How a month in Tampa changed the life, possibly shaped the future, of North Harford graduate Jacob Gay

May 27—In middle school, Jake Gay's anxiety was so great that he couldn't attend classes and had to learn from home. In October 2016, he spent at a month in Tampa, Florida, at the Rogers Behavioral Health clinic there. That month is one that might've changed his life, he said.

Gay, 18, graduated from North Harford High School on Tuesday. The month he spent at Rogers, he said, helped him overcome his anxiety so he could attend a traditional school setting.

Not only that, the White Hall resident found the confidence to participate in a number of activities during his high school years, ranging from performing in drama productions, writing for the school newspaper and literary magazines, being on several sports teams, and being part of the Mr. North Harford competition.

"I wouldn't have been able to do any of that if it wasn't for having to deal with the anxiety in middle school," he said.

That month in Florida also shaped his future in another way. While at the Rogers clinic, Gay took a tour of the University of Tampa, "just as something to do."

When he started looking at colleges to attend, Gay remembered that visit. University of Tampa met his requirements for college, and when he went on a more recent tour, "I just really fell in love with it."

He's enrolled in the psychology program there, and hopes to one day work with youth with anxiety, either in therapy or a psychiatry, to help them the way the Rodgers clinic help him.

As for high school, Gay said he'll cherish the friendships he made and never forget the laughs. His mother, Cathy Gay, said she was impressed by how much her son enjoyed school, the interactions and the number of activities he took part in.

"I believe he made the most of his time at North Harford High School," she said.

Memorably, right before COVID-19 struck in the U.S., Gay had landed a lead role and performed in the North Harford drama club's black box theater production called "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare."

"It was a lot of fun and was probably the most memorable role I had," he said. "I sort of played myself. We did multiple Shakespeare plays, like a short version and a parody of them all."

He also enjoyed writing for the school paper, particularly opinion pieces during his senior year when he weighed in on politics, community happens and virtual schooling. While his anxiety once kept him from learning in a traditional classroom setting, Gay said he found online classes during the pandemic was more challenging for him, and that he performed better in person. He wished that students could've returned to class sooner, "but I understand it."

He hopes to keep writing, something he's done since he was young. He said a dream of his would be to write a novel or a play for Broadway.

"It feels like all my life I've been having these plans and dreaming about what I will do in the 'real world,'" Gay said. "Now that I'm graduated high school, it really feels like it is time to stop planning and start acting on those dreams. I'm not expecting them to all come true, but I'm looking forward to giving them all a shot."