The Things They Carried in High School

The style of this short story is inspired by the first chapter of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. However, instead of discussing the burdens of the soldiers of the Vietnam War, this piece details the more mundane burdens of your “average” high school student.

The Things They Carried in High School

First, Aspen Taylor carried letters, letters she had written to herself over the summer. In all her worries and anxiousness, all her curiosities and speculations, she had written to herself about what she thought the school would be like, what she wanted and what she didn’t. She wrote with the most eloquent of diction, the most eloquent she could manage, and she wrote how she hoped to improve in four years.

When she lacked time for letters, Aspen Taylor made lists; she carried these lists each day at school. She made bucket lists to complete in high school; she made to-do lists of what had to come first. She listed her goals as she counted her dreams. Aspen was born with a pen in her hand, and she lived off the fragrance of paper and ink. Her goals were born on paper, and her goals were the papers of the future. She carried lists and letters, she carried stories and ideas, she carried more in her mind and held them tight, carried them until she could write them down.

Amid the student body, the things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Students carried backpacks that could never hold enough. They carried pencils and pens and erasers and papers; they carried notebooks and binders and folders and booklets. John O’Malley carried headphones: these were always essential to him. They only carried textbooks when teachers requested, as textbooks were too heavy to carry day by day. They carried homework and study guides and practice tests; the juniors carried the most of these, and the seniors carried the least.

A few took extra notes in class, so they could carry every word; others carried laptops, and would later research what they heard. The school gave them agendas to carry, which some students never touched. Others used them to carry notes of assignments; Aspen used hers to carry all her lists.

To Zoe, every page was a canvas, every margin on every sheet. She traced her mental images, gave faces and features to all she felt. Once she drew her mother, on the day she hurt the most. She carried the image in her agenda, but looked at it only once.

Everyone carried stress, in some form or another. Priya felt it in her shoulders, squeezing as if pushing back against the pressure that she carried. She knew what caused her stress, and she knew what stress could cause. She knew it caused her stomach aches, and the burning in her chest. She knew it made her head hurt, her retinas burn and her muscles weep. She knew her stress was killing her, everyday when it made her heart race, but she could never drop it off her shoulders, could never take a break. She could only push forward, grit her teeth, trudge down the path that was chosen for her.

What they carried was partly a function of interest, or at least that’s what they claimed. John O’Malley carried his jersey, his helmet, and bags of padding, at least in the early morning and in the evening when he went home. He carried the legacy of his father, once quarterback for the Fighting Irish. He carried the excitement of his mother, who boasted for his every touchdown. As a freshman, he had carried passion for football; he had played for the love of the sport. As a junior, he carried the weight of college, a burden of pressure pushing down upon his shoulder pads. As a senior, he carried a contract; he carried a promise to follow his father’s dream, the dream his father had before his knee decided otherwise.

Arthur Lee carried his scripts and poems, and always a song between his ears. His mind never left the stage; his heart beat to the melodies of language and intricacies of speech. He carried his personas — he could morph into any one — and he carried his confidence on stage, but in the hallways, he just acted. He carried his mask wherever he went, showcased everything but what he truly felt.

Zoe carried paintbrushes, more than she could count. Markers and ink pens of every shape, size, and color — at least one was always glued to her left hand. She carried her sketchbook in every class; she let her mind roam free while the minds of others were unwillfully bound to the complexities of history and math.

Some lacked what they wished to carry, and carried loss instead. Zoe carried the gap in her heart where her mother was supposed to have been, carried the childhood memories of her mother’s warm embrace. She carried the love, still, to this day, and everyday she did her best to send love back. Zoe carried images, carved in her mind like stone, still shining white like the hospital walls from all those years ago. This showed up in her paintings, once, as a break from carrying it in her mind alone. For all the memories that she carried, Zoe was determined to carry on.

O’Malley carried flowers, once, for the girl that he admired. He had grown up with her amber curls, and he had gazed at her emerald eyes since middle school. He remembered that day in kindergarten, the day he first learned her name. Ella Jane, Ella Jane — in his mind, he always carried the sound of her name.

Ella Jane could have carried a dozen roses, but she had no desire for flowers. She chose not to carry O’Malley’s love; he found the flowers left behind.

Carmen Lopez carried what she was afraid to lose; she carried her family, all her siblings. She drove them to school each morning at dawn; she helped them which homework each evening at dusk. Carmen carried her love for them, often worried for them throughout the day; she carried extra worry when she heard about their bullies, and when she heard about the worries that all her siblings carried.

They carried what they wore; what they wore was a shell of what they felt. Arthur Lee always aimed to look his best, knowing that all are actors on the stage that is the world. He wore dress shoes and tailored vests, collared shirts with ties and cuffs. He carried a comb to keep his hair just right, and mints to refresh after lunch, before his show. He carried his mask in his image and speech; he hoped he would never carry his father’s shame. He carried his mask to hide the secrets that he carried.

So many carried sweatpants; Priya wore them when she didn’t sleep. Perhaps everyone needs that bit of softness — those who lack softness in their dreams and minds need softness in the world around them.

Carmen often wore her work slacks and polo; she always carried her name-tag and badge. On the afternoons that she lacked a second to spare, she still carried the dreams of what could be one day; she carried her goals and the dedication to achieve them.

Nearly everyone carried dreams and goals, wishes and wonders and worries and apprehensions. They carried dreams of what they might carry after carrying their diplomas, and worries of what they would carry if they failed to reach their goals. It came as a tightness in their chests, a constant tugging at the gut, a feeling that every action, every choice, every word could mean the difference between pass and fail, here or there, in or out, succeed or displease.

Priya carried medical school, held it in her stomach like a stone. It filled her from inside and chilled her to the bone. She pondered it, everyday, tried to wrap her mind around the facts that would surely be her future. She felt the chills run down her spine, that stone sicken her gut. She carried the sullen knowledge that she all had carried so far would be nothing compared to what she would soon carry. She would carry weeks, months of sleeplessness; she would carry patients’  lives.

O’Malley carried his contract, but he didn’t carry a plan. His contract filled up his mind so much that he could never look within. He braced himself for long, hard training, more than he had trained so far — more than school practice, his personal trainer, his long talks at the dinner table. He carried expectations, his own fears and his father’s. He carried his family pride; he carried fear that he would lose his grasp.

John O’Malley didn’t carry a major; academics just weren’t his thing.

Zoe Birch carried portfolios, she carried masterpieces that paved her way to art school. Her mind was her canvas, her hands just a vessel, a vessel that brought her mind into the world. Zoe carried anticipation, excitement to refine her vessel and open her mind. She carried pride for her new college, no fears, no worries, no regrets. She carried the weight of memory, the face that would never see her works, and yet she carried determination to color her world anyway.

Carmen Lopez carried skepticism, and dreams that might be nothing more. She wished she carried savings, plans, but she carried her family first — she never knew for sure if her family could carry her. She searched for scholarships, day and night, dreamed that she could be a nurse. She wanted to care for everyone as she cared for her family; with love and heart and soul.

Carmen believed in the healing powers of love. She had felt how love coursed through her veins, kept her awake and strong through the hardest of times, gave her the strength to fight against all her greatest fears — fight to the death for her family, if the moment ever came. Carmen knew, knew in her heart, that when she stayed home from school to nurse her siblings, it wasn’t the medicine that made them well, not the canned tomato soup alone. It was the love she served it with, the love mined from the deepest chambers of her heart. Carmen longed to heal the world with love, but love bid her serve her family first.

Aspen Taylor carried goals on paper, rehearsed them in her mind. Once, she hung the papers on her wall, and read them every morning. She printed ideas in margins of notes, never missing one, dropping everything the moment a new one entered her mind. She wanted to carry her ideas forever, and minds are too capricious to safeguard every moment.

Aspen wasn’t satisfied with the passage of time, never wished it to simply pass by. She believed in the profound value of every second, every moment, every smile, and so she preserved them in her words. Aspen carried journals so that time could accumulate, so that memories could build upon one another and give each other meaning. When words just weren’t enough, Aspen carried her words as poems, trapped the truth between the lines. Everything she wanted to carry, she did, in her mind and then on paper.

Over time, their burdens grew heavy, dragging them down and slowing their steps. They felt their lower backs ache, their necks tense into boulders. Each morning, they filled their backpacks full, and could never squeeze them full enough. They carried lunches, water, and phones, whatever it took to survive the day. Each morning was a mission: a chance to live or die. In the evening, their quest was never over — the real work came at night.

Each night blended all the things they carried, filled with work and thoughts and fatigue. They emptied their backpacks and worked until they were full again, the never ending cycle of work. The work never ceased, not for breathing or resting or sleep. Sleep was a commodity; sleep was for the weak.

They always carried coffee; the clock had lost its measure. Coffee kept them up at night, helped them press through all the endless work. They carried the coffee so their goals could be carried; they pressed on and refused to let up.

At night, their minds were left to racing, unbound from words and lectures. At night, they could ponder anything, question themselves and question the world.

Arthur Lee questioned the fate of his world, if he ever removed his mask. No eyes would ever see him the same way, he was sure. Others may claim that nothing had changed. They would claim to carry on, to stay his friend and have no fear. But with a truth so fast, a secret so deep, to claim that nothing had changed could only be a lie. Truth was so closely laced with lies; this was why acting could work. On stage, the lie becomes the truth; the actor becomes the character and the plot is all that matters. When Arthur was on stage, he felt love, anger, fear, disgust; he threw himself into the arena and lived with his character’s soul. When he was on stage, he wasn’t Arthur, but his part. Only then, only acting as another, could Arthur ever feel true love and true emotion. When Arthur was just Arthur, all he could do was act.

Years after, they all carried memories, the nostalgia mixed with pain. They carried regrets too often, as most missed the friends that they hadn’t seen since graduation. At the time, everyone was just there, a part of the motley mosaic that made up their school, their lives, their world. Almost no one took time to consider the subtle impacts of the minor roles, the simple moments that made their world complete. Almost no one saved their contacts, almost no one made an effort, almost no one recalled the names and faces, at least not in entirety — but everyone felt the gap, that gaping hole left by all those faces that each person wished they had talked to more, wished they had talked to even once.

They carried old photographs to plaster their dorm walls, but most left their yearbooks on bottom shelves to carry dust. Months passed by, and curiosity grew like a vine, grasping to recover names and faces of those that had been left behind. Through all the struggles of the moment, the stresses of the day, almost everyone kept their old yearbooks for the moment the nostalgia came.

Years later, Aspen re-read her letters, and she marveled at how she had changed. She laughed at her own naivety, all the mistakes that she had made, all the thoughts of an innocent, unripe mind. Sometimes, she longed for the innocence, sighed at how what stressed her then was so simple compared to modern trials. Aspen smiled at the little things, thanking herself for taking the time to record the smaller moments, for letting time accumulate. There were gaps, of course, from all the times that she had lost herself and abandoned her pen, but the gaps reminded her of the importance of perseverance. Aspen re-read all her letters, and for once, she inspired herself. As long as she lived, from that moment on, Aspen always carried her pen.



Photo: mlejaster

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