Okay, I lied. It totally is—but it is also a story about hope and curiosity and how under the right circumstances, an unsolved mystery can be like a metaphorical lighthouse. Yes, I just said the phrase metaphorical lighthouse.
For awhile now, I’ve had this tidy plan for my high school posts. It involved character development and narrative arc and me making a timeline on a piece of notebook paper and I was going to be very chronological and organized. Those who know me will understand how laughable this is. You will understand that it just couldn’t last.
So I’m taking a small detour, because I’ve stumbled upon something I want to talk about. And by stumbled upon, I mean it was handed to me again and again.
In the last month or so, I’ve gotten a number of emails from people who are currently in junior high and high school and who’ve had some incredibly personal and insightful things to say about a deceptively rough topic: boredom.
A lot of the correspondences involve frustration—people wondering how to stay sane and if it will get better and most especially, how to survive it on a daily basis. These are good questions and to be frank, I have no answers. Boredom is a tricky thing and it comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. I can’t tell you how to beat it. But I can tell you what I did.
Here is an admission: for most of my life, I thought people who got bored were just lazy thinkers. I’d always been able to entertain myself, either with a book or a story I was making up, a long run with the dog or an impromptu living room dance-party with my sister. People who got bored just weren’t trying hard enough.
Then I started high school and boredom became my number-one hobby.
When people find out that I was homeschooled by hippies/gypsies/raised by wolves, a lot of times they’ll ask if public school was a big adjustment. I always say no. I tell them I adjusted well and adapted quickly and kept my head down.
And that’s true.
But there’s also another true thing, and anyone who’s ever worked with animals in captivity will spot the signs immediately.
Brenna at sixteen is restless—a fidgeter. She tears up looseleaf paper like a neurotic hamster and chews the erasers off her pencils and picks apart the layers of her pressboard desk. If she were allowed up out of her seat, she would pace just as tragically as the tigers at the zoo. She begins to wonder whether or not it is possible to die from boredom. Literally die.
Even in my despondency, I recognize that this is very melodramatic. In more enlightened moments, I scold myself for being a huge complainer, but do not actually stop. I spend most of November* thinking that at any moment, the weight of my boredom will become so crushing that my heart will stop. At night, I have dreams that I’m drowning, but it isn’t a wild, panicked kind of drowning. It’s slow and inevitable. I float. I wake up in the dark, mildly surprised that I can still breathe.
I am, at the core, a good student. I do what I’m told. Sometimes (read: often), I don’t do the work to the best of my ability, but I do it. When report card time rolls around, I morph into irreproachable-girl. I am courteous. I am never any trouble. I am a pleasure to have in class.
I’m sixteen years old and the closest I have ever come to being depressed:
I want to get out of here. I want to be gone. I want to stand barefoot on the grass and watch soccer games for hours and sleep in ‘til 8:00. Surely that’s not too much to ask, to sleep until it’s light out. I want to pick flowers and meet boys, nice ones, like you only meet in the summer.
We watched The Fugitive on TV last night. It was okay. My favorite part was the scene where Harrison Ford jumps from the top of the dam, but I guess that’s not surprising. My favorite scene in Alien 3 is where Ripley steps back off the catwalk into the vat of molten lead. My favorite scene in every movie is always that scene.
There’s just something so amazing about coming down from the highest point, like getting free from the world. It’s like god. It’s like crashing down out of a thirty-foot tree with your feet planted on a broken skateboard and your hands around a rope. It’s like when you step off the roof or the high-dive, or you jump out of my loft, and you know it might hurt when you land, but until then, you can’t feel a thing.
Just so we’re clear, this little treatis on falling does not in any way represent a death wish. However, while Sophomore Brenna is not precisely self-destructive, she has an adrenaline-junkie streak a mile wide and it’s straight-up incompatible with anything that involves sitting at a desk for eight hours a day (Grown-up Brenna says lo, how the tables of have turned).
To entertain myself, I begin to do strange, compulsive things. I make lists ranking which classes I hate the most, then rearrange them. It is always a tie between every class except PE.
Each subject comes with its own set of failings, but only one makes me desperately sad, and that is English. English seems like a personal affront, because I genuinely want to like it. I love reading and writing, I love books. A whole line of study devoted to books should be the best thing that ever happened to me. Instead, it is one big disappointment. It is basically like going to the most boring circus ever.
Although I often disagree with M’s teaching style, I never really blame her for not knowing how to control the classroom. I understand that her instinct to rule with an iron fist tends to make things worse, but honestly, what’s the alternative? I have no practical solution for the fact that at any given moment half the class is asleep and Lucas has been known to write obscene sentiments on the overhead projector and someone stole the pencil sharpener and the boys on the football team keep stapling homework assignments to each other’s hands.**
Thanks to alphabetizing, I sit in the last seat of the last row, right by the door. Against the wall behind me, there’s a long table for storing extra textbooks, spare copies of The Old Man and the Sea, and a balsa wood replica of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden. The cabin is defaced. Someone has written “Crack House” above the quaint little transcendentalist doorway with a pen. I like this. I feel that it is basically a metaphor for the entire class.
Because I like the model cabin, I turn around in my seat and stare at it a lot. M eventually notices and directs me to face front, but the damage has been done.
I start looking for other things to like. I look for facts to collect and mysteries to solve, because if you are in the process of solving a mystery, you can never be bored. They can be little things, like the missing pencil sharpener,*** or big things like people.
This is how I finally notice #4. You would think that being an inveterate watcher, not to mention very nosy, I would have already noticed him. After the fiasco with the pot-leaf shirt, he should occupy at least some of my attention. But he doesn’t. He fades right back into the scenery and I forget all about him, until one day, he comes into class with a long vertical scrape on his cheek.
It runs from just below his eye all the way down past the corner of his mouth and is a brilliant, stinging red. Before, he was a general fixture—a relatively undefined area of blue jacket, Cinderella-blond hair, downcast eyes.
Afterward, he becomes a point of interest. Like the transcendental crack house, he’s been defaced, rendered singular and imperfect. And I am going through a phase where I really love busted-up Greek statuary.
I could easily clear up the mystery of his lacerated cheek by asking him what happened, but that would require some kind of social interaction, so instead I wait for other people to ask. They don’t. He volunteers no explanation, which isn’t really surprising. He never volunteers anything.
In my head, I make up a secret identity for him in which he is as wild as I am. It involves bottle rockets and rope-swings, midnight capture-the-flag, scrub brush, gullies, branches in the face. It explains why he always sleeps through class—he’s exhausted from his other life. None of this is true, of course. Or maybe it is. I have no idea, which is kind of the point.
The curiosity is what matters and because I live for glimpses, tiny clues, the best part of my day becomes the times when he gets called on to read. This makes me feel guilty, because reading aloud is clearly not his favorite part of the day.
Ever since the shirt incident, M hates [#4]. She keeps calling on him to read aloud. He’s good at it, but he always turns bright red and won’t look at anyone. Sometimes she makes him stop and start over. “I need you to speak up, please,” she always says. “We can’t hear you.”
“Maybe you should get your hearing aid checked,” Lucas muttered once, and she heard that just fine.
Yesterday, she had him read “Eldorado.” He had to borrow Price’s textbook because he hadn’t brought his. M stopped him right away to tell him that gallant should be pronounced gall-i-ant. He started again, keeping his head down, stressing galliant like it was a dirty word. M let him get all the way to the end of the third stanza and then said, “It really ought to be pronounced Eldo-rad-do. Please start over.”
And this time, he just stayed quiet, looking down at the book. TS didn’t say anything, but it makes him my hero again, just for refusing to do it.
As is pretty clear from this entry, I thought M was wrong (in both her treatment of #4 and her pronunciation). I thought she was petty and infuriating and a bad teacher, but—and here’s the thing—afterward, I loved Poe better because of it.
This is not a solution. Loving something despite an unpleasant scene is not the antidote to boredom. But the thing is, even now . . . I remember that poem by heart. Those first three stanzas are lodged in my brain and the only conclusion I’ve come up with is that nothing takes place without reverberation.
Nothing can happen without touching something else, and sometimes the circumstance itself becomes the point and makes an essay or a poem even more interesting than it was on its own. #4 was a person, whole and complex, far more substantial than the person I made up in my head. But he was also the fiction—the boy with the scraped cheek who read Poe perfectly, and because it was interesting and unexpected, that made Poe perfect.
I don’t have answers. I don’t know how to make Health class exciting or save someone else from dreams of drowning.
All I can say is this: the only thing that made an appreciable difference in my quality of life sophomore year was searching for the extraordinary in every interaction, every location, finding something interesting or intriguing or new. Because mysteries make you practice thinking, even when lectures are boring and days are long and the thing that’s supposed to be making you think is really just a worksheet with fifteen questions on recurring motifs in The Merchant of Venice.
Curiosity matters because it pulls you out of yourself, out of your own head, and it shows you how to love things. It proves that you’re interested and alert and accessible, and most importantly, that you’re still breathing.
(The worksheet just proves that you read the book.)
*To this day, November is my least-favorite month. Even more than January.
**Yes. You read that right. Just . . . whatever you’re imagining . . . it was exactly like that.
***Not actually a mystery to anyone except M.