Here is a story. It is rather short and I don’t know what else to do with it and I had mentioned posting some of my “serious” writing here, so I am doing that now. I had actually intended for this to be my entry in a local literary contest with a 2500 word limit (I find it hard to keep things under 2500 words these days), but then I forgot and the deadline passed and now it’s just sitting there. So, anyway, off we go. Enjoy…
“Such a bright child,” his parent’s friend said. “He’s really going to be something. You can just tell.”
“Come here, William,” said the friend’s husband. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”
William shrugged his shoulders. He did not know what he was going to be when he grew up. He thought maybe an astronaut. That would be neat. He was a little afraid of heights, but maybe he would get over that when he was older. He would like to go to the moon, though he worried about what would happen if your helmet came off.
“I bet you’re going to be an inventor,” the friend’s husband continued.
“No, no, that won’t be it at all,” said his wife. “William is such a good speaker. He’s so articulate. He’ll end up in politics. A senator. Or maybe president! Inventors are awful, awkward little people. They don’t speak like William speaks, do they William?”
The question was addressed to him, but it was clear by now that responses were not required from him.
“Oh, William can do anything he wants,” his mother chimed in. He was always grateful at first when his mother would chime in, but later, sitting in his room playing a video game or sorting through baseball cards, he would start to worry. Does she really believe that? Anything? This bothered William very much. People were always planning out his future. His parents. His teachers. His aunts and uncles and older cousins and classmates. “You’re so smart! So talented! How did you do that? And at such a young age!” He lived in a world of wonder and exclamation points. All bafflement and enthusiasm and all directed solely at him. He started to assume that it must be very important to decide what he was going to be. Right away.
“Hey, mom… mom.”
“What do you think I am better at – math or reading?”
“You’re good at both of those things. You always make A’s in math and that story you wrote for me was so sweet. I don’t know which one you’re better at.” She was trying to be a good mother. He was too young to be pushed in one direction or another, after all.
This was not the answer William was looking for, but he took it to heart. He decided he would have to be good at everything.
“Still keeping those grades up, Billy?” He was older now, thirteen, but the questions were still the same.
“Straight A’s like always,” said his Father, answering for him like always.
He was old enough now that he did not like to be around his parents when they had friends over. They either talked about things he did not care about or, even worse, they talked about him. He made an excuse about homework and slunk up to his room.
It wasn’t an excuse, really. He did have homework; he always had homework. Plus, there was a science fair coming up, and he was expected to win because he always won. The other kids – at least the ones who cared about such things – hated him for it. He entered everything. He had to. Or, at least, it felt like he had to. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he said “no”. The school had recently taken to sending the flyers for academic contests to his parents in the mail. Billy was their little darling, and he was putting the school on the map. They were determined to get everything they could out of him, every little bit of prestige possible.
He had no idea what to do.
The science fair was in a week and he had ideas. Loads and loads of ideas, but they were all for things he should have started on weeks ago. There was data that would need to be collected, parts that he would need to scrounge up. A week just wasn’t enough time.
“Hey mom, I think I need some help.” William did not ask his parents for help with school. He wasn’t supposed to need help. He knew this, but he didn’t have a choice.
“Help with what, dear?”
“I’m not sure what to do for a science project. There’s only a week to go, and I can’t think of anything I can get done in time.”
His mother had a sour look on her face that clearly said she had hoped this day would never come. Her little genius, her little darling, had admitted to weakness. “William, your father and I both feel that it is important for you to do all of your own school work. That’s the only way you’ll learn.” She recited the answer without any real emotion. Like a child’s toy with a pull string. “You can be anything” – pull the string – “You just have to work for it” – pull the string – “Don’t doubt yourself.”
Obviously, his parents had had a discussion about this before. “But I don’t need you to do it, I just need an idea.”
Pull the string – “You’ll think of something, I’m sure.”
But he didn’t. Nothing that would work. None of the old standbys – the volcano, the homemade water filter – would do it. His teachers expected more of him. If he did any of those things he might not win, and he HAD to win. He had to because everyone expected him to and if he didn’t, then what would happen? He didn’t want to think about it. He needed to give them what they expected. He was almost in a panic. Can’t they see I’m drowning? I just need a little help.
“Oh William, that was fabulous. How did you ever find the time to get it all done so quickly?” His mother, like the judges and teachers and the few other students who were smart enough to understand it, was dumbstruck by the brilliance of his project. He had won, of course. His project was a charting and analysis of the population trends of forest amphibians as a barometer of environmental conditions. Amphibians were the first to go whenever nasty chemicals or other pollutants got involved in the water supply. They were so sensitive with their slick, absorbent skins.
“I just did it. I didn’t sleep much this week.”
His father beamed at him. All the doubts he had roused in his parents had been quietly laid to rest. Their perfect little genius was restored to his pedestal.
He was lying. He’d found the data on the internet. He pulled his charts and tables straight from the website. He was careful to change the colors of the graphs and throw in a few mistakes here and there. He wanted to make sure he lost at the state level before he really fell under scrutiny. He’d never done anything like this before, but he knew no one would question him. They wanted to believe.
They did not question him, not even at the state level where, though they did notice his mistakes and he did not win, the judges praised his effort and assured him he would have a bright future if he kept at it. Part of him really enjoyed this. After years and years of working extremely hard, here he was getting credit for something he had put almost no effort into.
He was confident at everything, but this was something new entirely. He knew he could do science, but he had not, until now, known that he could lie about it well enough that even very smart people would not notice. He suddenly felt that when it came to science, and especially biology, he had nothing to fear. He could not fail because he could invent and borrow if he needed to and people would believe him and he would never be a failure because he could not be a failure. Failure, of course, was so unthinkable, that he never thought about it.
He didn’t do it often after that. Only on rare occasions, when he was overwhelmed and just needed something finished, would he borrow liberally from another source. He never thought of it as cheating – he was careful to keep that word out of his mind. Just getting help. Just borrowing. He became a biologist almost completely on his own merit and his dissertation, which was solely his own work, was well received. It got him a bit of renown and a nice position at a university.
Around the time he hit thirty, he found himself suddenly comfortable. He had a married a woman he loved very much and had all the job security he could ever want in his chosen field. He did not, however, enjoy getting up in the morning. For the first time, he had the mental space and energy to wonder why. Several months of thinking passed before he finally realized he had never really liked biology. He had only become a biologist because he had guessed, correctly, that he would be successful at it. In his spare time he began writing poetry, which is what he decided he really liked doing, and eventually, he even had a little volume of it published. He even managed to convince the university to let him teach a workshop every spring.
His parents, unaware of his internal struggles, were pleased with the diversity of his success. They’d done a good job, they thought. He had met their expectations.