B. J. Hollars
At eleven years old, I am tasked with creating the world. It's my mother's idea. Not to create the world, but to enroll me in the summer writing camp at the university where that world building will take place.
"You'll love it," she'd promised as we packed my bag. "You'll meet kids just like you."
She'd meant kids who preferred reading words to speaking them, kids who'd rather imagine a world than live in the one they had. I was that kid precisely. But I was also the boy in the beanbag chair half-hidden behind a National Geographic. And the boy at the bookstore who stayed until the employees flipped the "Open" sign to "Closed." I was the boy who settled into every Friday night with a stack of books and a chocolate bar arranged on the bedside table—both of which I devoured. At summer writing camp, I imagined such a ritual repeated every night of the week. I couldn't get there fast enough.
My parents drop me off at the university dormitory on a Sunday afternoon. They park the car, remove the bags from the trunk, and then help me lug my luggage up the stairwell. Each step up that stairwell brings me one step closer to the adventure that awaits. I feel like a character in the first chapter of a chapter book—equal parts nervous and ecstatic.
Entering the dorm room, my eyes scan the bunk beds, the dual desks, and the closet with the empty hangers. My father places a box fan in the window and sets it on high, while my mother takes charge of the unpacking, carefully folding my husky-sized shirts in the dresser drawers across from the bed.
I hear footsteps and turn to see a boy in a button-up with a shock of red hair grinning from the doorway. It's my roommate Dale from Missouri, accompanied by his parents. He clutches a narrow white box in his hands, which I recognize as a baseball card holder. My eyes widen. For me, baseball cards are second only to books.
"Do you play?" he asks.
"Play?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says. "You know, Magic: The Gathering." He opens the holder to reveal a deck a thousand monsters strong.
"No," I say.
"Oh," he says.
We're both smart enough to pretend that's okay.
According to my mother, throughout elementary school I was a "gifted and talented" student—a designation that, to my knowledge, was never confirmed by anyone other than her. Nevertheless, my teachers took her word for it. I was quiet, bookish and well-behaved—why not make me a genius, too? Or if not that, then at least a boy with great potential. A potential my teachers fostered by giving me carte blanche in the classroom. I spent half of first grade writing a dinosaur book and the other half getting to the bottom of the Boxcar Children's many mysteries.
Eventually I solved all those mysteries. Eventually I completed my dinosaur book. Unsure of what to do with such a proficient dinosaur-book-writing detective, my teachers huddled with my mother.
"He needs to be challenged," they said, which was surely music to her ears. And so, my mother signed me up for every enrichment class she could find—correspondence courses, after-school programs, even summer school for those who hadn't failed.
Had I been a true genius, I'd have explained to the adults that I was being challenged. That being smart—even just a little—is challenging enough when you're nine. My classmates generally liked me, though they would have liked me more if my fourth-grade teacher didn't use my test as the answer key. I would have liked myself more, too, if when a difficult question was asked, all eyes didn't turn toward me.
It was only a matter of time before I answered incorrectly. When I finally did, the class erupted in hollers and hoots.
"All right, settle down," the teacher called, waving her hands. "No one's perfect. No one's perfect, okay?"
No one's perfect, I thought.
I learned something new that day.
On the first morning of summer writing camp, the other campers and I gather beside a tree to begin our walk from the dorms to our classroom in the adjacent building. Along the way, it becomes clear to me that I am not like these kids at all. These are kids who doodle dragons in every margin, kids who roam about with spine-broken Tolkien books. The boys speak fluent Elvish, while the girls whisper about the fairies they've seen. Given my lack of fluency and fairy sightings, I know better than to try to enter any conversations. Instead, I turn to the girls and nod as if to confirm that I've seen a fairy, too.
We enter the classroom, where we are reminded of our age by sliding into desks much too big for our bodies. Most of our bodies, at least.
"Welcome to Adventures in Imagination," our teacher says. Her name is Ms. P. She wears a dress that flows past her shoes, which gives the impression she's floating. "We have an exciting week ahead of us," she says. To begin, we'll be reading T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone ("Yes!" the class cheers), and that's not all.
"This week you will also create a world," she says, handing us each a notebook. "Show us the place, its people, and share with us just how those people live."
She barely finishes her instructions before the others begin mapping out their worlds with gusto.
Here's where the ogre lives, and the dragon, and the trolls . . .
Throughout the morning, I keep my eyes on the empty page.
I think: This is supposed to be easy for a guy like you.
A few months prior to summer writing camp, my school counselor forwarded my parents a letter he'd received from Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development. The center was in search of high-performing students to take a test, and my counselor thought I'd be a good fit.
My mother had heard enough. She signed me up, and later that spring, drove us to Indianapolis for the test. We arrived the night before, checking into our motel shortly after dinner. We took it easy that night: channel-surfed, ate Skittles, sharpened every last number two pencil in the box.
When morning came, I re-sharpened those pencils while my mother drove me to the testing facility. Which, in fact, was not a testing facility, but a public high school the size of a city. Its halls stretched on forever, and as I searched for my testing room (what kind of genius can't find his testing room?), my eyes fell upon the school's graduate hall of fame, which included photographs of an astronaut and the host for Double Dare.
These must be the real geniuses, I marveled. And yet, I hardly recognized any of them.
Moments later, I took my seat alongside the other test-takers. Everyone looked as scared as a character from chapter thirteen of a chapter book.
My mother met me in the hallway at the conclusion of the test.
"Well? How'd it go?" she asked.
"Fine," I said.
I believed it was the right answer.
On the second morning of summer writing camp, Ms. P. takes us on a journey to the top of a grassy hill.
It is not a real journey, but a guided meditation Ms. P. has dreamed up for us. We students all lay alongside one another on the classroom's tile floors, our backpacks serving as pillows. She dims the lights. She asks us to close our eyes.
"As you walk up the hill, you feel the sun on your face," she says. "You feel it on your face, and your neck, and down your back."
I adjust my body, straightening my shirt which has slipped up to reveal my belly button.
"At the top of the hill, you notice a lake far below you. It is as blue as the sky, and its water is wondrously cold."
I crack my eyes just wide enough to notice a mouse-faced girl staring my way. She notices me noticing and snaps her eyes shut, returning herself to the top of the grassy hill.
"You consider walking down to the lake," Ms. P. instructs, "but there are so many paths to choose from."
I try to focus on the paths, the sunshine, the lake, but I find myself too rooted in the real world to indulge in the better place.
"You look to the path on your left, then your right, then the one directly ahead of you. Which path," she asks, "will lead you to the lake?"
I crack my eyes again to watch the mouse-faced girl exhale. I wonder if she's found the path. I wonder if it's cheating to follow her.
The Center for Talent Development never sent me my test results. Or if they did, my scores were too low to warrant any kind of further follow-up for their study. What I did receive was a certificate recognizing me for my participation in their Midwest Talent Search for the "most able" students.
I suppose this was the polite way of informing me that I was not as gifted and talented as my mother liked to think. My heart was hardly broken. In fact, that certificate merely confirmed what I'd always known to be true: that being quiet, bookish and well-behaved should not be confused for genius.
Combing through the scrapbooks, my mother recently came across a recommendation form completed by my fourth-grade teacher, and which was included in my summer writing camp application. In addition to giving me high marks for being a keen observer, asking questions frequently, and demonstrating a willingness to adapt, she noted the following: "B.J. Hollars is one of the most self-motivated students I have ever had in twenty-eight years of teaching. He is excited about learning, welcomes challenges, and expands above and beyond what is required."
None of which should be confused with genius, either.
In the final days of summer writing camp, my notebook still remains empty. While the other students compare the cultural nuances between the newly-birthed Planet Zorb and the Kingdom of Asven, I bounce a bouncy ball against the dorm room wall. Surely, at some point, my genius will come to my rescue.
As if my world building problems aren't stressful enough, on Thursday morning our resident advisor tells us that a dance is scheduled for Friday night. I tremble inside my husky shirt. In the world I plan to build, I'll make certain there are no such thing as dances.
I get to work on that world later that afternoon. There is no more time to wait around for my genius. While Dale dealsMagiccards, I scour the dorm for a quiet place to work. I find it in a basement common room, which is entirely empty aside from a glowing pop machine.
It is an oracle, I am certain, and upon inserting the coins into its metal slot, I watch as a cold can of tea tumbles forth. It clatters from the inside out, slipping down the rungs and past the chute until I clutch it in my hand. How to explain it other than to say that I suddenly have all the answers? That the universe, once so mysterious, is newly clear to me.
That afternoon, I drink that tea and create a world and put some people in it. I burn through that notebook paper, breathing life into a planet I name Ying-Yang. The ideas pour out—What if the people are ten feet tall? What if they sing when they talk? What if they live underwater?—and for a moment, I wonder if maybe I am as smart as everyone thinks.
On the last day of class, we present our worlds to one another.
When it's my turn, I spread my arms wide, welcoming my classmates to Ying-Yang.
My world is exactly as good and as bad as every other world, which makes me feel remarkably proud. Here I am, some pretend-genius who can't even speak Elvish, and yet I've managed to impress them all. They impress me, too, and as we eat lunch together in the cafeteria (three slices of pizza for me), I wonder if maybe I've made some friends.
After lunch, we return to our dorms, where we spend the afternoon being as terrified as a character from chapter seventeen of a chapter book. The dance is only a few hours off, so our terror is justified.
To stave off a bit of it, I put on my slimming shirt. Someone somewhere told me that vertical stripes can help hide the fat, and I was smart enough to listen. As the hour approaches I slap a handful of mousse in my hair and beg myself to be brave.
My hope, of course, is that the dance will pass quickly. That the girls will talk about fairies on one side of the room while the boys speak Elvish to each other on the other. I, meanwhile, plan to take up residence in the neutral zone by the punch bowl.
As the music thrums throughout that dimly lit cafeteria, I serve punch to everyone who's thirsty. I even serve it to the people who aren't.
When the mouse-face girl approaches me, I pour her a cup to the brim.
"No thank you," she says. "I was actually wondering if you wanted to dance."
She is more beautiful than every woman in Ying-Yang, and it doesn't take a genius to know to say yes. But I do not say yes. I say thanks but no thank you.
Her eyes search my face for the answer, but I offer nothing. How embarrassing to have to explain to her that she'd made a terrible mistake. That in reality I'm not nearly as slim as my shirt might make me appear. And that I'm no genius, either. I even have the participation certification to prove it. Sure, I'd like to dance with her, but shouldn't she know better than to want to dance with me? No one's perfect, of course. We all make mistakes.
As she disappears into the dark, it occurs to me that perhaps I've made another.
All you had to do was build a world,I think, and all you did was break it.
I haven't returned to Ying-Yang in twenty-two years. I'm afraid what I'll find if I do. By now, that once-promising world has surely turned to rubble—all those grassy hills likely scorched by flames. As for its cold lakes, I imagine them overflowing with lava. And what of its ten-foot tall underwater singing people? Whatever happened to them?
It's hard to remember the boy who created that world. Thankfully, Ms. P. remembers him for me. In the exit packet for summer writing camp, she enclosed a letter to my parents. I didn't even know it existed until my mother recently brought it to my attention.
In it, Ms. P. described me as "attentive and enthusiastic" with a "wonderful sense of humor."
Had I fooled her, too?
I hadn't. In the following paragraph, she reveals the version of me I couldn't admit to myself. She didn't label me a genius, or gifted, or talented, or thin. She said what I really was:
"B.J. is a sensitive young man who seems to enjoy looking for deeper meanings . . ."
I am and I do.
In her final lines, Ms. P. encouraged me to return to Ying-Yang to explore its many stories. I never did.
Even I'm smart enough to know you can't live in the world you create.
But also, that sometimes, you must.