The month of May for high school seniors can be a disorienting time. They are feted through Senior Breakfasts, Grad Nights, Senior Nights, sporting events. They begin to wear the colors of their universities-to-be: the blue-and-gold, the crimson. In drug stores, “Congrats, Grad!” balloons and copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! come out of the stockroom, anticipating the eventual pageant of optimism known as graduation.
Some seniors get sentimental and make visits to their old teachers’ rooms to thank them, or to reminisce on old lessons and classroom moments. Some make a last-ditch effort to create and store up as many high school experiences as possible before they leave. Others, already in their university gear, walk through their schoolmates like they’re made of phantom smoke, eyes fixed on the fall semester to come. Many struggle to focus on current schoolwork, having already joined group chats and Facebook groups of various “Class of 2022s” around the country. Getting into college, especially a good one, means you have achieved success. Then, the belief goes, you will graduate from said good college and achieve greater success. Whatever that means.
When, in 1906, the philosopher William James deplored the “exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success,” he was expressing a frustration with the moral compromises people made in its pursuit. The phrase also rightly captured what it meant to give your life to success: the obsessive devotion, the ensuing resentment of that devotion, the fickleness of Fortuna in spite of our devotion.
But “success” a century ago meant something specific. It meant making money and being rich. “Success” today is not just about making money. It’s also about being fulfilled in what you do to make money, all the while receiving positive affirmation from your peers while you show it off in digital form or otherwise. You need an Instagrammably successful life on top of a materially successful one.
For Michelle Johnson, a senior at Palm Academy for Learning in Coronado, none of the senior year festivities or the pre-college boosterism mean much. She’s busy paying the rent on the apartment she shares with her boyfriend Adrian, building up an emergency fund with checks and tips from working at the golf course, and scrambling to finish her schoolwork so she can enter an apprenticeship program in the fall.
“I just want to work hard for my money,” Johnson said. “I just don’t want to spend money on school and lose all my money and have to go into debt. A trade school, that’s what I want to do. Get paid to learn hands-on.”
Johnson’s definition of success, though it gets at the older form of the word, is unconventional in Coronado, where for most students, going to four-year colleges is a matter of fact. Gospel, even. Johnson wants to learn how to weld, how to do electrical work. She wants to have the expertise to flip a house and dress it to sell it quickly. She is currently choosing between an apprenticeship through Solar Turbines and a series of certification courses that would allow her to work in construction. At five-foot-two, Johnson may not always stand out in a high school crowd; as a woman, she may, however, stand out on an oil derrick or demolition site.
Many seniors view going to college as a rite of passage into adulthood. But for Johnson, it’s really more like an extended adolescence; adulthood for her means making your own money, paying your own keep. Johnson grew up in Mt. Helix, where she lived with her parents Sandy and Richard before they divorced when she was six. Both her parents worked at the Spring Valley swap meet, where she would help them set up shop at five in the morning every weekend.
“I grew up basically at the swap meet with my family,” Johnson said. Her mother grew up in Tijuana in a family of nine children and never got past high school. As a single mom, Sandy raised her kids to value money and hard work. When they gave her lip, she gave them what she got when she grew up: the wooden spoon, the soap, the hot sauce, the chancla.
Now Sandy owns her own business — selling clothes out of a shop called Sandy’s Bargain Treasures in Imperial Beach — and lives in Coronado. She rents out a property in Mt. Helix, which allows her to pay for her place on the island. During a trip to Hawaii, she brought a box of merchandise to sell at a swap meet there. Mortified, her kids threatened to leave her at the gate out of sheer embarrassment. The profit she made in Hawaii ended up paying for the whole trip.
Swap meets bring together unconventional personality types. Along the rows of stuff you might find the obsessive book hunter, or the tinkerer. This unconventionality finds echoes and rhymes throughout Johnson’s extended family. Her uncle Jimmy is handicapped and has to use two canes to get around, but spends most of his time driving around the world and camping in the woods. Her brother Robert is a professional gamer who enters Call of Duty tournaments while taking programming classes. He often gets free consoles and paid flights to tournaments for cash prizes.
A couple decades ago, Johnson’s blue-collar ambition (the phrase today sounds oxymoronic) would be unremarkable. But today, the perception is that only a college degree can secure you a livable future. According to a Pew Research study, 36 percent of Millennial women between 21 and 36 have at least a bachelor’s degree; about 30 years ago, that number was 20 percent.
For Johnson, her goals partly stem from her family life and from her educational history. Students who struggle to succeed in school can often recall a specific instance when their educational futures took a different tack, whether it be through the diagnosis of a learning disability — for those whose parents have the resources to diagnose and to provide outside advocates — or some disruption in their life that led to school taking a backseat. For Johnson, that moment was finding out she was going to have to repeat the first grade.