“Have you thought about art school?” Ms. Pacelli, my art teacher, examines my photographs as I slide them into the sleeves of my portfolio.
“School’s not my thing. I’m here because I have to be.”
“I hope you continue with photography. It would be a waste not to. You’ve got a phenomenal eye for it.”
I turn the page for access to an empty sleeve. “I’m going to be a photographer.”
“What’s your plan to make it happen? The fall semester of your junior year is the time to start trying to finalize those. It’s how to do less scrambling this time next year.” She persists.
“I have a gut feeling. Following it is what I plan to do.” I continue the after-school assignment I gave myself.
“Plainly put, in a few years, your work will be on par or exceed what’s in museums and galleries. Going to a reputable art school will help you hone in your craft, and it would allow you to jump over a major hurdle in the gallery system. Professionally trained artists gain easier access. It’s an out-dated mindset; many claim it no longer exists, but it does. You have enough odds stacked against you. I want to see you succeed, Chelsea, I really do.”
“My grades aren’t…” I try to think of the best way to phrase it.
Teachers don’t like it when you tell them, “being judged for twelve years tends to do more harm than good, and I’ve opted out.” My mother, an English teacher at a neighboring high school, certainly hates it. I learn the material; I participate in class. My homework is optional, and I can’t recall a time I’ve studied for a test. I do my projects, though, especially group ones. I like presenting my work, and I don’t want to be known as the person who doesn’t carry their weight when others rely on them. The grade I get on them is disregarded, typically discarded in the recycling bin as I’m walking out of class.
“School’s not really my thing,”I say, sticking with the tried and true response works best.
“Are you failing any of your classes?” Ms. Pacelli remains optimistic.
“No, I would’ve heard about it.”
My parents regularly check my grades via the school’s online portal. I would’ve been subjected to a long sit-down discussion if I had an F. A low D would earn me a reminder during dinner. I know from witnessing them do it to my older brother Elijah.
“As long as you’re passing, your portfolio will be able to fill in the blanks. I’ll write you a letter of recommendation glowing so bright that they’ll be able to see it from space.”
Her endearing enthusiasm and belief in me make me smile. “I’ll look into them.”
“Please do and keep me posted. I can help you weigh your options.”
“The cost will be a huge factor. Art school’s not the smartest investment, and my family lives on a budget.” I tell her.
“There are plenty of scholarships out there. I can assist you with finding those too.”
“Are you like this with all your students, or am I special? I like being special.” I retort playfully.
“You have an extraordinary gift; that’s for certain. I have had talented students over the years. I encouraged them and made suggestions, but I let things fall as where they may. With you, with what you survived and endure, I feel I need to lend you my full support.”
My smile is wiped clean off my face. “I’m applying to schools and for scholarships. My grades will stay where they are. I’ll take care of it on my own. Thanks for the pep talk. It got a little condescending at the end, but hey, it’s your first try. With some practice, you should be able to be a savior with your very own charity case.” I snark as I stuff my backpack with my work.
“Chelsea, that’s not—”
“It is, and I don’t blame you. I tick major boxes – female, minority, mentally ill, possesses a talent – I’m a prime pick. My awareness doesn’t need to make our working relationship weird. Your class’s still my favorite. I’ll be in here bright and early tomorrow.” I look at her from in front of her classroom’s door.
“W-what about tomorrow?” She stammers, caught off guard by my blunt honesty.
“Doctor’s appointment. Have a nice weekend.” I sling one of my backpack’s straps onto my shoulder and leave.
My car is my destination. Well, it’s Grammie Mae’s car, but she got her license suspended for refusing to wear her glasses. She says they made her look old. Grammie Mae is seventy-five. I don’t know what her expectations are, but they and my offer to chauffeur her around are how I have many places to go when I need solitude. Right now, it’s where I’m organizing my portfolio. I spent too much time in the darkroom to let my newest pictures get damaged in my bag. Listening to music relieves my anxiety as I work.
Mom is none the wiser when I hug her in her school’s auditorium.
“I’m going to art school.”
“You’re what?” She steps out of our embrace but keeps her arm around me.
“Attending a college for art. I don’t know where. I haven’t looked or applied, but I’m doing it. I’m going to become a better photographer.”
“The last time we discussed college, you said a university is the last place you would go after graduating.”
“That was such a long time ago.”
“It was last week.” She’s too quick to remind me.
“Today is a new day, the day I decided a school where art classes are my only classes will be a good fit for me. Ms. Pacelli recommended it.”
My word should be enough, but she and Dad take my ideas more seriously when I have a co-signer.
“Research schools and make a list of your favorites. We’ll visit them and see which one is the best fit.” Mom gives me a sincere reassuring smile.
“I’m going to do clothing fittings for the actors in my mommy’s play first. Is that okay with her?” I bat my eyelashes.
“Yes,” She’s fighting a smile. “Thank you for your help.”
“Your mother taught me to sew. You should be thanking her.”
“She won’t know it’s me unless she puts on her glasses.”
“I admire Grammie Mae’s conviction. I hope to be that stubborn about my fashion sense when I’m her age.”
The sense of relief the washes over her at my mention of getting older doesn’t go unmissed. “You’re off to a good start. We argue about your wardrobe styling every morning.”
“I’m respecting my elder by expressing myself. I’ll honor you by doing a good job on these costumes.” I give her a hug and continue down the aisle.
“Has school gotten better for you since you joined the art club?” My therapist looks up from his notepad.
Sardonically laughing, I say, “Becoming a member of a misfit collective? No, it hasn’t made high school more tolerable.”
“You’re spending time with people your age with common interests. Friendships are bound to form. Give it time.” Stan reassures.
He has me call him by his first name as a gesture of comradery. My last therapist had me do it as well. I guess it’s supposed to make me feel like I’m talking to a friend, not a professional trained and paid to help me handle my innermost thoughts.
“They’re all introverted. I’m ‘a bit much’” I use my fingers to make quotation marks. “Some – most of the time, and then there’s my albatross. I can smell their fear. Our lives are hard enough without me forcing myself on them. Art club is a way for me to develop photos in the darkroom after school hours, nothing more.”
I’ve been seeing therapists since I was thirteen. Mom was the first to notice that something was off about me. There are periods in which I chat with everyone I encounter at speeds beyond comprehension. I’ll stay awake until the wee hours of the morning, trying to bring as many of the new art project ideas buzzing in my brain to fruition. Functioning on very little sleep isn’t an issue in the slightest. I have to be reminded to go to rest. Hypomanic Chelsea is invigorated, bursting with creative energy, and wants to welcome the entire world into her inner circle. What comes up must come down. Depressed Chelsea’s attributes were dismissed as teenage angst at first. Dad had the misfortune of discovering at her worst. The looks on their faces when I woke up in the hospital will haunt me forever, just as what I did lingers with them.
The way they look at and deal with me drastically changed after they bore witness to the darkest side of my illness. Assumptions are no longer made. Along with openly communicating with me daily, Mom and Dad have me see a therapist twice a month. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, and understanding that there’s no cure for bipolar II were the orders my initial psychiatrist gave after issuing my diagnosis. My parents see to it that I follow through. I don’t resist…often. They can hover too close sometimes.
I haven’t had a major episode in three years; life wouldn’t be what it is without a few bumps in the road, but there haven’t been any ambulance rides or hospital stays. Despite my stability, my classmates are still leery of me – the girl who tried to kill herself in middle school. The whispers behind my back have lessened, but they remain a fixture of my school experience. I don’t have friends there, but I have them. I prefer being around people, but I have never been afraid to be alone. It often comes in handy.
“Do you socialize with people your age elsewhere?” He resumes taking notes.
“Yes. My mom’s an English teacher and in charge of the drama club at another high school. Their theater budget is abysmal. Child labor is the only way to put on shows. I paint sets, sew costumes, and film live performances. I’m friends with all the cast and crew members. After parties, regular parties, random after-school fast food runs – we do it all. I go to concerts, shopping, and other places with them too.” Still seated on the couch, I stretch.
He’s nodding his approval as he adds it to my dossier. “Do you approach them? Or do you wait for an invite?”
“Both. If there’s a show I want to see or a place I want to go, I ask people who I know will enjoy them to join me. Yeses aren’t guaranteed by any of us, but asking and replying isn’t hard for me.”
“Do you have meaningful conversations? Or are all your interactions surface-level?”
“They don’t know my entire medical history, but I share enough to feel understood. I do, they do the same, and we consider ourselves friends.”
“Has transferring to their school been considered?” He peeks at me from behind his paper.
“My parents tried my freshman year. Where we live makes me ineligible. We’re out of the school’s district. We have family that lives in it, but using someone else’s address to attend a school is against the law.”
“An exception can be made, surely, given the circumstances.”
“I’m a junior.” I shrug. “I’ll be free in a year and a half. I can power through with blinders on.”
“Do you have post-graduation plans?” Stan segues.
“I’m going to art school.”
He nods his approval. “Where do you want to go?”
Plans, plans, plans. Why can’t an idea and motivation never be enough?
“I’ll know when I know, and I’ll pass it along. I'm going to do it. That I do know.”
I've come too far not to.