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AHS: American High School Story
Why do people want to inspire others? Inspiration is powerful. The ability to inspire others is power. So when I hear the words "you have the power to inspire others with prose" why am I not enthusiastic? I just want to tell stories. I just like words. I like how beautiful words can be. Maybe people like inspiring others because it reinforces their belief in themselves, in hope for change or for a better world. Maybe the problem with me is I don't believe in myself. I can change the world? I think I could if I wanted to, I believe I could if I really tried and if I really wanted to. I'm not afraid to try. I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid of people telling me I'm not good enough. I don't work my butt off everyday so that people can tell me otherwise. I work my butt off everyday so that I can tell myself otherwise. Is the problem that I am selfish, then? Sometimes belief is not enough, and I don't care to take that risk. I have enough problems to worry about without worrying about the world’s problems. So maybe I'll just tell a story.
Maybe if I do my best, and other people see me doing my best, we can one by one make humanity better. That's funny, what a joke. I hope you don't really believe that. But then again, I kind of hope you do. Cause' where are we without hope? Hope? Screw hope. I'm a Capricorn, I like results. Results! With only hope and no action a dream is but a wish. That's what clouds are; all the world's empty wishes hanging, like rotten fruit, in the sky. There are too many clouds. Maybe I can make one disappear by starting this story. Maybe I can make many disappear by starting this story. Maybe someone will read it and their wish will turn back into a dream and then into reality. I might not change the world but someone reading this could be...inspired to. Could. Might. Maybe. More hopes, more dreams, more empty wishes. I'm just creating more and more clouds with every word I write, aren't I?
I need to stop thinking in the ways false hope thinks. You can get high on false hope. I think everyone is a little high. Depressed people are sober. We can change the world! They said that. A single person can change the world. That is true. But what does it mean to change the world? What does it mean? Does it mean charity? Donations? Non profits and volunteer work? Does it mean Elon Musk and Tesla? Does it mean ending world hunger?
As long as people who don't want the world to change are in power the world won't change. That's a sad thought. Let me reword it so I can get high again. As long as people who don't want the world to change are in power the world won't change...as fast as it would otherwise. There we go. My hope in humanity is restored.
I'm thinking about my father. What he would say about all this hope and world-changing stuff? He would probably say life's not fair. He would certainly know. What is this? Just start the gosh darned story! My mind keeps branching off...convoluting things. Are you still reading? You're probably sick and tired of me.
" ‘We have the power to inspire others with words.’ " read Mr. B off the first page of the lesson. "Oh, my lanta. We must be preee-tee powerful people then, this whole English class is preee-tee powerful. Tell me, why aren't we changing the world? You!"
He pointed to Kamiah Jefferies-Adams, who sat two desks diagonally away from me.
"Why aren't you changing the world?" he said.
They all chuckled. I grinned.
"And you and you and you? Ladies and gentlemen, it's about application. Dedication. Ins-spur-ray-tion! And all the other --tions. It's hard work to inspire other people. But what, in fact, is inspiration? What does it mean to change the world? Oh, look out, we’re getting deep! Jordan, we need someone dramatic to read this—can you channel your inner Romeo?”
Jordan Holden cleared his throat and deepened is voice and read the words on the screen as if he’d seen Mercutio really get stabbed.
“What...does it mean to change the world!” his voice came three rows behind me.
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is our big question for the unit.”
“Now, let’s start off by answering the first question in the lesson: ‘To you, what does it mean to change the world?’ ”
I bit my tongue.
“Don’t forget to answer in three to five complete sentences. I’ll give you about 5 minutes to write on your scratch paper and we can read some responses after that.”
The sound of book-bags unzipping and papers fluttering and pencils scribbling whispered throughout the classroom. I looked at my scratch paper. My pencil seemed to need sharpening. I sharpened it. I looked at my scratch paper. I pretended to be very consumed in constructing an eloquent answer. Thank the universe I’m graduating early, I thought. I don’t think I could stand one more damn year of this. I know where hell on earth is. I finally realized, it’s in the mind. That’s one form of it. But almost just as incarcerating, just as atrocious, just as miserable, is school.
Every year, we get the same questions, the same “essential questions.” They’re not recycled, no, but they all have the same theme, each one more useless and meaningless than the last. Each one just as vapid, empty, and vague as the previous. Each one exponentially sickening.
What is a journey? How can a person transform on a journey? What is a transformation? What is the end of the world? How can the definition of the end of the world change from person to person? How do you interpret the end of the world? What does it mean to be strong? What types of strength are there? How can we interpret strength? What’s the difference between right and wrong? How does right and wrong change according to a person’s culture? What’s the best way to communicate? How can we enhance our communication with others? What does it mean to be in love? What is love? What’s the best way to show someone you love them? What is family? How can family help one another? What does it take to survive? What is survival? How can words inspire change? Why do we try to imagine the future? Why do we try to hold onto the past? Do people determine their own destinies?
And we spend each year devoting hour after hour dissecting these questions, thinking, regarding, considering, discussing. The questions aren’t inherently bad. It’s how they are presented to us. It’s how we have to spend our time “exploring” them.
And we do the same things to “explore” them every day: read-answer questions. Answer useless questions! Useless, meaningless, insipid questions. All year long!
I know why they do this to us. I discovered why they bombard us with useless information—they want you to go mad! Either that, or during the interim of going mad and tolerating it they want you to believe in the illusion that you’re spending hours upon hours ruminating in critical thought. They waste our time on purpose to keep us numb, docile. It feels like my brain is the face Orwell described being stepped on, forever! Or like a single tire continuously rolling back and forth over my mind until I can’t feel anything anymore. I just follow the routine. I speak in complete sentences. I use evidence from the text.
I used to think I was so smart, constructing such detailed, thorough, evidence-based answers until the whole process got worn out. Since kindergarten, even when I went to online school. It was interesting at first, it was more flexible and free back then. But I realized we’ve been through the same routine every single day since I was five years old—read answer read answer read answer select at least two answer choices three to five sentences cite evidence from the text choose the best answer—wrong! Incorrect! This is the right answer this one this one--even though it’s all opinion! It’s all opinion. Why do they say it’s the best answer? It’s literature! Not mathematics or science. English is Ingsoc, sometimes 2 plus 2 equals 5 or 3 or 4 or all of them at the same time just because one person says so. Just because they feel like it. It’s all up to the imagination!
I wish I could leave. I wish I could run down the hallways—I wish I could smash the windows and bend the metal of the lockers into unrecognizable, grotesque figures. I wish I splinter and pulverize the hall pass into wood pulp. I want to take that thin wooden board and break it over my knee, I want to feel my kneecap going through it. I want to see it broken on the floor. I want to rip up all the pieces of paper—the tests, the worksheets, the homework—and shove them down all the plumbing and the drains in this place and clog them all up just like my mind’s been clogged. Those last few sentences probably didn’t make any sense but when does hysteria ever do?
“Alright, I’m excited to see everyone’s answers." said Mr. B. "Why don’t you go first?”
He called my name. I felt very bad for my poor teacher. I felt very bad for him and what I was about to do. It was the closest I had ever come to being an individual, in this school. It was the closest I’d ever come to actually thinking, actually carrying out true real thought that didn’t have anything to do with the nothing they fed us.
“I didn’t write anything because—” I didn’t want to say it in front of everyone. I didn’t want to embarrass my teacher—I ought to have manners, be courteous. So I wrote what I really was going to say on my blank piece of paper and I handed it to him. He glanced over it, looked at me, nodded his head gently and went to someone else.
In that short moment of eye contact, he looked inside of me. He hadn’t just read my words but understood them. Like the glance between Smith and O’Brien—it was that kind of look that reached into my mind—no, my heart—and made me feel right. He knew what I meant, he felt what I meant, and he confirmed, with that gentle glance, that I wasn’t crazy. That it wasn’t just me. That I wasn’t alone. He recognized the madness and said “You’re absolutely right. You’re not imagining anything. I know, it sucks.”
The thing that I had written, the thing that I had put out into the world was not in a scream, not in tears, not in violence, not at all from my voice, but from my mind shot a rod of lighting down my arm and into my hand so that words scribbled on paper could say:
“This is a waste of time.”