It was the first of many days. 23 children lined up in front of the classroom door, which swung open to a little classroom, held open by pretty Ms. Sara. Origami papers of every color decorated the walls, a letter from the alphabet written on each piece. 23 pairs of eyes looked around full of excitement, as they start the journey that will determine their future.
Ms. Sara cleared her throat, and the children shuffled to get in their seats. There were 12 wooden tables. Each table built for two, neatly arranged into four rows. Leaving one table to be occupied by a student, alone. The little boy with the blue jacket sat there. For a second, all on eyes were on him, and his frayed blue jacket. Most of the children wore a new sweater for the new school year, some wore inherited goods, but all were in decent condition.
The blue jacket had streaks of paint, partly faded, across the chest. A button was missing and the left pocket had a small rip. It was small, but big enough for the judging eyes to spot. The little boy could feel his cheeks heated from the unwanted attention, so he kept his head down. Ms. Sara cleared her throat again, and all eyes returned to her. All except mine. I let my eyes linger a bit longer, at the boy and his blue jacket.
“Good morning everyone! Welcome to Kindergarten A!” Ms. Sara beamed, enthusiastically. Taking a brand new marker from her pocket she wrote on the board, in big bold letters, DREAM. Turning back to her students she said, “Now, I’m aware that some of you are not very fluent in reading – yet. The word on the board says ‘Dream’. Can anyone tell me what a dream is?”
Hands bolted in the air, as the children were eager to impress their new teacher and fellow classmates, a desire naturally embedded in the human soul. Ms. Sara pointed to Louis, who sat in the first row and had his hand up first.
“It’s like another life. A life that you can only see when you are sleeping at night,” Louis answered, his eyes full of confidence in all seriousness. “I guess dreams could we something we want. But we can’t really get when we wake up in the morning. That’s why I like to sleep, so I can pretend the dreams are real.”
“No, silly! not that kind of dream” interrupted Lisa, who sat right next to Louis, “what miss is trying to tell us, is what we want to be when we grow up. Like for example, I want to be a pretty ballerina when I grow up.”
Ms. Sara smiled at her enthusiastic students, surprised by the outspokenness and knowledge young minds possessed today.
“Both of you have very interesting answers, and I would like to know more what you dream to be when you grow up,” Ms. Sara replied, her eyes scanning the room. Her eyes rested on the little boy with the blue jacket, who still held his head down.
“Tommy, how about you?” Ms. Sara asked in a softer tone.
Tommy had dreaded being called. But with his hands deep in his blue jacket’s pockets, he slowly lifted his gaze towards Ms. Sara.
“Paint,” answered Tommy. In clear loud voice, louder than what the rest of the class expected. This time he didn’t look down. As if he wasn’t sure that the others didn’t understand what he meant, he continued,“You know, having different colors on like paper that makes a pretty picture. Because pretty pictures make people happy and I can make lots of money.”
“I also like to make people happy! I have a good voice, so I’m gonna be a singer!” chorused Milly from the second row.
“I’m good at sports, and my dad said I will be an athlete when I grow up,” another student beamed.
Dreams popped across the room like fresh popcorn, as no one wanted to be left out in boasting whatever talent they had, and how they can use it to make other people happy. All except me. I sat and observed, unable to join in. My four-year-old self did not share the urge to impress, nor the need to be accepted. Little did I did know, that this idea of needing to please the world would bring me struggles as I grew older.
Time flew, like a baby bird learning to fly. It seems to take forever but it is flying nonetheless. Before I knew it, I was in high school. We all have heard one too many stories of teenage struggles, finding one’s identity, peer pressure; all that super cliche stuff but end up being bestseller novels and movies. Cause that’s what people want to hear. A rejected character who ends up dating the high school star is one of the most unrealistic plot yet yields the most emotional responses. Cause that’s what people dream of, and could only continue dreaming of.
Louis moved quite a while ago because he got a scholarship to a new private high school out of town. Lisa never became a ballerina since hip-hop was now more popular. Milly was accepted into the school choir and dropped out, now trying to master the art of DJ for it’s what most people liked. And after Tommy talked about paint in kindergarten, I’ve never heard of him ever since.
Life went on for me. I still have not quite found the so-called passion, that everyone else seemed to have and had a great time pursuing, or so they acted. I still kept my grades moderate, not high enough to keep me studying all the time yet not low enough to spark my parents’ fury. I practice the piano at least an hour a day, and I do enjoy it. Even though I am not Lang-Lang, I still play at an intermediate level and I do enjoy it. My body did not come directly from a Calvin Klein ad. but did not make me feel to need to go through anorexia. I’m still considerably fit as I won second place last swimming season.
This made me pretty invisible to my surroundings, but my wonderful society manages to bully even the invisible. Thick, ugly, antisocial find its way towards me. But bullying would be yet another cliche high school story, and I have little care for such. So instead of complaining of the misery millennials like myself have to go through, my high school life was spent questioning it.
Sure my generation is no better than the previous, as we crave for even more superficial and materialistic rewards. But who’s to blame? Kids don’t become ambitious overnight. We’re forgetting who raised this generation. The expectations that society sets for us poison our minds. For everything we do is controlled by our so-called dreams and passions.
But really, what is it? Is it really something we love? Or is the result of attention and response that we love? Oh, and how wonderful people are, pursuing dreams for the happiness of others. What even is happiness? Who is to determine what makes one person fully happy without causing another person unhappiness? We all know that our freedom is what limits our freedom.
I told myself I didn’t care. I thought my not indulging myself in the craze of pursuing one’s dream, I would not be part of the fakery surrounding me. Masks are getting thicker, as the desire to be like others flourishes in our time. But no, I did care. Because like it or not, I still live in this society and it still affects my life. I became so sick of my own questioning, and lack of the humane desire of social status.
So I stopped. I stopped trying to find that so-called passion that would earn the people’s respect and awe. I did what I always did. I sat and observed. Instead of getting tortured in the pursuit of my passion, I watched how others pursued theirs.
I watched Louis, through his social media activity, and his complaints of his 7 am – 6 pm classes. I watched Lisa, in her distress as she failed to gain any significant fame or achievement through her hip-hop dance. I barely saw Milly, because she now works full time as a DJ at nightclubs; and end up trying to catch up some sleep the few days she showed up at school. I observed others as well. And I shared their distress.
Their passions evolved, from football or music, to whatever results in compliments and attention from the society. Whatever that could ensure security for their future, and buy their temporary happiness. They fed on their passions as their purpose in life. And their passions fed on them, enslaving them to reach the non-existent highest step of the society’s stairway. Even the richest man on earth did not remain as the richest man. It wouldn’t be long before someone else replaces that position. Even the smartest person, would be competed by another genius. And in the end, no matter how successful they became, how high they raised themselves, they all came crashing down. The inevitable takes over. Their passions and achievements long forgotten for their names are the only remnants of the gravestone.
All that I have observed brought me nowhere but distress. And then it struck me. Tommy - the boy and the blue jacket. The thoughts of what may have become of him are unbearable. I knew I had to find him. It was not that hard. He may have tried to get away from the society, but the society can never leave him.
His mother had an address where he believed he has been living in the last few years. It was when he decided to fulfill his dreams. Unhesitantly, she gave me the address and words of caution, “I myself have never tried to get in his way. He’s smart enough to know what’s best for him. But do not take him so bluntly. He may be an odd boy, but by all means, he is a good boy.”
Two hours was all it took for the train to reach the next town. Nothing significantly different from the town I came from. I saw nothing of interest that made Tommy chose this place. Perhaps creating a little distance from the world he knew, was what he needed. As I stepped out of the station, I took in a whiff of the air. The same cold air, polluted with the scent of the latest perfume that all the women were dying to buy, and a hint of the stench from the workers’ sweat in their pursuit of earning enough money to want more.
I waved my arm at a vacant taxi, and it quickly swerved to my direction. Motioning me to get in, I handed over the piece of paper that had Tommy’s address scrawled on it. The driver gave a funny look but took me there anyway. He dropped me off in front a large mansion, situated in a modern neighborhood. There goes my theory that Tommy dedicated his life to paint in humble surroundings.
As I rang the bell, the front door swung open. Revealing Tommy, in a blue jacket. It was not the same jacket he wore in kindergarten, there was no way it would fit him after all those years. He made a new blue jacket, but it had the streaks of paint as well as the missing button.
He smiled warmly, a hint of recognition flashed across his face but he didn’t bother asking who I was.
“Come in,” he said, “I’ll show you my paint.”
“Wait,” I answered, “I just wanted to ask, why is painting your passion?”
If he was surprised, Tommy certainly didn’t show it. He kept his smile and opened the door wider.
“Come on in,” he said again, “my paint will answer for you.”
Having come all this way on a completely irrational basis, I stepped in the house. I followed Tommy, taking in all the artwork that filled the house. The house itself was an artwork.
“I paint, but these are not mine,” explained Tommy, referring to all the hanged masterpieces, “people pay me to make painting according to their order. Customized.”
I nodded absently, suddenly overcome with a loss of words. I couldn’t seem to understand my rash decision of coming here just to observe someone in the pursuit of their passion.
As if reading my mind, Tommy continued, “I like to paint, because pretty pictures make people happy. They are happy because they can choose how the picture looks like. What colors they use, what scene is pictured. And if I make a mistake, I can cover it up or just restart on a blank canvas.”
“So, that’s why painting is your passion?” I inquired, finally finding my voice.
“Passion? Friend, life is full of complications, there is no need to further complicate it,” Tommy replied in a soft tone, “If you are finding passion, it's like finding a missing button on my jacket. The button did not fall off because I never made the button in this place. But people think it’s missing and they try to come up with different buttons to convince me to mend it. But how can find a missing a button that never went missing? We all make passion seem like something that needs to be found, and people have different ideas what it should be. That’s why people change their goals and passion over time. Because it doesn’t fit. It never went missing, it doesn’t need to be found.”
I looked up in anticipation for further, although I knew he was not used to talking at such lengths.
He took a deep breath before finishing, “You can either spend your life pursuing your passion, or you can spend life living your passion.”