Goodbye to All That: Leaving a New York City Art School
By Dylan Sherman
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” – Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That.
We entered art school at fourteen, and though we were young, many of us saw the end of our lives right then and there, staring us down on the path ahead of us.
When I entered art school at fourteen, I was enamored by the energy surrounding me. I wore a tank top and green pants with my favorite pair of Docs, but it did not take me long to notice that everyone else owned this outfit as well. We were held in a building with high ceilings and large windows; bits of the world could seep inside the place. Down the hall, I could see kids rehearsing for a musical, and I could hear the orchestra playing up the stairs.
Many of my peers were similarly struck by these glimpses of stardom, because, in art school, we felt like we had the potential to do big things. At only fourteen, we could start a band, write a play, and shoot a film. We had the accessibility of New York City and the convenience of talent at our disposal.
I remember being astonished by the seniors when I was a freshman in art school. These were girls I followed on Instagram that worked at overpriced vintage stores in SoHo, and modeled in their free time. The kid next to me had famous parents, which is how I learned that nepotism seemed to always come with expensive pairs of sneakers, and my Docs were, once again, lame in comparison. These girls were seventeen and infinitely cooler than most of the adults in my life, and quickly became my idols. They were so close to being a New York City success story, and being in their proximity daily made me fourteen and closer to a success story of my own.
Now, I enter art school at the age of seventeen a few mornings a week, and I wave hello to the security guards, and (if I’m lucky) I have enough time to stop at the Starbucks across the street. My teacher occasionally looks away from his work, checking to see if one of his students has entered the premises.
It’s a couple of years later, and the ceilings are not any taller than they were a few years ago. The windows are still there, but they need to be cleaned, and there isn’t much natural light– it has been raining the past few days.
There was plenty of sunshine throughout my high school experience, but entering art school was rigorous. I was fairly prepared, as my childhood laid out a crippling workload for most of my young life. I went to acting classes when I was nine because it was something to do, and there were classes a few blocks over. I signed with an agent because they saw me perform in a drama class when I was eleven— because New York is the kind of a place where rigor can come through convenience.
I had been in love with art school, but it was a young love, and with that came the naivety, oblivion, anxiety, jealousy, and absolute euphoria of it all. Art school was something I could run around and tell people I was a part of, and my family members in the Midwest would be excited, and when I told people I had auditioned for the shows and movies they were watching they would congratulate me—but only for a second before telling me it was “such a shame” that I didn’t book it. And, because I was in love, it was harder to see the anguish of it all because at the end of the day the music was absolutely deafening and the art my friends made was drop-dead-gorgeous. I had pals that were TikTok famous, and that had to count for something, right?
When I look past the days in the rooftop garden and the orchestra’s afternoon symphonies, I can see that when I was fourteen and entered art school, I was convinced I hadn’t done enough. I was one step past thirteen, sure that I would never succeed because I hadn’t booked a role in two years. Because I am now seventeen, I know this was a ridiculous expectation to have set for myself. I had already made it further than many artists ever had the chance to travel, and entering art school was only my first step in the marathon of becoming a “real” artist. But, in art school, everyone was as good as I was, and we were all similar in the sense that everyone had piles of homework and hours of rehearsal; it was just the way life.
Many of my peers are self-proclaimed “gifted-burnout kids,” children who grew up talented, but struggled to maintain the titles they received when they were only six or seven in an elementary school honors program. Generation Z is an existential group of adolescents, many of whom feel like they have the rest of their lives planned out. Maybe it’s because we all chose career paths when we applied for an art school with a predetermined major at thirteen.
We live in a world where many teens feel the need to accomplish a lot at a ridiculously young age, as though we don’t have the rest of our lives to win a Pulitzer Prize or land a gig on Broadway. Maybe it’s because we are a generation named after the last letter of the alphabet; it is logical to think that the world will end with us. The reality is that instead of looking at the course ahead, many of us feel we must turn and look behind ourselves, trying to predict who is going to win, and who is going to finish last.
In my experience, my peers overcompensated in the free time that they do have. In a society in which we are expected to achieve mature things at a young age, other elements of maturity trickle in faster. When teenagers crave a quick solution to their mature struggles, they turn to mature solutions, and therein lies the catch.
At first, I was intimidated by the people surrounding me, as I was sure my peers would be my competition. Having unlimited talented people at my disposal implied that my own talent was disposable, and could expire in any instant. However, another benefit to attending a school of gifted kids is that we are all united in a common struggle—being artists. We had come together as music ensembles, theater companies, and art collectives to work on things together, something I did not really think about when entering art school.
I am seventeen and I am about to graduate art school. And, even now, I’m hesitant to admit that I am not the star of my school play, I barely pass my gym class each marking period, and, honestly, it’s a miracle when I make it to school on time. I am no longer an actor outside of school. Instead of rushing between auditions and classes, I have learned the necessity of taking care of myself. I spend time with my friends, building human connections while I have the chance. I have great grades, read books, and write poetry that I (mostly) enjoy reading. My day is full of tiny victories, like when I perfectly cook a waffle in the morning, and when the boy I sit next to laughs at my jokes.
I have not, by any means, peaked in high school. While I do know plenty of stars and success stories, I am learning to look at the road ahead, and complete the metaphorical marathon I started a few years ago— because, even if I do not come out in first place, it’s pretty special to be able to say I have the stamina needed to run 26 miles.
Art school was exciting to enter, and possibly even more exciting to finish.
And now, we are seventeen, preparing to leave art school. Some happy, some somber—all of us changed. We have entered our second semester, getting ready to say goodbye to the place where we developed ourselves as artists and, more importantly, as people.
The front steps will never forget the weight of our footsteps, the tears and triumphs, and days of rain and sun. A few years ago, I would enter the school building thinking that these would be the greatest days of my life—but now, I’m not too sure. I am looking forward to crossing the finish line.