It was May of 2007, and I knew that it was over. Not my first year of college, though that was over, too. The moment in time was over and the blossoms on the trees desaturated, the bricks changed to gray, the sky went missing and all I saw was me from outside of me, standing near a dried patch of grass near the side of the road, blinking tears into the wind and holding onto the straps of my backpack. Nearly 15 years have passed since I didn’t get into the SUNY Purchase acting conservatory, and it’s time to celebrate. Not that I didn’t make it. But that I made it out of that rejection alive.
I remember finding out that I made the waitlist. FAFSA forms were past due. I was 18, enrolled in the liberal arts wing of the college and on a deadline from the person who co-signed my loan. I called my own school from my dorm. I said that I needed to know for financial aid reasons whether I had made it into the program. A prestigious program. A prodigious feat. Had I made it? I was told to wait. She said, “I am not supposed to share this with you, but…you’ve got to wait. Do you get it? This is very good news. You’re at the top. Of the list. Where you have to…wait?”
I don’t know who I spoke with that day, but I know I cried out at her. I know I told her that if I couldn’t be guaranteed a spot in the program, I wouldn’t be afforded the time. That for me, there was no chance, no case for me to argue. I bawled into the phone at a stranger who was a two-minute walk away.
I aspired to keep existing.
I wrote another piece about this years ago, reeling from this day. It’s called How to Not Get Into Acting School. It’s funny. It’s more self-deprecating than it should have been because the fact is, I did get into that acting school. I was waitlisted for a top five acting conservatory in the country, a school where you have to indicate on the application if you are related to anyone famous, a school where artists and celebrities have come from. Regina Spektor, Josh Hartnett, Edie Falco, Parker Posey, Zoe Kravitz (from the year I made the waitlist), Jeffrey Lewis, Mitski. It’s astounding that I made that waitlist. But for you, for me, an admission: It wasn’t the education I was after. It wasn’t the career as an artist that was fueling my need to be there.
At SUNY Purchase, music lived in the grass, it lived in the silo outside my dorm room, it lived in the forest air and I didn’t know any of this when I stepped out of Penn Station in 2006. I’d never been to New York, but do you feel where this story is going? It was as far away as I could get. You knew that, right?
I learned to play guitar the summer after I said goodbye. My first song that I wrote included this lyric: “There’s no love in this house. There’s not even happiness.” And I wasn’t just reeling from being back from a cool liberal arts school. It wasn’t just that I missed the weirdos camped out in the sun. Pepsico Theatre, The Hub, Terra Ve, the Olde, the New, the hammocks, the Great Lawn, my dorm room in Farside — these were all safe spaces, filled with friends who lit me up, who amplified my existence, people I loved deeply, friends I still keep close. This was the first place I could play in after an upbringing of abuse. The man who had been funding my education wasn’t someone I even knew. He knew one of my abusers, but he didn’t know what happened in our house. Had he known, he might have co-signed another year instead of saying that my acceptance was required. And how I tried.
I spilled my guts all over that audition room floor, barefoot and with a piece from Sartre about how our actions speak louder than our words. I can’t believe I made it, not just through those four minutes, but through the callbacks, into the evening, all the way into the interview, feeling delirious and sitting next to the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen who was sucking Tab soda through a straw, wondering if there was room for a freshman Tabatha H in this program despite there already being a sophomore Tabitha H.
How heavy I felt when one of my professors noted that I hadn’t applied anywhere else, why had I only applied to SUNY Purchase? Didn’t I aspire to be an actor? And the truth is, no. I aspired to keep existing. I wanted to make it to 21 in spite of an adult who repeated that I wouldn’t. In spite of another violent adult whom I had to stay cordial with because he was the gatekeeper of my younger siblings. In spite of a parent who left when my siblings and I most needed a respite. In spite of drug abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, I wanted to live.
I responded, “Why would I audition anywhere else when this is my favorite place in the world?”
I am approaching 33. The former Dean of SUNY Purchase and I are friends on Facebook. I’m a film actor and falling back into trust with music and visual art. I’ve got two children and I feel more for them than I ever understood possible. I’m still in this city that I wanted to leave, sorting through decades. I’m unrooted here but in awe of others who aren’t. These days, I’m not a proponent of college for the many of the arts because it feels cruel and counterproductive to rip apart creativity, to impose academia onto art. Education, absolutely, I adore education. I like the idea of no-grades living so you are involved with loving.
I love the idea of colleges as safe spaces. I miss the campus; it’s become a location I frequent in my sleep. I haven’t been there in over a decade. I’m thinking about visiting, lying in the grass, staring up at the sky and listening to the airplanes fly towards the city. I’m so proud of my 17-year-old self for taking me there, and so proud of my 18-year-old self for figuring out how to keep going when I couldn’t go back. You, too, started with a kid steering your life. Where did you take yourself?