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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
Syros’s favorite part of his day was going to the gym. The whole process, from sitting on the bus while making his dishwater-looking protein-water mixture, to listening to his hype playlist, to setting up for a superset. He thought of absolutely nothing and said absolutely nothing as he pushed and pulled more and more weight. When fatigued and sweating profusely, cool lemon water tasted like it was heaven-sent. Sitting on the bench in front of a dust-covered fan felt like an ocean breeze. He was present and experiencing every moment to its fullest. He was alive. The seconds were minutes and the minutes were hours when gripping the bar, muscles on the brink of collapse. He could live forever. Entire eternities passed while his body pressed and pressed. He appreciated the entire experience, especially that it was entirely his own. There was no one to ruin it. I thought he looked pretty cool too — like a superhero, saving damsels and catching buildings.
Most of all, he liked the way the gym made him feel — powerful and worthy. He felt worthy when someone would notice him growing and compliment him; when someone assumed he was on a sports team; when Mom asked him to move her heavy packages around the house for her. It validated all the time he spent there — time that Dad believed would be better spent on studies. Dad resented that, for all his son’s strength, Syros was not actually on any sports team. His muscles did nothing but take up space and consume copious amounts of food. Without a team, his pecs and delts wouldn’t be getting him into any schools. Wasted potential. Wasted space. Wasted time.
Syros didn’t like the sports at his school and wasn’t close friends with any athletes, and he didn’t want to be. He didn’t want to be compared to everyone in his weight class, selected (or not selected) to start the game, or forced to wake up at five a.m. to run a circuit. He didn’t want one of the few things he truly liked (or dare I say, loved) in his life to become a chore.
He used to like drawing and painting, before Mom — excited to build on his talent — put him in art classes. The instructor was a pain, let me tell you. Her name was Mrs. Tomoe and that woman sucked the life out of me. Or us. Everything I did seemed to be just one or two steps away from good enough. Eventually, Syros stopped drawing. The same thing happened with guitar classes and soccer and the rest. He didn’t like teachers; he didn’t like being forced to do something; he didn’t like the due dates or the shows or anything. Once they became responsibilities, they didn’t make him happy anymore. Applying himself just killed the fun. Syros only liked to do things for himself.
I understood where he was coming from, but I was really upset when Syros sold all of our pens and paints. A part of my soul went with them. I sat on the floor for months, while Syros sat in his bed. Doing absolutely nothing. Thinking absolutely nothing.
Because of allergy to instruction, Syros didn’t do much of anything in school either — the place where he was supposed to prove his worth to schools and colleges and his parents and his peers and everyone. He was scared to taint the beautiful things in life with the toxic nature of performance and competition. But he also had a terrible fear of failure instilled in him. Fear that he wouldn’t go anywhere after school ended — and that he wouldn’t go to college or get a good job. Fear that he’d be stuck dealing with Dad’s disappointment and Mom’s sadness. Fear that he’d eventually be forced to stop doing things he loved in order to make a living for 40+ hours a week, and hate every second of it. He believed it was already too late. He was a sophomore in high school, which doesn’t sound too late, but certainly feels that way when everyone else has already started their internships and leadership positions and extracurriculars. How the heck did they do it all? Didn’t they hate it? Didn’t being forced to do it ruin whatever it was they liked about their hobbies and dedications? How did they keep doing it? How could you NOT hate it?
He felt sick about the whole thing. Do something you love and ruin it forever? Or do something you don’t and hate everyday anyways? How could they force him to choose? Damn it all, he decided. If all the options sucked, he might as well milk as much as he could from the present. He would lap up the security of his adolescence and his parent’s provisions until he couldn’t, and then he’d bide his time until a golden seed fell from the sky to save him. He’d plant it and grow a beanstalk and climb up to live with the giants, never to return again. Damn it all.
I couldn’t say he was wrong in all this. But I hated to see the hope drained from his body. He was a prisoner to his convictions and, seeing no light at the end of the tunnel of youth, he was permanently gray. He simply lived in some dismal version of the future that he had (with some degree of realistic insight) conjured up.
We lived for those couple of hours of the day at the gym. He escaped from the darkness in his mind and I got to be a superhero for a bit. We flew. And then he hibernated until the next 24 hours had passed, and I hibernated along with him. I was his prisoner, marching alongside him from class to home to gym and back, waiting for him to look up and find the sun.
—Anaiah B. Thomas ’24’s column, “A Child’s Thoughts,” is a series of short stories about people whose lives are narrated from the perspectives of their inner children.
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