“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.” -Red, The Shawshank Redemption

A year from now, maybe a few days less than that, I’m going to be walking across a stage for what might be the final time in my life and being handed a piece of paper. It will be lovely, filled with frilly script and my name, and it’ll suddenly jack me up a few pegs on the grand scale of life importance in the eyes of capitalists everywhere.

I will receive my Bachelor’s degree, and I will leave my career in education that day for the last time.

I have been in the education system for fifteen years thus far. Heck, if you count preschool, then by the time I hold that degree in my hands I will have been in school for nearly twenty years…

…and then what?

What happens when I wake up that next day, having walked that stage, and realize that I never have classes to go to again? Will I be relieved? Excited? Scared? Will I be given a handbook from my good old alma mater explaining to me how to adjust to life on the outside? Will I be given hints on where to go? Provided a job? Provided a home? Provided a chance to make the best go at it possible? Or will I do it all alone?

Is graduate school a possibility? I realized this year in one of my college classes that I never had those two words spoken to me until I was in that class. No one had ever brought up the possibility of it. No one had advised me either to do it or not do it. I don’t know anything about costs, options, the paths open for me in it, how to pay for it, where it would be best to go.

What about marriage? I’ve been dating a brilliantly wonderful man for the past three years, and truth be told when I see myself waking up having graduated I see one thing on my mind following it: wedding bells. And yet perhaps 50% of the people I speak to will tell me that I’m too young. They will tell me to form a little nest egg, to be comfortable, to make sure that nothing will ever go wrong once I get into the marriage. But is that even possible? For a woman like me who has been comfortable, satisfied, satiated, for her entire life, shouldn’t I be challenged to take a few risks instead? Will those people be satisfied at my level of preparation after I’ve been dating this man for eight years? Twelve? Fifteen? Will that be enough to say “All right, now you’ve made it. Now no matter what financial difficulties you might ever face from accidental bumps in the road, you are set to have a great life with him with few disagreements no matter what because now you’ve got a little chunk of money to sit on. Also, you’d, uh, better start having those kids right now, because time’s running out, you know.”?

What about housing costs? Insurance? A car? Food? Medicine? Is there any way that a girl with a degree in music will be able to afford it on her own, coupled with those loans she has to pay? What risks will I have to take to pay them all? How do I even get started? When will someone teach me all about this too? Or is this yet another thing I’m going to have to learn on my own?

When I leave college, what knowledge will I hold? I can spell properly until the cows come home. I can sing just about anything you throw at me and do it well. Simple math? No problem. I even know a smattering of Spanish. But how’s my life skills? How’s my preparation for trying to get a good stable job? If I was given a test right now, with questions all about what I’m actually going to face in life, would I pass?

I fear I’ve been institutionalized. I fear that when I wake up that day on the outside, I’m never going to be able to merge my way into society, to find my place in this world. I fear that I am as unprepared as I possibly could be, but that no one will ever see fit to teach me.

…then again, “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”