Atavistic grunts, resigned sighs, and averted eyes bore witness to the nervousness of our Fine Arts Club as we prepared to reveal the gourds we had painted.
“Could you tell us a bit more about your work, James?” Mr. Finkelstein began by calling on his prized pupil, who had transformed a warty vegetable into a work of art whose ornate motifs rivaled those of the Fabergé eggs,
“My inspiration was to reveal the regal beauty hidden everywhere,” James explained, earning strong applause.
Most of the class had transformed their gourds into owls, roosters, and other animals. On my part, I was proud that I had selected the path less taken–that is, until the hot air balloon that I had painstakingly decorated was mistaken first for a light bulb cover, then for a fancy drinking flask.
Still, the mood was jovial as we moved on to the next students.
“Claire?” Our teacher prompted.
Claire was a quiet, studious, melancholic girl who achieved top marks. Claire typically refused social invitations; she favored dark, expensive clothing with minimal makeup and her signature accessory was the brilliant smile that lit up her vicinity from time to time.
With obvious reluctance, Claire located her piece, leaving it shielded by the thin cloth that we used to prevent desiccation.
Back at the table, Claire unveiled her work without making eye contact with anyone, uncovering a coal-black lump that was vaguely squash-shaped. Although I kept my eyes on Claire’s creation, I was intuitively cognizant of the uncomfortable glances being shot around the room.
“Would you tell us something about your choice of design?” Mr. Finkelstein asked mildly.
“Well, I wanted to make a statement about humankind’s pathological need to try to improve upon everything, especially aesthetically,” Claire replied coolly. “After all, we live in a country where many starving people would find the waste of even a single squash incomprehensible… How much of what we consider progress is really forward motion? And what is the cost?”
Claire’s speech affected me deeply—so profoundly, in fact, that I decided to pair with her for our next project, during which we were told to sketch our partner.
During the hours that we spent talking and drawing, I found myself more and more drawn to my mysterious classmate. As Claire reached above her head to stow away some art supplies at one point, her sleeve slipped down, revealing a series of parallel scars along her wrist. Our eyes met as she casually brushed her sleeve downward, her expression betraying nothing.
Over time, Claire opened up to me, confessing that she was prone to deep depressions, that she was repeating the grade I was in because she had been hospitalized for an extended period during the prior year.
I began reading up on clinical psychology, intrigued by the various ways that human cognition, emotions, and neuroscience could go awry, hopeful that we were on the verge of effective cures for people like Claire. My heart broke as I read about the vicious, lifelong stigma that sufferers of mental illnesses were subject to.
After I learned that Claire had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt, I decided to take more drastic action: I formed a student group for the mentally ill and their friends, family members, and other interested parties, creating a “safe space” where members could share hopes, fears, and resources. I was so filled with passion that I pledged to study psychology at university, to devote the remainder of my life to alleviating the great suffering of this population.
I received a parcel in the mail from Claire prior to her discharge from the hospital.
It contained a charcoal portrait of me, so accurate that I mistook it for a photograph at first.
The inscription in the accompanying card hit me forcefully: “To my friend, whose beauty needs no embellishment and whose character needs no improvement.”