I started with watercolors instead of washable markers and crayons. I subsequently loathed markers and crayons when I was finally introduced to them. Colors were usually limited to only ten distinctive options. Maybe eleven if they included a pink. Boring, I whined as a bratty four-year-old. Watercolor entices the expansion of your given palette, the blocks of ink close enough to guarantee a delightful accident. I spent hours playing alchemist, my imagination staining innumerable paper towels from cleaning off brushes. Whatever I imagined, I gave myself the responsibility to birth it, training myself in the playful temptation of creation. Of course, this was the brief period of time before dreams were only okay as long as you didn’t believe in them too much. A year later, at age five, I learned the world was confusingly unfair after a class friend and her family were killed by a drunk driver without warning; a hardened heart isn’t healthy at an early age but I recognized dreams often die, too. That never made me settle for just ten colors, though (or maybe eleven).
In fifth grade, every day right after recess, I was pulled out of class with five others. We were part of a tentative study of “smart kids,” reaped from gifted assessments we took in fourth grade. I was a “twice exceptional” – highly gifted and talented with a mental disorder, an interesting asset for researchers. Uncomfortable, I despised both admirations and belittlement from adults who decided to merit me with a blue medical report and a congratulations letter. As guinea pigs, we tested experimental enrichments, scratching out solutions to algebraic problems on lime graph paper. Fitful clicking ricocheted around the room, our lead repeatedly snapping as if the mechanical pencils we received were syringes desperately pumping fragile steroids into our fledgling potentials. If the medicine ever worked, I don’t know; they took the data and left. I’m still a cerebral wild card, a clumsy renaissance man, an Icarus that flies too close to the ocean than the sun, a scarred and self-taught wielder of the double-edged sword. Regardless of how I turned out, I don’t let two pieces of paper tell me who I am.
In middle school, I never understood “getting the main idea” from a reading assignment. I lived my junior high career as a heretic, never highlighting that priceless one-sentence summary we were indoctrinated to ceaselessly sniff out using an alphabetized list of context clues. Okay, admittedly, part of it was out of spite (bless my 8th-grade teacher’s heart). But to this day, whenever I highlight something, I’m chasing after bizarre-looking butterflies and white rabbits – what I do and don’t understand; there’s no difference. Sporadic stripes of neon serve as a map of my curiosity; the summary is a footnote that I’ll put at the bottom of my works cited page and probably neglect to put in my essay altogether. I inherited the mantle of the intellectual gadfly, the pride of Socrates: pestering dead poets and playwrights for their techniques and personal lives, stalking the posse of sci-fi and fantasy authors on universe building, ransacking essayists for their social commentaries, exploring the proclamations and pamphlets of history’s greats and terribles. Forget about the summary; it’s still a hobby of mine to drag the devil out of the details.
I never liked pens. You can’t erase ink, and my handwriting is an ugly hybrid between print and cursive, the lines bleeding too closely together making my e’s look like c’s and my g’s like gaunt commas. Because of the erratic pace of my hand, my letters often smear too. But I use pens to scribble out dumb ideas and write more absurd ones underneath them. I always attempt to be organized when writing with a pen. That never happens, of course: smeared ink and half-hearted doodles infest the margins and any white space between them. My idle ambition slumbers until I pick up a pen – ink has permanency and confidence graphite lacks, elements required to smelt lofty dreams into actual goals: the consequence of use could be the forming cartilage of a masterpiece or another reminder to celebrate my human failure. Whatever the result, I disown my notes and maroon them cabinets, lulling their unappeased spirits back to sleep, empty-handed without deserved credit. They come back, however, whenever I dash out my signature on a dotted line, claiming something captive in my name, ultimately having the last laugh.
Chinese calligraphy, like all things in the Sinosphere, could not be simple. It could’ve been just a writing style. But it also had to be an art; a discipline; a cultivation of character. In other words, bitterly difficult. Despite its reputation, the technique and form aren’t usually what drives beginners away – it is the ubiquitous demand for patience. Children fail superbly, me being no exception. It takes time to know the right amount of pressure to apply on a hook stroke while resisting the urge to flick your wrist. The brush is traditionally considered as an extension of the calligrapher’s body, coinciding with his or her virtuosity. If you can’t subdue your impatience, you forfeit your concision and clarity. I’ve pulled at my hair more often than not just from writing my own name while growing up. Even worse, my younger sister was extolled by a master calligrapher, doing wonders on my then prepubescent ego. Eventually, matured with humility, I learned mastering anything requires investment in myself first; and even more difficult, to be patient with myself afterward.
[no. 2 pencil]
You must use a No. 2 pencil or you will not be scored.
Caleb Pan is a stressed out teenager who enjoys hash browns and maintaining his 4.0 GPA. He’s an avid reader, writer, coder, and martial artist in his free time.