Published: August 6, 2009
Nobody knew why young Johnathan smiled.
He was, for all intents and purposes, an average child. He ate, slept, breathed, talked, just like everybody else. He attended school, did his homework, played with his own circle of friends. He received above-average grades in class, but remained second, third, to other, brighter students he wasn't extraordinary by any means. But he did everything with at the very least a faint whisper of a grin, walked through life with a wisp of a smile that could almost be blown away by the autumn breeze. Yet, it never did. The winds blew strong, and the smile remained day after day.
It was with this smile that he walked to school, and it was with this smile that he walked out. He smiled in the mornings, mornings where other children groaned and refused to attend with voices that spoke of torment and boredom. He smiled in the evenings, evenings where other children rebelled against their bedtimes. None of his peers understood what he found so pleasant in the adults' authoritarian rule. He just smiled, smiled to his teachers who smiled back, smiled to his classmates who sneered.
When asked why he smiled, he'd respond with a simple "I like to." And then he'd smile, a knowing smile that said much more than he did, speaking volumes by saying nothing. It unsettled his classmates. His friends would even cast odd glances before catching themselves and letting themselves be distracted by other, childish things. But it never did get him in trouble, for most of his young childhood.
The problems started, perhaps, on a day in the first grade. The other, normal children wished to become firefighters, policemen, businessmen, scientists. They dreamed of glorious days saving children, stopping crime, curing cancer. They looked forward to incomes, comfortable lives, families. Come his turn, however, Johnathan replied, "A bird."
"A bird?" the teacher asked. The other children murmured at his unorthodox response.
"Yeah, a bird."
"Maybe a falcon!" suggested another student. "Falcons are cool!"
"Or a nightingale! They sing pretty!"
"Maybe a bird-trainer?"
"No, just a bird."
"Why?" the teacher managed. Certainly, her classroom contained no posters on becoming birds.
"So I can fly," he stated simply.
"That's nice," the teacher replied with a forced smile. Other students, however, had a different idea in mind.
"Birdbrain," one of them snickered. The classroom exploded in laughter. The perpetual smile disappeared for a moment, but returned as Johnathan chuckled nervously along with his classmates.
"That's enough," stated the teacher, and class continued as normal as it could. All throughout the day, people shot glances at Johnathan, whispered behind his back. Johnathan wasn't the only one smiling the troublesome child sat smug in his seat. But few children smiled with them. The classroom air was disturbed. There was something not ordinary not quite extraordinary but something different about this small child with brown hair and freckles.
And as we all know, the first-grade classroom is not a nurturing place for nonconformity.
The rumors persisted into the month. Johnathan paid them no heed, but his classmates did. There wasn't a single first-grade student in the school who didn't know of the career choice incident. People stopped him in the hallways, asked him why. And he would always respond, smiling that smile of his, "So I can fly."
His teacher tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. "If you want to fly, you could become a pilot," she said to him. "Pilots can earn a lot of money, and it'd be fun to fly an airplane!"
But he would always smile and respond, "No. I want to be a bird."
She was puzzled. Never in all her years of teaching had she come across a specimen like him. She didn't understand. None of them really understood in that way, she was no better than the older children who teased him and called him "birdbrain". Exasperated, she gave up Let children fantasize. Let him keep his head in the clouds.
But he wasn't. Quite the opposite, in fact his feet were anchored firmly on the ground. He continued doing his homework, continued doing well in class. The year came and went, and Johnathan refused to let a fanciful dream distract him from his goals.
But he remained obstinate in his desire to be a bird.
"Hey, birdbrain!" voices called, and other voices snickered when he looked about to see who called for him. He just smiled at them, a knowing smile, and continued as if nobody had said a word. They just didn't know. He couldn't hate them for not knowing.
More and more people stopped him in the hallways. "Birdbrain," they would jeer. "Flap your wings for us, birdie."
But Johnathan would just smile at them, keep walking. That smile it was always there, mocking them as much as they mocked him. How dare he ignore them, let alone smile at them?
The teachers found the smile pleasant. They would smile back puzzled smiles, but smiles nonetheless. They, too, had heard through the grapevine; they were no more impervious to rumors than their students were.
His teacher didn't bother commenting when she returned her students' reports. Where others had drawn jackets and ties or blue uniforms, he drew a bird, flying free. He had a few points marked off for "an unusual career choice", but the report was sound. His smile widened. He couldn't wait to go home and show his mother.
The school day passed. He gathered his things and walked out the door smiling, smiling to the sky above him, to the earth he was tethered to. He smiled to the people walking by, to the group of three who stood there waiting for him. The oldest of the three spat when he saw him smiling.
"Hey, birdbrain!" he called to Johnathan. "One of your buddies crapped on my dad's car yesterday. Tell them to lay off!"
They laughed, they sneered. But Johnathan smiled back to them, eyes catching the sun.
They stopped. "You think you're funny, birdbrain?" the older boy asked. "Well how funny is this?"
He punched Johnathan in the shoulder. Johnathan fell backwards, landed on the ground with a yelp and a grimace. He blinked back tears, felt his palms burn as they hit the sidewalk. But his smile came back a pained smile, but one that refused to die. He raised a hand. "Can you help me up?"
In response, the bully slapped his hand away and kicked him in the shin. Johnathan cried and grasped his leg, both legs, as the trio surrounded him. "Stop! Please, stop!" he screamed.
"You queer!" the bully shouted. "You're just... a dumb... queer!" He accented each and every word, drawing cries of pain.
"Queer!" another jeered.
"Burn in hell, birdbrain!"
And they danced their infernal dance around him. Pain filled his eyes, his world. All he knew was pain, whips stinging his sides, hammers slamming into his brain. His tears did nothing to douse the hellfire surrounding him. Each agonizing moment lasted an eternity, and he burned...
"Go! All of you! GET OUT OF MY YARD!" An angel, brandishing a no, a housewife wielding a frying pan exploded from the house by them. "All of you, get out, get out!" She swung her weapon to emphasize. The bully and his friends quickly abandoned their scarred victim on the sidewalk. The woman dropped her frying pan.
"Dear Lord... Are you okay? I'm so sorry!" She ran to Johnathan, tears forming in her eyes. "Are you okay? There, now, nobody's going to hurt you anymore. I'll call the police and tell them..."
Johnathan stood up. His legs shook, but he stared down the street, the hellfire that once burned him now raging in his eyes. No hint of a smile graced his countenance. "I hate you!" he screamed down the street. "I hate you!" And he ran the opposite direction, sobbing, crying rivers.
"Wait! You're hurt! We have to" the woman called after him. But Johnathan ran further, out of sight. He ran the entire length home, threw open the doors, and sobbed into his mother's arms. He cried, cried for every day of injustice the world cast upon him, for all the unfeeling people who didn't understand him, for the world that wouldn't accept him for who he was. Two years of anger, of guilt, of pain flowed from his eyes.
"There, there," his mother told him, quieting her wailing child. "I'll call the police and the school and tell them what happened. Those bad boys aren't going to get you anymore. I'll make sure they don't touch my angel."
The wails slowed to sobs, then to sniffles. Then, Johnathan walked upstairs to his room like he always did, but his bookbag remained unopened. And that night, while his mother argued on the phone, he got in bed and turned off the lights. He could hear his mother's voice, arguing for action that should have been taken months ago. Before it erupted, before it gave him bruises and cuts.
And then Johnathan did what no other boy would do. He smiled. His faint, wispy, hopeful smile returned as he curled up beneath the covers. He sniffed, but the smile returned in all its glory. Nobody else knew why he smiled, but he did.
For when young Johnathan slept, he soared.