As a kid, I was happy.
Mom and Dad were good to me and always bought me nice things to eat, like fruit roll-ups and astronaut ice cream and Famous Amos cookies. Me being a good student and getting all A’s made them happy, too. The only bad thing was that when I was eleven, my older brother Philip got very unhappy and had to be sent off to a special school, so I never saw him.
Then I became a teenager, bones creaking, voice thickening, and I suddenly got unhappy too. No reason why. I just all at once staggered under the weight of a heavy unhappiness that seemed to come out of walls and ceilings and wrap itself around me. I saw shadows everywhere that didn’t exist, and I had thoughts like: WHAT’S THE POINT and WHY BOTHER?
Mom and Dad became concerned because I had lost interest in school, so we had a meeting with the Principal and a Counselor.
“Let’s talk about how you’ve been feeling,” the Counselor said while Mom and Dad and the Principal stared hard at my face. “You’re unhappy but you can’t say about what. And you don’t enjoy any activities or food anymore, and you stopped doing your schoolwork.”
He leaned in, showing sincerity with his eyes: “This happens to lots of boys your age. Most of them snap right back to normal. The important thing is to remember how lucky you are.” He listed things I should be happy about, like my mom and dad who loved me, and my brain that would guarantee me a good future.
“And let’s not forget your studies,” the Principal said. “Your grades which have declined. We all know what you’re capable of.”
On the drive home with the windows open and the breeze completely unenjoyable to me, Mom and Dad said they would start paying me one hundred dollars for every A.
But the unhappiness didn’t go away. Time passed and nothing improved. My brain just didn’t want to tell my body to do anything.
So we had another meeting in the Principal’s big, clean office.
“You’re stuck in an unhappy ditch, I guess,” the Principal said. “And let’s not forget your grades, which are stuck in the ditch with you. You know, the PSATs aren’t too far away.”
“Let’s try something else,” the Counselor said. ”Since this seems to be a longer-lasting problem than we hoped.”
Mom and Dad watched me closely with their brows furrowed. Lately they’d been looking at me like someone who was holding their son for ransom. I felt awful about disappointing them, just like my brother Philip had.
The Counselor said, “We’ll get you on some medicine that you take every day like vitamins. What they’ll do is scrub out this unpleasant feeling. Just scrub it out.”
“You’ll be able to enjoy things again,” the Principal said. ”Games. Friends. Schoolwork.”
So I was taken to a Doctor, and the Doctor gave me medicine. After a month, they’d had little effect. Mom and Dad insisted that it was working, but I knew they weren’t.
Mom and Dad stuck to their hopeful opinion until I took the PSATs and scored poorly. During the test, I saw shadows fall across the pages, covering the questions.
So we had our third meeting with the Principal and the Counselor.
The Counselor sat leaning forward in a chair, head down, fingertips pressed together. Mom and Dad had their heads down, too. The Principal stood in front of his desk, looking serious and decisive.
“We’ve tried the things that usually work,” the Principal said. “Now I think we all agree it’s time for the next step.” He took me gently by the arm and led me to a door in the back corner of his office. I had never been through that door before and didn’t know what was on the other side. Mom and Dad and the Counselor followed us through the door and down a long cream-colored corridor that led into a second corridor. One wall was clear plexiglas, and on the other side of the plexiglas were little pale cells, like an indoor zoo. Most were empty, but the Counselor led me down to the cell at the end, within which a giant rat beast was crouched, doing schoolwork.
The giant rat beast didn’t look up at us. It was the size of a dog. It had black, wiry sprouts of fur and an open, panting mouth and hairless pink hands shaped like an ape’s or a man’s. One hand held a black pen and wrote in a spiral notebook. A textbook sat open on the floor and the rat beast was transferring information from the textbook to the notebook. Sometimes a thread of drool fell from its mouth to the pages below.
“That’s your brother Philip,” the Counselor said. “We tried all the usual things with him, too. But ultimately we had to take drastic measures.”
“Look at him working,” the Principal said.
“Philip?” I said. The rat beast didn’t look up. I looked at Mom and Dad, who were nodding.
“It doesn’t hurt,” the Counselor said. “We just take you right into the other room.”
“You want to do that to me?” I said.
“Only if it’s what you want,” he said. “We already talked to your mom and dad about it. You’ll feel so much better. Look at him in there. His exterior is disturbing, but inside, he’s actually very, very happy right now.”
“And let’s not forget how much schoolwork he gets done,” the Principal said.
“Or his grades now,” Dad added.
“The idea does take getting used to,” the Principal said. “But at this stage, it’s what I would recommend.”
Mom and Dad were nodding at me. Dad took Mom’s hand and squeezed it. The Counselor patted my shoulder.
“Be changed,” he said in a kind voice. “You’ll be so happy.”
And that was the day I became who I am.
Photo By: Eric E Castro