He sits alone, always alone, with his head down.
If the other students weren’t so loud you could hear pencil lead scratching the paper.
Not blank paper, or a sketchbook. Regular, loose leaf notebook paper.
He hides away and bides his time between classes- two hours from what I can gather- sketching away, recreating characters using the Japanese style anime (a hand-drawn style partnered with computer animation).
He’s invisible. To most everyone, but me.
Upperclassmen surround him, swiping their parent’s credit cards into the machine and waiting for their soft drink to dispense. Their backpacks brush against him. Still, he is invisible. He shifts the paper away and works on something else.
Images of them.
I believe youth like The Boy test us. They see us, every day. They know our names. They look at us while we look through them. They dare us to speak, administering a test that many fail. Every. Single. Day. We fail because society groups us into categories based on skin color, education, social status, eye color, age. And those categories have little room for the recruitment of anyone outside the approved social standing. Those categories offer even less hope for a boy who doesn’t play football in a football town, or a girl who doesn’t cheer for the football team.
The boy is skinny with a cleft chin that will complete his chiseled look five years from now. Five years from now girls will fight over him, but he wouldn’t believe that if I told him, so I kept those thoughts to myself, along with the hope that ten years from now he will be confident, and not feel alone.
I approach boldly, “anime?” I ask.
He nods, his hand moving furiously transferring whatever is built up inside onto the page.
“That’s very good,” I said. “Are you taking art classes?”
“Can’t,” he said with more vertical scratches across the page. “I’m only fifteen. Can’t take college level when you’re fifteen.”
“Who made that stupid rule?” I asked. “Anyone can take one look at your work and see how good you are. You should take college-level classes.”
He quickly hid the smile. Not once meeting my eyes.
After telling him my name I said, “Look. You don’t know me, but I recognize talent when I see it. I’m not an artist like you. But I would give anything to be able to draw like you do, or paint, or play music. Words are my art, but your work . . .well, I just want you to know that your work is awesome, and if someone isn’t encouraging you, I want you to know that no one encourages me either, but you must keep drawing.”
The words spilled from my lips and I’m sure he thought, I wish this woman would shut up so I can focus on my work. But I’d had a bad week, the kind of week where everything punched me in the gut and despite my positive thoughts, prayer, and power walks I still felt punched square in the muffin-top. Usually when I feel lower than a whale’s belly God places someone in my path.
Someone just like The Boy.
“So if you feel like no one encourages you, if you feel hopeless I just want to say, you’re not alone. I feel the same way, but I keep pressing on.”
The boy tucked his cleft chin. More pencil scrapes, then he reached into a stack of paper and fished out a drawing. I was a dark rendering of the character Eren Jaeger, known as Titan to those thirty years younger than me.
It was the kind of rendering that would cause students to panic, Titan holding a gun. But they didn’t know The Boy. How could they? They don’t see him! They don’t know about anime, or how it transforms an ordinary Eren Jaeger into someone who faces his fears and becomes someone with superpower. Older students had spent an entire semester ignoring him, talking through him and around him day after day with their backpacks bumping against him. As a group they happily ignored him while The Boy sat silent, three buildings away from students his own age.
Picking up the rendering of Titan I said, “Flawless. Absolutely Flawless.”
The Boy, who had spoken a total of eleven words, smiled.
Returning to my desk and the rest of the workday, I quickly forgot about The Boy, until he appeared at my door and presented me with an image he’d drawn for me. In the image Titan was jumping, hand extended punching through a large wall. At the corner of the page, the inscription: “To my inspirer. I will remember this day.”
I pressed the drawing to my heart and wept.
I shall remember, always.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches.