See, my old man's got a problem
He lives with the bottle, that's the way it is [...]
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did
— Tracy Chapman, "Fast Car"
Most people spend their childhoods daydreaming about the day they'll finally finish school and start their adult life. Unfortunately, for some kids, that day comes much, much too soon.
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.)
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.
- In Corpse Party: Another Child, Tamaki's school is shutting down. While her classmates can all transfer away and continue their education, her family can't afford it, so she'll have to stay and find a job. As if that wasn't bad enough, the local Girl Posse finds her family's poverty absolutely hilarious, constantly harassing and bullying her.
- In the original New Mutants Graphic Novel, Sam Guthrie was obliged to quit high school and give up his hopes for college to work in the local coal mine after his father died of black lung. His first day on the job was marked by being caught in a cave in, his powers kicking in, and the owner of the mines finding another use for him....
- 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 Coach Riggendorf remembers Paul Blake, 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 Riggendorf recruits him to be their new Freshman star QB at age 40.
Live Action Television
- 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.
- 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.
- Little Women is more subtle than most in its use of this trope, partly because it's chock-full of family loyalty aesops and partly because education for girls wasn't valued so highly at the time, but if you pay attention it's quite apparent that all three older March sisters quit school to help their mother when their father went off to war. Meg and Jo take jobs to supplement the family income, and Beth becomes the homemaker.
- In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Harry, Ron and Hermione don't return to Hogwarts for their seventh year. It's not like any of them would have dropped out of Hogwarts if Voldemort hadn't truly taken over. Before the release of Deathly Hallows, fans debated endlessly if the trio had been serious about dropping out of Hogwarts or not - or if they would be forced to attend. Word of God says after the war Hermione went back and finished up her N.E.W.T. studies, while Harry and Ron did not.
- Elfie Woodward in the Chalet School series. After her stepmother dies, she drops out of school in order to take care of her brothers and father, who is an emotional wreck and can barely take care of himself.
- 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.
- In Shameless, Fiona Gallagher dropped out of school to take care of her five younger siblings. Even at 21, she has to give up dreams of succeeding and have a life of her own because her parents, an alcoholic and a bipolar drug addict, were too selfish and immature to bother taking care of their kids.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer had to drop out of college to take care of her sister Dawn when their mother died. Despite this, she manages to get a job as a guidance counselor in season 7 - but season 6 played this trope completely realistically, and tragically.
- 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.
- 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.
- This can happen to many college students as well. Something comes up (family woes, job necessities, etc.) that can cause a person to have to leave school for the time being and hoping to return, only to find that they can't return due to other issues/responsibilities at hand.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.