

After the breakup, knowing that I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone that I was married was a relief, but it turns out that telling people I recently broke up with my fiancé isn’t much easier.

The question of whether I made the right decision in calling off my wedding followed me to school every day, and rode home with me on my ringless finger.

***

As I navigated my first semester of college, I learned that introducing myself was no easy task. Between the called-off wedding, commuting to college and being homeschooled for my entire life, it seemed like there was always more to explain — to my peers and myself.

“Is it really possible to recreate myself?” I wondered. “Are people lying about college being the best four years of their lives?”

I didn’t have any definitive answers.

Now, I do.

Now, I can explain.

Things have changed.

I’m halfway through my second semester at Miami, and I barely remember the way I felt last semester.

Winter break was when my perspective changed completely.

I lay in bed. I spent time with family. I traveled. It wasn’t unusual by any means — I’m not sure why it changed me so much.

I thought about where I might have been if things had gone differently, and how that compared to where I was.

Would my marriage have defined who I would have been at school? What defined me now?

The more I thought about it, the idea that something else defined me seemed a little backwards. I needed to change my question from what defined me to “How do I define myself?”

The answer, I decided, was peace.

peace
pēs/
Noun
1. freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility.
2. freedom from or the cessation of war or violence.
Exclamation
1. used as a greeting.
2. used as an order to remain silent.

This semester, I pared my course load down to 14 credit hours. I’m focusing on my friends, my family and myself.

When I have free time, rather than spending it doing extra studying, I stop by the library to pick up a book that is — shocker — not required reading. Losing myself in a book is a refreshingly familiar feeling.

Not everyone calls me Jill these days. Not everyone calls me Jillian. Some people don’t know my name at all, but I don’t notice or mind as much as I would have six months ago.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop hearing questions like, “Are you playing hooky?”, “You were homeschooled?” and, “You were engaged?”, but I’ve realized that it only matters that I know the answers.

In my life, peace extends beyond quietness and tranquility. It is a conscious decision.

So here I am, ordering myself to remain silent. So here I am, finished explaining.