The independent news organization of Duke University

Happy and full of wonder

staff note

In a 2005 commercial, my mother turns to the camera and beams, “My child wants to be an artist.” Behind her, my six-year-old self carefully paints a self-portrait, the pièce de résistance of my first-grade portfolio. 

In eschewing the lauded neighborhood elementary school to send me to a new performing-arts magnet program, my mother inadvertently became the face of cool, bohemian Tampa moms. Simultaneously, I spent three years surrounded by artists, in the form of friends who intentionally wore mismatched Converse to school — a nascent statement of individualism — and teachers who banned erasers so we’d be forced to forge something new from our mistakes. Against the uber-creative milieu, I often felt at odds with my mother’s public declaration of my aspirations. I loved art, and I loved being around artists, but I was afraid. Terrified of attention, the idea of building a career around people consuming my creative outputs filled me with dread. Conversely, academics seemed to offer a sense of practicality and anonymity, and that felt safe.

When my mother and I lost our apartment in 2008, I leaned more heavily into pragmatism than ever. Despite my mother’s Herculean efforts to frame the situation as an adventure, I was incensed. I didn’t want to fantasize or cobble together creative means of survival. I wanted security and a bed. If that wasn’t going to happen in my childhood, I reasoned, I had to ensure it would as an adult.

I switched into the neighborhood school, mostly because it was nearby and we didn’t have a car, but it felt symbolic of leaving all artistic ambitions behind. There, I was on the Math Bowl team and none of my friends wore mismatched shoes. It seemed secure — an especially welcome reprieve in light of my home life. But to this day, I remember the sinking feeling I got the moment I drew a crooked horizon line and my new art teacher told me to erase it. This must be what real life is, I thought as I swept away eraser crumbs for the first time.

In middle school, I participated in the quintessentially American experience of reading “The Great Gatsby” and held onto nothing besides this quote: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath … face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” I hardly remember Daisy’s last name, but the concept of humanity’s capacity for wonder permanently resides in my mind, adjacent to every major decision I’ve made since. 

I made traditionally “sensible” choices throughout my adolescence, taking AP sciences and playing sports and even corralling my creative impulses into journalism, where the limitless worlds of writing and photography coalesced into an unstimulating-but-ostensibly-necessary yearbook. It was enough to get into college and enough to conceal my struggles, but never felt commensurate to my capacity for wonder. Never even close. 

December of my senior year, I became increasingly aware of my ennui and impulsively applied for an AmeriCorps program tutoring high schoolers in Jacksonville, Fla. That July, I moved myself and two suitcases into a house with three strangers in a massive, unfamiliar city. I was sleeping on an air mattress and tutoring algebra — my least favorite subject — but I was also sponsoring a photography club and befriending incredible people. I was constantly at the crossroads of insecurity and excitement, pursuing for the first time in years something that felt truly wondrous. 

There, I met Kobe, otherwise known as FatBoyBiggz. Technically, I was his tutor, but I am also one of his biggest fans. Kobe is a brilliant artist. He works full-time at McDonald’s and has still made time to create three albums within the past year. But none of that reflects in his numerically-abysmal academic records, and that’s what I was supposed to care about. We’d set goals for attendance and homework and they faltered every time. Meanwhile, he’d have a new song on SoundCloud every week.

After a while, I felt oppressive. I was — and am — so awestruck by his ingenuity, his natural ability to prioritize and act on his own capacity for wonder. It eventually occurred to me that maybe he, unlike myself, didn’t need school or stability to feel valuable. Of course, I want him to be afforded gravitas, and that typically necessitates a diploma. But more importantly, I want him to be happy, however he gets there. 

Last fall, after these little epiphanies, I sent a thank-you note to my favorite artist, Will Talenti. He was the teacher who banned erasers and helped me paint the 2005 self-portrait. He remains an artist and educator, and wrote this in response: “Life is happy and still full of wonder on my end. I am approaching my 16-year wedding anniversary, I have [three] American Hairless Terrier dogs and I am making the best artwork of my life.”

I don’t know what I want to be. Probably not an artist, but who knows? I just hope that if Kobe reaches out to me in 15 years, I can tell him my life is happy and full of wonder, and he can say the same.

Tessa Delgo is a Trinity first-year and Recess staff writer.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Happy and full of wonder” on social media.