Art School

by Susana Caridad Chege, age 17
Art School Susie is a sixteen year old living in Maryland. When she is not writing, she is usually daydreaming, making art, reading, or chatting with her giant array of stuffed animals. When she grows up, she hopes to create stories and art that can make the world a happier place.

“I take a picture of my new peacemaker for reference, and that’s when I begin to create. As the tips of my colored pencils touch the paper, my extremely small happiness grows so big, my brain lights up not in a fire of fear, but in shiny rays declaring to the world, “Frances has found something to feel good about! She’s in her happy territory!”
And it’s true. I am in my happy territory.”

Ten days. Ten days of having a fire burn through my brain as my teachers go through course expectations and how you’d get a detention if you were late three or more times in a quarter (I really don’t want one). And then there were the early quizzes and the English in-class writings, and, and—

(Breathe, Frances. You’re trying to make art here.)

It’s Friday night, and even though I begged my mom that I shouldn’t, I’m leaving my giant pile of homework for Saturday so that I can “do fun things to calm down my head.” The problem is, how can I calm down my head if I’m a junior now? After all, juniors have much more responsibility than sophomores and freshmen. Maybe the seniors, too. But I did want to calm down my head, though. I’m tired of all the headaches, nausea, and rushed breathing that I’ve been having since I graduated middle school, when not even my good grades could guide me through this anxious new life called high school. I just want serenity to drown my mental fire until it’s nothing but pure smoke. 

So here I am, sitting in front of my desk, desperately trying to keep the Saturday homework shut out from my brain as I think up what to draw. Maybe I could do my dog, Pippin, who’s been so loyal to me in trying to keep me sane all these years. Maybe I could do the sunset that’s sitting outside my window, the pinks and blues swirling together like a peaceful melody trying to calm down all the pain I’ve been going through. With a careful look at the beautiful sky, the small 5% of happiness in my body is flying in all sorts of directions, telling me that this is what I should draw. Yes! This sunset is the way to true peace!

I take a picture of my new peacemaker for reference, and that’s when I begin to create. As the tips of my colored pencils touch the paper, my extremely small happiness grows so big, my brain lights up not in a fire of fear, but in shiny rays declaring to the world, “Frances has found something to feel good about! She’s in her happy territory!” 

And it’s true. I am in my happy territory. Never in three years have I begun to feel so normal. Maybe if I keep fixing and coloring my sunset, all my problems will wash away into the sea and never come back to haunt me again.

***

I don’t understand why happiness can’t last forever. How can something so beautiful run away from you and be so reluctant to come back home?

It’s already Saturday, and my giant pile of homework is awaiting me on my desk, and I bet you that in just seconds it’ll be ready to tear me apart. But I have my first physics test on Monday that I can’t avoid, and so I have to start studying for that.

It’s when I try to get my index cards from my desk drawers that the fire returns again, this time consuming my stomach until there’s ash inside. And then as I begin writing flashcards, the fire heads up my esophagus and up to my head, roaring in a mighty fury, “You’re a failure! With that head of yours, you’ll never be a success! Hope you’re okay with a D on that test!”

And from the ashes come the nausea. I race to the bathroom, tears and screams just about ready to shoot out of my body. I throw up leftover breakfast into the toilet and flush it down, thankful that some of the pain is out of my system. However, the rest of the pain that’s still there throws me to the ground, and my head spirals and spirals like a rollercoaster until I can’t gain a sense of what’s going on.

It is my mom who eventually finds me. “Sit up, Frankie girl,” she coos to me, wrapping me in a soothing embrace that I wish to stay in forever. Safety wraps me in its warm, soft blanket. “It’s okay. Cry,” it whispers to me. And so I do. 

“Momma, momma,” I whimper, “I’m a failure. I’m gonna fail.”

“Absolutely not,” my mom replies. “Over the years, every single teacher has told me that despite all you’ve been through, you’ve been doing so great in school. You’re definitely not going to fail.”

“But what if I do?” That’s when the tears fall faster and faster like a mighty river. “Then I can’t leave eleventh grade. I’m gonna be trapped here forever.” 

My lungs can sense this fear, too, and they start moving up and down in a frenzy of fear. 

“I need you to take a break, Frances,” my mom continues, stroking my soft hair. “Until your brain calms down. In the meantime, I’ll go make you some chamomile tea.”

I head over to my bed, my overwhelmed body sinking into a sea of pillows and bedsheets. I’m just done. Why does the world have to pile itself onto me when I’m only sixteen and still technically a child? Just that alone makes me want to cry in a dark hole and never come out.

As I’m beginning to adjust myself under the covers, I can see my sunset sitting on the floor next to my backpack, calling my name. “Frances. Come, come. Remember me? I make you feel better.”

“I’m deeply sorry, dear friend,” I explain to my picture, “but I just feel too terrible to get out of bed. I mean, I’ve just had a panic attack for crying out loud!”

“Trust me, Frances. You need to do something to get yourself out of that awful state of yours.”

I think for a little while. I remember all the joy that was exploding in my body as I was scribbling those brilliant colors on the page and how peaceful I felt. How…okay I was.

“Alright, then, Sweet Sunset. I’ll try.”

Slowly, I rise from my bed, and as the sunshine outside encourages me to keep going, my body begins to recover from the wave of anxiety it went through. I zombie walk to my desk and sit down in my chair, the cool wood relaxing my body even further. As I continue coloring, the happiness immediately returns, shouting a quick hello as it walks through the mental door. 

My sunset and I start up a conversation as I continue with my art journey, and that’s when it starts with the questions. “Why are you so scared all the time?”

I sigh. I really don’t want to go through this, but my sunset’s a close friend of mine, so why not? I slowly begin my story.

“Well, I wasn’t always like this. I had friends, I was doing art all the time, and I was just a happy kid. But like, with high school coming, I started freaking out over it. I shooed my friends away and hid myself from the world. I mean, this anxiety came to me naturally, that’s all.”

My sunset brightens in a spark of curiosity. “Are you sure?” it asks. “You look really bad to me. There’s got to be more to this.” 

Oh God. I really don’t want to go further with this. I take a deep sigh, my stomach bubbling up. “Well one day, my dad died in a car accident.” That’s when the tears start flowing out of my eyes. “It was awful when he died. He helped me cope with going into middle school. I try to remember him by sketching his face into my sketchbook. But I just doesn’t look right. It hurts so bad when you can’t remember someone you love.”

“I bet. You loved him very much. When did this emotional stuff start coming?”

I dry my tears until my face is a hot, sticky desert. “Well, soon after he died I became really depressed, and I was even more anxious when ninth grade began. The worst part is, no one except my mom knows about this stuff, because I worry that everyone’ll make fun of me. Like, I do pretty good in school, but it’s really hard when you have to push yourself through all your problems to be successful.”

My sunset appears to darken, feeling pity for what I’ve been through. That’s when it decides to give me an idea. “What if,” it begins, “I can help you be happy in school?”

What? Happy? In school? This doesn’t make sense! How can I be happy when I’ve got so much happening in my life?

“I know. This sounds really weird. But you’re happy with me, right? What if you bring that happiness into your school day? It’s important for the sake of your well-being, Frances. Maybe it can help you with that terrible fear of yours.”

Well, I’ve always wanted to be happy, and my pain has prevented me from doing so. And with happiness comes peace, too, doesn’t it?

Wait a minute, no. What am I thinking? There’s no way I can be happy in school! I’ve got tests and essays and other things going on in my life! There’s so many things to do and so little time to do it! 

“No. No,” I say. “It’ll never work. I’m scared almost every day to the point where I can’t think straight! I can never be happy!”

“Don’t fall for the negativity, Frances! That’s what anxiety does to you! But if you’re positive, it can benefit you exponentially!”

I can feel my sunset reaching for my hand, trying for my trust. “I don’t know, Sweet Sunset,” I mumble. “It might never work.”

“Just believe me, Frances,” my sunset responds. “Let’s just try it. It could work.”

I sit and think for a while. Well, I have been doing well so far this year, and it’s only September. And I do want to be happy. Maybe, just maybe, this could work.

I tell my sunset of my approval for the plan. It lights up in a neon rainbow and reassures me once again that everything will go well. 

***

I begin my Monday morning rising from my bed, letting the warm sunshine sprinkle onto my face. “Good morning, beautiful sun,” I whisper. “Thank you for making such a gorgeous day.”

I get dressed, fix my hair and brush my teeth with beams of light shining in my brain, further telling me that this day will be absolutely great. And who knows? Maybe this will be a great day! I’ll ace that physics test and continue to bring my can-do attitude throughout the rest of this year!

I continue on through the yellow brick road of felicity as I eat my breakfast and hug my mother goodbye (she looks really surprised with my new disposition) as I grab my backpack and head out the door, greeting the day with a radiant smile that shines onto the whole world.

I skip to my bus stop in glee, where other kids just look at me and then move on with their lives. I don’t really care, though, as I wasn’t always the popular kid. In fact, I’m glad I’m not the popular kid, because I don’t want all my classmates to see me fall apart—

(Frances. You’re supposed to be positive here. Just calm down. Look! The bus is here!)

Once the doors to the bright yellow vehicle open, I’m the first one to head on and quietly say good morning to the driver before sitting in my seat. While we head on our way to school, I try my very best to ignore the screaming and the chitter-chatter that normally pierces my brain. Then I look at the sky, which looks exactly like my beloved drawing, bringing me to a state of serenity. “Thank you,” I tell it.

***

I walk into class like I’m a physics major, ready to put my pencil onto the test and write down everything from my brain. Nothing much happens during these five minutes as I sit down and breathe, except Kelsey from nearby asks me for a pencil, which I give to her.

And then the big moment happens. Mrs. Shaw begins to hand out the test to every kid in the classroom. I sit up straight in my desk, reassuring myself that I studied basically day and night for this, so what could go wrong?

Before I realize it, it is my turn to get the test. I write my name in my typical curlicue handwriting and head straight for the questions. 

The first portion of the test is a fill in the blank. My mind suddenly freezes at the very first question. “When the mass of an object doubles, the kinetic energy also…”

What in the world is the answer? Does it double? Triple?

I tell myself to calm down and let my brain come up with the answer. I eventually realize that kinetic energy doubles and bubble in the answer.

Then the next question asks me what happens to kinetic energy as an object goes up a hill. Doesn’t it increase since the object needs more energy to go up? No, no, no!

(Frances, just skip it and come back.)

But then the third question is even worse. “Although kinetic energy has been known to exist before 1849, who first came up with the actual term?”

No. No. No. 

Kelvin? Newton? Darwin? (Wait, Darwin wasn’t a physicist!)

And suddenly, the hurried breathing comes back. This—this—this doesn’t make sense! I studied so much! Why is this happening to me? I’m supposed to be acing this! 

My mind starts running in circles, and it takes only seconds before it struggles to breathe, too. And then Mrs. Shaw sees that something is obviously wrong with me and walks over to my seat.

No. No one can see me like this. Absolutely no one.

“Frances?” Mrs. Shaw asks soothingly. “Are you okay? Why don’t you take a quick breather and come back?”

I don’t respond with a single word. I slowly rise from my seat and walk out the classroom door. I sit against the wall and breathe heavily, hot tears ready to fall out of my eyes. 

“Why now?” I mumble. “I’m supposed to be okay. This happiness thing is all a big lie.”

I feel just at the peak of crying, yet I remind myself not to because that will only get in the way of my success (Will I be successful?). Once I calm myself down, I head back into class to continue the test. 

But things don’t continue as swimmingly as I wanted them to be. Each question is only a jumbled mystery in my brain that I can’t unravel, and although I try my hardest to answer them, I can see my success on this test ready to collapse.

Right as the bell rings, I hand in my poorly done assessment. I walk out of class wishing I didn’t have to go to English, even though it’s one of my favorites. The hallways and the kids around me are all nothing but a sea of blacks and grays, and all I want right now is to run outside and just ignore everything around me. 

***

It is 3:15 when I storm through the front door, completely ignoring my chef mother who’s making snacks in the kitchen. “Hey, sweetie!” she calls enthusiastically. “How’d it go?”

I don’t want to talk to her. Not now, not ever. I just can’t bear to remember the failure I was today, sitting at my desk barely unable to come up with a good answer.

I race up the stairs to my room, where I flop onto my bed and sob so harshly that the sunshine outside my window can’t bring me out of my despair. 

Can I drop out of school? I don’t want to go back there ever again! Heck, can I stay in my own house forever? Or maybe I can run away into the woods and live amongst the creatures so that I don’t have to encounter this evil world. Maybe—maybe—

I can’t. Stop. Breathing. That’s when the screams, the headaches, and the nausea come. I spin around in circles which leaves my head in a frenzy. No. No. I’ll never graduate. NEVER.

And then without thinking, I head to my desk.

Failure.

I stare at my wondrous friend, Sweet Sunset, who tells me to not fret and that he’ll come help me.

You’ll never be happy. Not in school, not EVER.

Maybe my brain is right. Nothing will make me happy. After all, everything is changing. I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m sixteen years old and am two years away from graduating high school and heading off into the real, terrifying world. If I ever graduate.

I give up. I can’t do this no longer.

Do it, Frances. Do it.

I pick up my sunset from my desk. “You idiot!” I sob. “You never did anything for me! Look at me! I’m a mess! I’M A MIGHTY AWFUL MESS, LET ME TELL YOU!”

I hear footsteps racing through the hall, and I bet that it’s my mom. But before she or anyone can stop me…

I begin to tear my creation apart. I rip it into shreds, little bits of ugly snowflakes hastily falling to the ground.

My mom races through the door and yells at me to stop. “No! No!” I yell back. “I’m a mess! I’m a mess!”

And then before I know it, all the snow is laying on my bedroom floor, every pink and blue hue a sad nothing. 

I stand there, shocked and horrified at what I’ve done. Me, a messy, broken failure. I can barely do anything but stare at my bedroom clock. It’s 3:18. How could something so terrible happen in such a short time?

My mom wraps me in a hug and tells me that everything’s okay. But it’s not. 

The regret seeps into me, black tar trying desperately to poison my body. And it works. I feel so much shame, so many terrible feelings. 

What did I do? What did I do? What did I do?

***

Almost every single person I know waits anxiously until Friday, when they can choose whether or not to study that day (most likely the latter) and just be a teenager again. Not me, or at least throughout this week. I can’t help but look out at the sky and remember what a horrible fool I am for the mess I made that terrible Monday. Every class and every lunch period involves me sitting in my seat, my eyes staring at a bottomless nothing as the world flies by without me. And whenever I do have time, I hide in the bathroom stall and sink my head down, my heavy brain letting the tears flow until my eyes become a sorrowful, gloomy desert.

Today is the day everyone was waiting for, but I don’t care. I’m sitting alone as I normally do at my typical lunch table when I hear footsteps around me. “Hey, Frances.” 

It’s Kelsey. Oh God. I can’t have her see me like this.

“You okay? Can I sit with you?”

I can’t bear having Kelsey’s kindness bear down on me when I’m such an awful mess. I reply sharply, “Leave me alone.”

Kelsey doesn’t budge. She sits right down anyway, putting her loving hand on top of my shoulder. “You sure? You seem really depressed.”

That’s it. I had enough. 

I throw Kelsey’s hand off my shoulder like it’s a cloth toy and look at her straight in the eye with a face just like the devil. “CAN’T YOU SEE, KELSEY?!” I scream. “I’M A MESS! A HORRIBLE MESS! CAN’T YOU JUST RESPECT THAT?!”

Kelsey appears stunned by my sudden meltdown. “You’re right,” she whimpers. “I’m sorry.” As she stands up to leave, a salty sea of tears begin to form in her eyes.

But just when I’m finally alone again, even more footsteps begin to come up behind me. “Frances? You want to talk?”

That voice sounds so familiar, yet it’s a voice I really don’t want to hear. I turn around and see our school counselor, Mrs. Pugh. But why do I need to talk? All I want is to be alone! Why doesn’t anyone get that?

“I don’t want to,” I reply stiffly.

“You sure? I’m pretty sure Kelsey felt bad by what you said. Maybe we can talk about how you feel.”

“Why do I need to talk about how I feel? She didn’t get that I had to be alone! I had to tell her! I’m a sick monster, after all!”

“Well, whenever you’re ready, my door’s always open. Just try to think about your actions for a bit.”

And once again, I’m finally alone. Thank God for that, because I don’t need help from anybody! Not Mrs. Pugh, not Kelsey, NOBODY! They can’t help me to be okay! I will never be okay! 

After all, if I can’t find happiness, then why do I need help to seek it?

***

It’s already 3:00, and all I want is to sink into my bed and never get up. 

That’s exactly what I do when I sulk up the stairs and into my bedroom. The sunshine is brighter than ever, yet I don’t bother to give a quick hello to it. Then, when I pass by my desk, I notice something recognizable: a pile of my torn-up artwork—my broken regrets—sitting right next to a note from my mom:

Just in case you wanted to keep it. It’s still beautiful to me.

Love you, Frankie girl.

Mom <3

Who cares? It’s nothing but a shredded mess now, so what can I do about it? All my happiness is smaller than a microbe. 

I head over to my bed and hide under the covers, my black and gray world getting even darker. My brain becomes a thirty-five pound weight, and a raincloud of sorrow ties me up like it’s kidnapping me. It hurts so much to even stare at a wall. When the pain becomes too much, I close my eyes.

But just as I am in the midst of my extreme melancholy, I hear a whisper so tiny not even a person with perfect hearing could listen to it. “Frances. Frances…”

I open my eyes at the sudden recognizing of my dead friend. “Sweet Sunset?” I mumble, just at the point of crying. “You’re still alive?”

“Well, not exactly,” my torn-up sunset responds. “But I can still talk to you, which is still really important. But why are you there? What’s wrong?”

And that’s when I lose it, crying without any end in sight. When I do eventually calm down, I tell it all my regrets and all the horrible events that happened to me since then. 

“Poor girl,” says my sunset in a voice with a melancholy almost as big as mine. “I wish you weren’t so miserable. But even though you can’t change the past, you can always make things better in the present. With that in mind, Frances, you can find happiness.”

“What? But how?” I croak, confused by what I just heard. “I’ve tried, and I failed. I’ll just live and die unhappy, I guess.”

“No, you won’t. Come. Get out of bed and walk over to me.”

I do exactly what I am told to do, even though I am 1,000% sure that I probably shouldn’t be listening to my spirit friend. Has he gone mad? I don’t think he even knows what he’s saying! Happiness doesn’t exist for me anymore!

But here I am, at my desk. Here we go…

“So, what do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Take me and go make something beautiful.”

My confusion becomes so big that it squeezes my brain really hard and latches on to it. I’m still pretty sad, and with a heavy brain, how can you make something beautiful? 

But at the same time, some of the depression has dissipated to the point where there’s some space for trying again, so why not?

I pick up two pieces from my beloved sunset, and as my mind spirals with possible ideas, my depression disintegrates even further to the point where it’s basically nothing.

And then, like a miracle happens, I have an idea. 

I search through my closet for empty hangers I don’t need and take a white one. Then I rush over to my art station in the right corner and picked out some yarn, tape, and my pink scissors. There. Now I have everything I need.

I head over to my desk and begin creating. I snip shapes and tape things onto yarn and hang those yarn pieces onto my hanger. I even smile and giggle while I do so (Isn’t that funny?). And then I finally have a yarn-paper waterfall full of yellow-orange suns, pink hearts, and blue moons. I even added some colored ribbon to it, adding a bright rainbow to my glorious creation. 

I hang my piece onto my closet door and step back to look at my work. And to be honest to you, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my entire life. It reminds me of a child’s mind, filled with color and life and silly childish nonsense. And then memories of my happy childhood start running up to me and begging for my attention. I used to keep them away, as I wasn’t the happy kid I used to be. But I think now I can let them in my brain, and so I do.

Wow. Why do I feel so…so…happy

My mom opens the door to my room, and I tell her to be careful. “Why so?” she asks.

I point to my beautiful work on the wall. She gasps as if she’s looking at an Alexander Calder piece, only more innocent than innovative. “Oh, I’m so proud of you, Frankie girl,” she exclaims, hugging me in an embrace that feels like warm joy. “How were you able to do this?”

“Just…creativity,” I respond. And then I suddenly find myself crying tears of joy. It’s so weird, yet I don’t care. “Momma, I want to be happy.” I whisper. “In fact, I will be happy. I’ll try.”

My mom hugs me even tighter, probably as a thank you for what I just said. “That’s all I ever wanted to hear for years,” she replies.

***

I go to Mrs. Pugh first thing after school Monday. She gives me a warm, loving smile when I go into her office, which welcomes me rather than stabbing me. I sit and talk about all the issues I’ve had ever since the end of eighth grade and how it was wrong for me to scream at Kelsey on Friday. At the end of it all I cry softly to her, “I think I need help.”

Then I sob harder, my regret for hiding my emotions stinging me to the point where I can’t move my body. Mrs. Pugh touches my shoulders and says, “Thank you for sharing that with me, Frances. It must have been so hard for you to talk about your pain, but I’m glad you did. That way I can help you get better.”

Is this what hope looks like? If so, I’m pretty sure I just found it, and I’ve never felt happier.

Mrs. Pugh tells me that she can meet with me Fridays after school from now on, and I happily accept the request. I walk out of her office brighter than I ever felt, hopeful that my terrible emotions can dissipate to a smoky nothingness.

And just as I am about to walk out of school, I see someone familiar by the trophy display: Kelsey. Normally my terrified brain would force me to run out of the building and never look back, but maybe this time I should say something to her. I walk up to her, and when Kelsey turns around and sees me, her face appears stunned at my presence.

“I know, I know,” I begin, “I probably shouldn’t be here right now. But I have to say this. I’m so, so sorry, Kelsey. I really am. Things were going on with me, and that probably made me all stupid. But I would never hurt you, and I feel really bad for that.”

Kelsey gives me the same loving smile she always gives to people like me. “It’s okay,” she replies warmly. “I understand that you may have been having a rough time. But no matter how I feel, I still forgive you. We all have our rough days. Hey, wanna share phone numbers? Maybe we can hang out sometime this weekend!”

Wow. Never in three years has someone been so nice to me like that. It feels so wonderful to be loved. I say yes immediately, and we both decide to meet for smoothies on Sunday.

***

So many beautiful things have happened these past eleven days. I feel my soul being lifted to substantial heights, and believe me, it’s quite a beautiful thing to feel. I’m no longer a bird desperate to hide in its cage, but a bird who’s really to fly in the sky. I don’t know how the rest of junior year will be, but I know for sure that when a challenge comes, I’ll take it on with might rather than hiding in the darkness.

Speaking of sky, I should probably say something to a very special someone for my sunny disposition. As I walk out of school, I can tell that my sunset can hear me loud and clear. 

“Thank you, Sweet Sunset,” I say out loud without a care in the world. “Thank you for teaching me.”

The End 🙂


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