Created By: TobuIshi on January 11, 2013 Last Edited By: TobuIshi on January 25, 2013
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Tragic Dropout

A promising student is forced, usually by a family tragedy, to give up on their education and find (menial) work instead.

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Most kids spend their classes daydreaming about the day they'll finally blow this popsicle stand and start their adult life. Unfortunately, some kids spend their classes trying to prevent that day from coming too soon...and not all of them succeed.

The Tragic Dropout is an upstanding, good-hearted kid who really wants to continue his or her education. Often s/he is quite gifted; an overachieving, talented, responsible eldest child with big dreams for the future. But tragedy has struck his or her family. Perhaps the breadwinner has died, fallen ill, or been sent to prison. Perhaps a financial mishap or serious illness has bankrupted the family savings. Perhaps a sibling, or even the Tragic Dropout herself, is facing an unplanned pregnancy.

A series of humiliations follow; the family may be in danger of losing their home or starving in the street. Their children are thrust into premature adulthood, where difficult choices must be made. Alas, for the Tragic Dropout, there is no choice but to drop out of school, kiss their dreams of a better life goodbye, and find a job. This often means any job, no matter how soul-crushingly crappy.

Fellow students and friends will probably express dismay at this turn of events, and may even band together to help raise money, helping their friend to stay in school and graduate. Teachers and mentor figures may try to advocate for the Tragic Dropout at his/her workplace, find him/her a working scholarship, or help him/her continue studying part-time.

In a story on the idealistic end of the sliding scale, some stroke of luck or hard work on the part of the Tragic Dropout or their friends will save the day. This allows the Tragic Dropout to go back to school and graduate with flying colors, thereby delivering An Aesop about hard work, friendship, and steadfast devotion to family.

A more cynical story will probably use the incident as an example of how even the most well-meaning people often just can't get ahead in life. (Female Tragic Dropouts in really cynical versions of this trope sometimes turn to reluctant prostitution, males to a life of reluctant crime.)


Examples:

Anime and Manga

  • In Silver Spoon, Ichiro Komaba's family farm is piling up debt, and he hopes to either make it through high school before returning to work there to salvage it, or make it as a pro baseball player in order to make enough money to pay back his family's loans. Unfortunately his classmates don't find out about his deal to drop out and start working to pay back the loans unless he keeps winning all his baseball games until he's already lost and his family's farm has declared bankruptcy.
  • In Black Lagoon, the Mafia Princess Yukio Washimine was forced to drop out of high school to take over her late father's Yakuza group. Needless to say, she wants nothing to do with her father's business and just wants a normal school life, but the family honor compels her to take control of the gang.

Film

  • It's a Wonderful Life: George Bailey plans to go to college and then travel the world, but when his father dies he finds himself forced to stay in Bedford Falls for the rest of his life in order to keep the Corrupt Corporate Executive Mr. Potter from taking over the Building & Loan, and by extension the entire town.
  • The character Enrique in El Norte, who had made a perilous journey with his sister Rosa from civil-war-era Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. as an "illegal alien", was offered a promising job as a construction foreman in Chicago--but when his sister falls deathly ill, he misses the plane to be by her side. In the end he's shown on a day-labor job in the L.A. area shovelling concrete.
  • In Necessary Roughness the coach remembers a promising high school quarterback from many years ago who never had the chance to go to college because he had to take over the family farm, so the coach recruits him to be their new Freshman star QB at age 40.

Literature

  • Water for Elephants begins with this. Jacob finds out that his parents were killed right before his final exams of veterinary school. He's so distraught that he doesn't write them and later finds out that his parents left him no money because they spent everything they had to put him through school. His skills do give him a job caring for the animals at a circus though. This has an idealistic end as Jacob does get a chance to make up his exams and graduate.
  • Dumbledore in Harry Potter was orphaned in his teens, and was forced to give up many of his ambitions in order to become the new patriarch of his family and care for his younger siblings.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Starman Jones. In the Back Story, Max Jones' father died, leaving him to take care of his mother alone. He was forced to drop out of school and take up farming to provide for them. He never lost his love of reading and learning, though.
  • Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is forced to drop out and get a job to help support the family. She is furious at her mother for making her do it instead of her brother Neely, as he doesn't even like school. Her mother explains that it is exactly why she made the choice she did - if Francie drops out, she'll find a way to go back for her education when she can. If Neely did, he would never go back.
  • Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, set in the 1700s and Based on a True Story, has young genius Nathaniel Bowditch forced to abandon his education to support his family. He is never able to go back but he manages to continue studying on his own and revolutionizes the science of ocean navigation.
  • In The Outsiders Darry gets a menial job in order to take care of his younger siblings after their parents die, instead of going on to college.

Live Action Television

  • In The Black Donnellys, Tommy was studying to be a painter, but his brothers Jimmy and Kevin get into serious trouble with the local mob bosses. He gets them off the hook, but it costs him his scholarship. He tries to find another way to pursue his education, but his brothers get into more trouble. Tommy knows that without his guidance his brothers will be killed, so he gives up his dreams and becomes a criminal himself.

Theater

  • Biff of Death of a Salesman flunked the senior math exam, and was going to petition with his dad for a re-test but lost the will to when he discovered his dad was having an affair. Since then, he's been stuck in depression and living at home.

Real Life

  • Charles Dickens. His "idyllic" childhood ground to a halt in 1824, when his father was sent to debtor's prison. At the age of twelve, he had to drop out of school and take work in a bootblack factory. The miserable working conditions affected his entire adult creative oeuvre.
  • James Whale, the director of Frankenstein1931, was forced out of school at the age of 14 to work in a factory. This is recounted in the Dramatization of his final years in Gods And Monsters;he doesn't blame his parents for doing it saying [paraphrased] "it was like a farmer being given a giraffe, the only thing they could think of doing was slapping a harness on it and having it plow the fields".
  • Yet another example is the story of Albrecht Durer, and the Praying Hands: Albrecht and his brother were both promising artists, but in order for one to afford to go to school for formal training, the other had to stay behind and work in a mine. By the time Albrecht returned from training, his brother's hands were too damaged for drawing. Albrecht went on to become the most famous artist and engraver of his era, and his most iconic work is his brother's weathered hands, clasped in prayer.

Video Games

  • Oscar of Fire Emblem Tellius was forced to give up a very prestigious post as a Crimean Royal Knight in order to care for his younger siblings Boyd and Rolf after their parents died.

Visual Novels

  • Happens in Kirari's route of Kira-Kira, where Kirari drops out of high school to become a prostitute because her father is deep in debt to Yakuza loan sharks.

Webcomics

  • Davan of Something*Positive dropped out of college when his sister had a car accident and needed a caretaker. Though in his case he never really liked college, and his jobs after that (billing people for a medical insurance company and running a theater) didn't require a diploma.
Community Feedback Replies: 28
  • January 11, 2013
    Tuckerscreator
    • Biff of Death Of A Salesman flunked the senior math exam, and was going to petition with his dad for a re-test but lost the will to when he discovered his dad was having an affair. Since then, he's been stuck in depression and living at home.
  • January 11, 2013
    Desertopa
    Happens in Kirari's route of Kira Kira, where Kirari drops out of high school to become a prostitute because her father is deep in debt to Yakuza loan sharks.
  • January 11, 2013
    Waterlily
    This is how Water For Elephants begins. Jacob finds out that his parents were killed right before his final exams of veterinary school. He's so disraught that he doesn't write them and later finds out that his parents left him no money because they spent everything they had to put him through school. His skills do give him a job caring for the animals at a circus though. This has an idealistic end as Jacob does get a chance to make up his exams and graduate.
  • January 11, 2013
    randomsurfer
    Its A Wonderful Life: George Bailey plans to go to college and then travel the world, but when his father dies he finds himself forced to stay in Bedford Falls for the rest of his life in order to keep the Corrupt Corporate Executive Mr. Potter from taking over the Building & Loan, and by extension the entire town.
  • January 11, 2013
    Astaroth
    • Dumbledore in Harry Potter was orphaned in his teens, and was forced to give up many of his ambitions in order to become the new patriarch of his family and care for his younger siblings.
  • January 11, 2013
    Chabal2
    Davan of Something Positive dropped out of college when his sister had a car accident and needed a caretaker. Though in his case he never really liked college, and his jobs after that (billing people for a medical insurance company and running a theater) didn't require a diploma.
  • January 12, 2013
    WeAreAllKosh
    Film

    The character Enrique in El Norte, who had made a perilous journey with his sister Rosa from civil-war-era Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. as an "illegal alien", was offered a promising job as a construction foreman in Chicago--but when his sister falls deathly ill, he misses the plane to be by her side. In the end he's shown on a day-labor job in the L.A. area shovelling concrete.
  • January 12, 2013
    SKJAM
    This can also be backstory for an older character, often a parent or mentor to the main character.

    Do we have the version where it's having a child to support that makes a person drop out?
  • January 12, 2013
    nitrokitty
    Non-education example, see if it fits.
    • Oscar of Fire Emblem Tellius was forced to give up a very prestigious post as a Crimean Royal Knight in order to care for his younger siblings Boyd and Rolf after their parents died.
  • January 12, 2013
    Bisected8
    • In SpiderMan, Peter Parker was a promising student before being forced to drop out and find a job when Uncle Ben was murdered. Other continuities have him stay in school but have his work suffer because of his new duties.
  • January 12, 2013
    SKJAM
    The original continuity had Peter stay in school. I think he dropped out of college at one point, but that was much later.
  • January 12, 2013
    surgoshan
    • Charlie Young is introduced early in the run of The West Wing as looking for a job at the white house as a bike messenger rather than going to college, because he had to take care of his younger sister, as their parents were both dead, their mother recently.
  • January 13, 2013
    Desertopa
    I'd say it's better to create a consolidated page for instances of this trope of all types, while noting some of the common distinct types. We don't even have any contributed examples yet of female characters dropping out to care for an unexpected baby, so suggesting a split on that basis seems premature at this point.
  • January 14, 2013
    TobuIshi
    • Charles Dickens was a Real Life example of this trope. His "idyllic" childhood ground to a halt in 1824, when his father was sent to debtor's prison. At the age of twelve, he had to drop out of school and take work in a bootblack factory. The miserable working conditions affected his entire adult creative oeuvre.
  • January 14, 2013
    Jallen
    Another Real Life Example is that of James Whale, the director of Frankenstein1931 who was forced out of school at the age of 14 to work in a factory. This is recounted in the Dramatization of his final years in Gods And Monsters;he doesn't blame his parents for doing it saying [paraphrased] "it was like a farmer being given a giraffe, the only thing they could think of doing was slapping a harness on it and having it plow the fields".
  • January 14, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In The Outsiders Darry gets a menial job in order to take care of his younger siblings after their parents die, instead of going on to college.
  • January 15, 2013
    Sheora
    • Francie in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is forced to drop out and get a job to help support the family. She is furious at her mother for making her do it instead of her brother Neely, as he doesn't even like school. Her mother explains that it is exactly why she made the choice she did - if Francie drops out, she'll find a way to go back for her education when she can. If Neely did, he would never go back.
  • January 15, 2013
    DorianMode
    Yet another Real Life example is the story of Albrecht Durer, and the Praying Hands: Albrecht and his brother were both promising artists, but in order for one to afford to go to school for formal training, the other had to stay behind and work in a mine. By the time Albrecht returned from training, his brother's hands were too damaged for drawing. Albrecht went on to become the most famous artist and engraver of his era, and his most iconic work is his brother's weathered hands, clasped in prayer.
  • January 15, 2013
    Arivne
    Literature
    • Robert Heinlein's Starman Jones. In the Back Story, Max Jones' father died, leaving him to take care of his mother alone. He was forced to drop out of school and take up farming to provide for them. He never lost his love of reading and learning, though.
  • January 17, 2013
    Desertopa
    • In Silver Spoon, Ichiro Komaba's family farm is piling up debt, and he hopes to either make it through high school before returning to work there to salvage it, or make it as a pro baseball player in order to make enough money to pay back his family's loans. Unfortunately his classmates don't find out about his deal to drop out and start working to pay back the loans unless he keeps winning all his baseball games until he's already lost and his family's farm has declared bankruptcy.

    Also, it would be a good idea to start adding the examples into the writeup before it's time to launch it, to make sure that everything is edited properly ahead of time.
  • January 17, 2013
    Waterlily
    Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, set in the 1700s and Based On A True Story, has young genius Nathaniel Bowditch forced to abandon his education to support his family. He is never able to go back but he manages to continue studying on his own and revolutionizes the science of ocean navigation.
  • January 22, 2013
    Koveras
    Dunno if it counts, but...

    • In Black Lagoon, the Mafia Princess Yukio Washimine was forced to drop out of high school to take over her late father's Yakuza group. Needless to say, she wants nothing to do with her father's business and just wants a normal school life, but the family honor compels her to take control of the gang.
  • January 23, 2013
    Desertopa
    I'd say that depends on how much she wants to stay in school rather than be a Yakuza leader. If she wants to continue her education rather than pursue a life of organized crime, you should probably make some note of that in the example.
  • January 23, 2013
    Koveras
    ^ Updated the example.
  • January 24, 2013
    nielas
    • In The Black Donnellys Tommy was studying to be a painter but his brothers Jimmy and Kevin get into serious trouble with the local mob bosses. He gets them off the hook but it costs him his scholarship. He tries to find another way to pursue his education but his brothers get into more trouble. Tommy knows that without his guidance his brothers will be killed so he gives up his dreams and becomes a criminal himself.
  • January 24, 2013
    TobuIshi
    Just a quick note to point out that, by definition, the Tragic Dropout must be tragic. To fit this trope, s/he needs to truly feel a sense of loss about dropping out of school, and to be making a real sacrifice for his/her family's sake. Please consider this when adding examples.

    Also, we seem to be nearly ready to launch. Just one more hat...
  • January 24, 2013
    randomsurfer
    In Necessary Roughness the coach remembers a promising high school quarterback from many years ago who never had the chance to go to college because he had to take over the family farm, so the coach recruits him to be their new Freshman star QB at age 40.
  • January 25, 2013
    TobuIshi
    All right, five hats! Let's get this thing off the ground.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=q4b4fdwlhs4stg4tfnnb6laq&trope=TragicDropout