I copied it down in a notebook and then transcribed it to my journal sometime in the fall of 1993 at the start of my junior year of high school. I tended to sit in the back corner of Mr. Kalman’s APUSH class and the classroom had the ancient type of school desks with attached chairs that swung out, desks that were probably from when the building opened in 1959. I say that because its origin is unknown–I have no name of an author and no year. Just the text:
Who is with me?
Who is against me?
With me, not one.
Against me, the world
And its grip on
It’s not a phrase
It’s not senioritis
It’s not all my fault
Someone must share this feeling
Is anybody out there?
This could have been on that desk for months, maybe years before I saw it in the middle of fourth period. People had written on and gouged things into the chairs and desks for decades and they were still there, giving Sayville High School a bit of history and figurative ghosts. Or, well, in the very least, they provided proof that someone was bored enough to vandalize a piece of school furniture. Because desk graffiti was rarely anything you gave a second thought. You got bored, too, and used a ballpoint pen to add another one of those “S” drawings (that we associated with Stussy even though that might not be the case) to a desk in math class.
This, though, felt different, and that’s why I felt the need to copy it down. Yes, we can all dismiss it now as the whinings of a teenager who doesn’t realize their privilege, but whomever wrote the poem meant it as an honest expression. They were clearly in pain or at least bothered by sometime; perhaps they were scared at the oncoming, uncertain future, having spent the last thirteen years in the same town with the same people. At 16 and 17, I certainly empathized with the poem’s author. Okay, yes, I read The Catcher in the Rye around that time and was starting to feel myself a little, but more importantly, that was the year that I began to see signs of life outside of the confines of Sayville. I also met and made friendships (as fleeting as some of them were) with people whom didn’t know who I was. That’s big when you feel like you carry a ton of baggage with you throughout the halls of your school.
About a year after copying this poem into a notebook and then my journal, I would take creative writing with Mrs. Taber, and would wind up writing my own version of the poem titled “Identity?”:
I am sitting here
In the darkness
And it is screaming at me.
The lamp lifts a world from my shoulders
And I am the bugle trumpet red and blue tie
Of someone important and responsible.
The darkness lunges at me again
Pelting my mind
Making me wonder.
But then the sunlight washes over me
With the sound of waves against the shore
And I am the carefree and weightless white dove
Flying wherever he desires.
The darkness is force fed to me
And it wails of a thousand tortured.
The light of a strobe
Pierces through me again and again like a sewing needle
With stabbing pain never stopping
And I see a white canvas
With color vomited onto it.
I see me.
The angst within this poem seems manufactured, and I am obligated here to point out the extreme privilege in which I grew up, but at the time I took what I was feeling seriously. I was also obviously trying to play with imagery, simile, and metaphor as an effort to get a good grade in my creative writing class, but we’ll leave snarking at my more notoriously shitty high school poetry for another blog entry and stick with my feelings here. Like I said, I had begun to understand that there was a much greater world beyond the bubble of my high school and hometown, a world that I always knew was there but had never taken part in because I never needed to. I was also starting to wonder if the person I was to my friends and family was authentic or if I was playing an assigned role.
Privileged or not, this is a feeling that so many teenagers went through and still go through. Nowadays, we pay a little more attention to matters of mental health whereas my generation and my community didn’t unless said mental health was to the point where it was serious or dangerous. Moreover, that world outside the bubble of a teenager’s community is something they’re aware of and want to participate in at a much earlier age than 17. Granted, there were people I went to school with who were in that world much earlier than 17 and I was sheltered as fuck, but still … I see a lot more awareness in the students I teach than I ever did in myself or my classmates.
But in a way that I don’t think the author realized, this poem is timeless. It’s someone asking for help with the world that’s barreling at them, or at least wondering if anyone has empathy because they’re probably not finding it. I can’t say for certain that I would have been any help back in 1993, but I want to say that I could have lent some sort of support. In the very least, I hope I can be that support for anyone who might be feeling this way now.