About the Author

Gabriel Blanchet is entering his sophomore year at MIT and plans on majoring in physics. His gap year was one of the most valuable experiences he's ever had, and he is excited to share parts of his year with the readers of Angles 2010.


by Gabriel Blanchet

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.
- Arthur Schopenhauer
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts .
- Albert Einstein

Blood dripped down the metal post that connected the bed to the wheels. Fluorescent lights flooded my eyes; I couldn't think. My heart was pounding, and I felt slightly dizzy. Four trauma nurses quickly wheeled the patient's bed into Exam Room 1 as I anxiously watched, clutching a clipboard to my chest. Exam Room 1 is not a normal Emergency Department room. Walls, not curtains, separate the countless other rooms from Exam Room 1, which contains equipment to treat the most severe life-threatening conditions. Two doctors strode into the room, not wasting a second. As he started to close the door, Dr. Egan looked into my eyes, and said quietly, “Do you want to see this?”

“Yes, I do.”

During fall of my senior year at Deerfield Academy, I began wondering about life after graduation. For decades, almost every graduate from Deerfield had gone straight to college. Therefore, the question wasn't really what I was going to do; rather, it was what college I would attend. As my peers grew concerned over SAT scores, GPAs, and extracurricular activities, I realized that I didn't want to worry. I didn't want to go to college, like all of them. Not yet. Even now, I can't really explain why I came to this conclusion; I simply wasn't willing to commit the next four years of my life.

I decided instead to try to experience the real world. Not surprisingly, I was not welcomed by the College Advising Office, which viewed me as a potentially embarrassing statistic on an otherwise spotless record. “You don't want to go to college?!?” My college advisor demanded an answer.

“No, Mr. Albertson, I do. Really. I am just not ready yet. I need to do something else for a while. You know, take a break from homework, from tests, quizzes, and exams, from essays and from Shakespeare.”

“Well, I am your advisor, and I want to make it clear that I strongly advise against this. However, I'll let you make the final decision for your future. Good luck.”

My close friends lamented my decision, as if the possibility of anything other than more school had never crossed their minds. Perhaps it hadn't. From the start of preschool, they had been on track. From 1+1 to the derivative of a sine function, they had cruised through 12, 13, even 14 years of school. What is four more at that point? Or even six?

Mulling over the numbers, I realized that many bright, motivated doctors in the world have never taken serious time off. From preschool until medical school graduation, they had never had more than a summer break to pause, to think, to reflect on what they were doing, and why.

My closest friend, James O'Brien, was devoted to becoming a neurosurgeon. As I grew more and more nervous about what I was going to do with my time off, I started wondering what made James tick. And why I didn't seem to be ticking as fast. Or as consistently. Or with as much purpose. What motivated him so that he could devote 22 years of his life, without a significant break, to schooling? Plus residency. Plus fellowship. Mulling over the numbers, I realized that many bright, motivated doctors in the world have never taken serious time off. From preschool until medical school graduation, they had never had more than a summer break to pause, to think, to reflect on what they were doing, and why. I felt sure James would be happy as a neurosurgeon. I was sure that he was more confident that he was making the right choices for himself than I could ever even pretend to be about my own decisions, so I never spoke with him about his decision. James was accepted to Brown University, and enjoyed a relaxing senior spring. So did I, but it was undermined by a tinge of uncertainty about the coming year. We graduated.

The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Seven days after graduation, as the festivities settled down, I began my hunt for a job. My first few inquiries were utterly unsuccessful. My parents concluded I was shooting too high, and falling quite short. At the conclusion of an interview for a prestigious internship with a law firm, I was told, “Gabriel, I understand that you need some time off from school. However, we are looking for a bright, young, motivated individual who is seriously considering law school. I'm sorry, but you are not on the right track for this internship. It would not be of any benefit to you or us.”

Right track?' I pondered. What is the right track? Was James taking the right track, along with all my Deerfield buddies? What was my track? Was I even on my track? Maybe I had broken down beside my track; perhaps I was just derailed. I tried to assure myself that this was only a temporary breakdown.

I pressed forward. Finally, desperate for something, I applied for a sales job at a local outdoor store, Adventure Outfitters. “Can you start tomorrow?”

“Yes! Yes, I can!”

I quickly befriended Keith, a 24-year-old who had just graduated from Gettysburg with a degree in marine biology. I asked him about his dreams and ambitions. “I want to start my own scuba shop,” he replied.

I was thrilled, sort of. I would be selling tiny orange life jackets to drooling toddlers, expensive expedition sleeping bags to rich thrill seekers, and North Face jackets to the stylish city crowd. This was real life, with a real job. The first few weeks on the job, though, were tough. All my co-workers had graduated from or were enrolled in college, which I found bizarre. They were being paid $8/hour just like me, even with their degrees. I quickly befriended Keith, a 24-year-old who had just graduated from Gettysburg with a degree in marine biology. I asked him about his dreams and ambitions. “I want to start my own scuba shop,” he replied.

The owner stored the kayak inventory in the basement, which had two inches of stagnant water on the floor and mold growing everywhere. Hours on end I spent scrounging through boats, trying to find the make, model, and color that each customer requested. I rolled my eyes every time a customer wanted to see a boat. “Are you sure you want to see a red Old Town Loon 120?” I would ask, not wanting to retrieve any more boats than absolutely necessary.

40 hours, $296.12… My first paycheck had officially arrived.

I quickly pulled out my TI-89 Silver Edition. At this rate, I would make a tad bit over fifteen thousand dollars if I worked full time for a year, without any weeks off. Fifteen thousand? I stared at the 8-digit display. Fifteen thousand dollars? The number in dollar bills sounded huge. Fifteen thousand dollar menu items. That's a cheeseburger at McDonald's for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for almost 14 years. However, the number in college tuition sounded rather small. Perhaps this is why James is on his track, I pondered. If I found and retrieved kayaks from the moldy basement for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 4 straight years, I could afford my freshman year in college. Or, almost 60 years of McDonald's.

A month later, I picked up another job in the emergency room at a hospital in Springfield, a nearby city in Massachusetts. I had always been interested in becoming a doctor, and wanted real experience in a hospital, so I took a position as a medical scribe. This meant following doctors into the ER examining rooms to see patients and documenting patient encounters for the medical charts. As a medical scribe in a busy ER, I witnessed physicians try for 90 minutes to start an IV on a dehydrated old woman. I also encountered John, a narcotic-seeker who came daily complaining of lower back pain, expecting, or at least hoping for morphine, Demerol, or Percocet. John would take whatever we gave him, which typically was nothing. I saw a college freshman who had lost her virginity the previous weekend with a stranger at a party. She was now urinating blood and had noticed ‘pimples' where they shouldn't have been. I watched a mother sob in the corner as her 22-year-old son grew cold after a heroin overdose and I saw an old man suffering a stroke. He couldn't move his left arm, and his speech was becoming slurred.

As my friends matriculated in the fall, I grew more and more excited about the possibilities of my time 'off'. I began feeling right on track. Not my parents' track. Certainly not my college advisor's track. My track. My own track. With the exception of family commitments, I was doing exactly what I wanted to, when I wanted to do it. I had no set agenda, and dictated my own time. Other than the frequent shifts at the hospital and adventure shop to cover my costs, I was free to roam, to ski, to skydive, to contribute to a medical journal, to engineer an electric car, to coach a JV hockey team at my middle school, and to form bonds with my younger brothers stronger than I had thought possible.

This experience was much more than a “break.” Breaks are inevitable. We all sleep at night. Most of us take weekends off and plan vacations. Typically, at the end of these respites, we return to the daily grind. We are as certain when we tuck ourselves into bed, prepare the car for an adventure, or pack the suitcase for the beach as we are when we spring out of bed, enter our garages, or shower the sand from between our toes that we will return to our typical routines. During true time off, however, there is no guaranteed return. No absolute commitments, no fixed deadlines, no set expectations. It is threatening, but liberating. Scary but rewarding. Truly free.

With freedom comes new perspectives. Fifteen thousand dollars isn't much. Life is hard for a lot of people. There isn't just one right track. Rather, many can lead in interesting and rewarding directions. Now I'm a year behind James. Or am I?