“Welcome back, everyone, from your break,” said Mrs. Finch. Her bright, hopeful face was a humorous contrast to the classroom full of sleepy students. “For the rest of the school year, we are going to be studying the art of biography–telling the story of people’s lives…”
Paul sat in the back of the classrom and stared out the window. The snow had fallen steadily all morning, his tracks already buried in fresh white snow.
“…we will be using social networking websites that go back one hundred years,” Mrs.Finch said, “What were once thriving online communities, have since become electronic tombs, full of messages and photos marking events throughout entire lives…”
Paul began tracing the margins of his lined paper with a pen. He then drew a wide-eyed face that silently screamed.
“…each of you will be assigned a profile and at the end of the year you will have five minutes to tell that person’s life story–their biography. So use only the most important parts: birth, schooling, jobs, careers, marriage, children, etc. And please be respectful with what information you choose to share.” Mrs. Finch was walking around with a baseball cap full of paper scraps as she spoke. She stopped at Paul’s desk and held out the cap. Paul grabbed a small slip of paper. He unfolded it and read: PROFILE #192835678.
After class, Paul headed to the school library. The library was large and cold like an old church, and he felt the same pressures that superstitions bring as he worried about how this randomly selected profile would reflect on his character. What would he do if the next day he found that all his friends were assigned rocket scientists and professional athletes, while he was assigned an overweight shut-in? He pulled the wadded paper from his pocket and typed the number into a computer. A name appeared on screen: Steven Trenchant. Graduated high school, earned a degree in engineering, married at 24, two children, died at 67.
Paul began scrolling back and forth through Steven’s timeline. Old. Young. Old. Young. He watched Steven’s hair start thin and blonde, darken, lengthen, and then gray; then, watched as his skin went from wrinkly and spotted, to smooth and tan, to fat and pink. Throughout his many forms, however, Steven retained a childlike, bright-eyed smile.
Nothing stood out to Paul. But perhaps Steven was overly modest. Paul began to search deeper.
A picture near the beginning depicted Steven when he was about five years old. He had colorful stains all over his arms and smiling face. A watercolor painting on the table before him showed an astonishing natural artistic ability. Paul scrolled through the timeline again, this time keeping an eye out for artwork. A few watercolors popped up in his teenage years, and then many oil paintings in his college years. They were all brilliantly detailed and wonderfully experimental. But the years after his family began to grow, his artistic well seemed to dry up completely, and not a single painting was posted for nearly 30 years. The very last picture of Steven, however, was of him 67 years old, proudly holding up an easel and paint brushes. A birthday gift from his wife, Elizabeth. He died shortly after, when he plummeted to his death while on a hike.
Paul stepped out of the library and into the cold air. He hadn’t realized how long he had spent inside, and the sky was already dark blue with a half moon hanging overhead. As he walked home, he felt a stirring in his chest. There was a great story to be told. Here was a man with a passion for painting, who, for some reason, let that all slip away. Why hadn’t he produced more? Was he full of self-doubt? Did he feel that there was simply no time to do his muse justice? And how tragic that at the very end of his life he began to take painting seriously again. Paul then imagined Steven spotting a picturesque landscape while on that last fatal hike. He saw Steven, determined, set his new easel on a stone cliff with shaky hands. Those tremulous hands would then struggle to unzip his bag of brushes. The zipper would suddenly rip open, the brushes flying into the air, the brushes his dear wife had given him, he would try and save them from going over the cliff–and then… Paul shuddered at the thought of the blank easel standing alone in the wind.
But he had his story. A beautiful and tragic cautionary tale that he wouldn’t mind spending the rest of the semester working on. Paul reached his house, opened the front door and was blasted with warmth and the smell of dinner.
“Steve Trenchant?! Really?” said Paul’s older brother at the dinner table later that evening, “I had the same guy when I took that class! You should just use my report. I think I still have the whole project saved on the computer.”
Sure enough, when Paul checked the family computer, he found an entire biography already written out and illustrated with photographs and a succinct biography. It all fit exactly to what the teacher would be expecting: birth, school, work, marriage, death. The only mention Paul could find of Steven’s passion was a single bullet point labeled “painting” listed under hobbies, right below gardening.
Paul sighed deeply. That was one major project he wouldn’t have to worry about.