Here in the front row, this one has pupils a mile wide, flying high, skating by on weed and vibes. Nowhere to land so she’s not coming down…”
by jeremiah o’hagan
After five years working at a newspaper, I went back to teaching one September. Two weeks before classes began, I was introduced at a party as the writer who was teaching again, at an alternative school.
Alternative? someone said. Are these kids Bohemians or fuck-ups?
I didn’t know then and still haven’t made my mind up. I do know this:
When my students get dressed in the mornings, gym shorts and tights count as real clothes. So do pajama pants and trench coats. Everyone scrolls Tumblr for tattoos and wants to pierce their nose. Lips. Chin. I’m a poser because I only pierced my ears and didn’t even gauge them.
Boys stroke egos in the hall, slapping palms like druggies in the movies, while girls use selfie cameras for mirrors to paint on make-up, and gossip about breakups.
One kid already has a baby with a young lady — says he needs a job and will I help him write a resume, but I don’t see him buying diapers with minimum wage.
This boy has eyes like candles lighted for saints; this young man lifts weights; this one’s chasing straight As.
This kid draws; that one drifts cars — nearly took a stop sign down one night racing around town.
She sings; she wants to grow wings; this boy can’t tear his face away from his cell phone screen.
At least two have done jail time, and one claims the food was fine. Of course, he’s also the kind to loiter away weekends at the transit station, enjoying hot dogs and coffee for free. Once met a homeless guy and went with him to see a movie.
You hear this one? Two boys walking down the street, eating fried chicken they bought with EBT. Woman’s been twiddling her thumbs in traffic, starving at a stoplight, and offers them a dollar for a wing.
Five bucks for the whole thing, they say. Swap through the window and they’re on their way.
They are legitimate. Trading full stomachs for lined pockets on these mean streets is a certain kind of credit.
This girl, used to pull the wings off crickets. This one, kept a Tupperware under her bed with a squirrel skeleton in it. Wants to be a CSI because she loves corpses and mystery.
Look around the room and see what you can see: Anorexic. Insomniac. Oppressed. Depressed. Repressed genius.
Razor scars on arms. Larger scars from scissors. Over in the corner, that girl is already poisoning her liver.
Suspended for smoking, again. Caught off campus, again. Found wandering the halls, again. Broke a hand on a door, again.
Here in the front row, this one has pupils a mile wide, flying high, skating by on weed and vibes. Nowhere to land so she’s not coming down.
Bohemians, or clowns? You tell me. Ain’t nothing for free, they’ve been taught to believe. Everyone pays with credit, cash or their dreams.
For example, this guy’s facing a felony because someone paid him $10 to key an Audi — and he agreed. Most expensive money he’s ever seen.
But — we all knew this was coming — they are nearly all of them gorgeous in their ways.
This girl, has eyes blue as rain. This boy, walks against the grain of generations so he can march clean into college. This one has more knowledge about cars than most men twice his age.
This one’s drawing a graphic novel. This one left lavender in my windowsill. This one’s writing is downright ethereal.
So, let me ask you, Bohemians or disasters?
What if the answer is whatever we choose to see? We are all of us ragged beauties, noble wrecks and graceless angels. There are no alternatives, only people who navigate this planet with their baggage and varying degrees of bravery.
One kid told me, “This chair is bigger than my future.”
Maybe. The chair has four legs and he has only two, but the chair’s don’t move and he can use his to walk to the walls and push them down. Open up this life. Realize that what he thought was his future was just one piece of furniture in a single room.
So light your eyes, flicker prayers to the saints and paint the sky all the violent shades of your dreams.
I know it’s sappy, and I’m sorry, because I don’t believe in flattery or platitudes, but sometimes we have to adopt the attitude that lets us see what’s possible instead of what we’ve been told is probable.
Goethe said it first: If we assume people are what they are, we underestimate them. But if we believe they have the ability to be what they ought to be, we promote them to what they can be.
We are mortal. We can be infinite. We are broken. We can thrive anyway. We have to pass the day-to-day, but we can twist it into something lovely.
Forget your noses. Pierce this life and tattoo the universe with your shards. The future will call you the stars.
(illustration: john richen)
Jeremiah O’Hagan lives in Washington state with his wife, Tamsen. Together, they have four kids, two dogs, a ton of adventures, and occasional misadventures. Most the misadventures get blamed on the dogs. More From Jeremiah O’Hagan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.