ESSAYS

Keep the Change

On leaving a big life decision up to chance.

June 1, 2022

Reading time min

Illustration of a person flipping a coin

Illustration: Gary Taxali

It’s 3 a.m. and I am standing in the basement of my parents’ house in Cleveland, hanging up the heavy handle of the black rotary phone on the wall. The last of my friends on the West Coast has finally gone to bed.

I can no longer press them for their opinions on what I should do when the sun comes up: accept a job as an admissions officer at Stanford or move to New York to be an actor?

Earlier that day, Jean Fetter, the dean of undergraduate admissions, had called me. “We’d love to have you join us, Mary,” she’d said in her silky British accent. After multiple rounds of interviews and an exhaustive vetting process, I was hungry for approval. Her words were velvet cake.

I had asked Dean Jean to give me one day to think about it. So now, here I am, obsessing.

It’s a great job that pays well at the college I love. I can see myself, a newly minted graduate, talking with prospective students, traveling around the country, reading applications.

At the same time, I am pulled toward the theater: I love to act. I love improv. I love to write plays. And I love New York.

In that instant, my passion reveals itself in all its thrilling, frightening glory.

I am panicking. I’ve asked everyone who knows me well to tell me what to do. My eldest sister says that deep inside, I know what the right path is, and if I just get quiet enough, that knowledge will bubble up to the surface.

Yeah, right.

My parents are solidly in the “take the job offer and run” camp. They were instrumental in my choice of English over drama as a major, citing its practicality and usefulness. (I will later find this highly amusing.)

I am stymied. I can see myself being happy with either choice. In a state of pure ambivalence, I chew on the pros and cons.

Security but predictability? Creativity but uncertainty? Who else is awake? Whom can I call to get his or her two cents?

Two cents.

If it’s true that I can be happy with either path, then why not let chance decide? So I do the only sensible thing: I flip a coin.

I find a dime in my jeans pocket and balance it on my thumbnail. Heads, Admissions. Tails, New York. I take a deep breath and flick it.

Up it goes, flittering like a silver moth drawn to the naked light bulb above my head. Eons pass. It lands in my sweaty outstretched palm.

Heads. 
Rats. 
Rats?!

In that instant, my passion reveals itself in all its thrilling, frightening glory. I know what I must do. In a few hours, I will break the news to my parents: I’m packing my duffel and heading to New York.

My mother lets out a small, sad sigh and then hugs me—her usual show of disapproving acceptance. But my father reacts in a way I don’t see coming. Tears fill his bright blue eyes, and he says, “I’m so proud of you.”

We come to crossroads every day. Some of them are earth-shattering; others are not. My advice? Bring lots of change with you.


Mary Poindexter McLaughlin, ’87, is a playwright, a poet and an essayist. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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