My greatest fear when I was younger was Pringles cans. Chips packed right against each other, body on body, without room to breathe or escape in the horrible paper cylinder. When you pack chips together like that, Chip One and Chip Two and Chip Sixteen lose their identities and become an indiscernible part of Chip Stack Where All Chips Are The Same.
We are all Pringles arranged in tidy rows of desks in Bridge Academy’s new mental health classroom. I ask Sophie next to me if the bright green wallpaper reminded her of sour cream and onion wrapping and if she dreams about dumping cans of Pringles out her window to relish the feeling of chips falling to their death and deliverance. She ignores me. Her Brandy Melville skirt is the same yellow tan as a potato chip.
Miss Charyl stands in front of the sour cream and onion wrapping and introduces herself as our new mental health teacher. She asks us to name common mental disorders. Someone raises their hand and she calls on them.
“Is this class graded?”
It isn’t. Sophie breathes out in relief and takes out her rose gold MacBook. She begins typing up a report for her new Save the Zimbabwean Bulldogs club, her acrylic nails clacking against each key. I don’t think Zimbabwe has bulldogs. My dad almost took me to Zimbabwe – we had made it all the way to his private jet, before my throat constricted and I wanted to crawl out of my skin because there were spider legs all over me. I had clawed through half of my seat before he noticed. He told me there were no spiders, just nerves, but I was never allowed on his private jet after that. I ask Sophie why Zimbabwean bulldogs. She replies Zimbabwe because it is impoverished and she is a humanitarian, bulldogs because they are Yale’s mascot and she needs the Dean of Yale’s favor.
Miss Charyl asks again if anyone can name a mental illness. Nobody can. She smiles perkily and says that’s okay. Next she brings up a PowerPoint that reads Psychosis. She reads very slowly and painstakingly: psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind in which the mental state struggles to differentiate between their inner psyche and reality, often to the extent that the diagnosed loses touch with reality.
Then she smiles and asks the class if we have any questions. Someone asks what it means to lose touch with reality.
She seems to struggle with this one for a second, then says it is when we cannot discern what we touch. For instance, a person with psychosis might touch a table and think it is something else. She seems satisfied with her own answer and flips to the next slide: depression. She begins to read again.
I think about the time I woke up from a nightmare and I couldn’t feel my hands so I crushed a Pringle under my palm. I can still recall the feeling of the fractured pieces carving themselves into my palm like shards of glass. I had smiled and thought I am both the artist and the product and when I have finished cutting my palms then my hands will be lacerations of a blood-stained glass masterpiece.
I think there is no realer way of touching reality than grinding a potato chip to dust under my hand.
Then I wonder if my weekly suicidal thoughts are a symptom of any mental disorder. I suppose they’re very “mental” but they are too orderly to be a “disorder,” because I think about killing myself exactly once every Friday when my dad leaves for a corporate meeting in Tokyo or Dubai or the Isle of Abladeron and never says good-bye. I wonder if fitting one-half of the requirements for a “mental disorder” can be rounded up into a full diagnosis.
Now Miss Charyl is explaining that our homework is to write a four-page essay on the detriments of student stress. The entire front row has the chemistry review packet open on their laptops. Sophie is typing a report for her Diversity Club where everybody is white. Someone’s Juul puffs mango smoke at the back of my neck.
All of a sudden, Mister Whitaker runs into the classroom looking quite disheveled. Mister Whitaker used to be my math teacher. He is quite an average man with a circular bald spot and square glasses. He also wears the same white polo shirt every day, though once I asked him if he always wore the same thing to cling to a semblance of routine in a world where entropy will inevitably reign supreme. He asked me if that’s what I thought. I told him yes, but I was more afraid that history repeats itself in spirals and I am a byproduct of someone else’s existence and we are all doomed to die of monotony if not entropy.
He sent my dad an email after that recommending that I see a the-ra-pist. My dad told him to go fuck himself and threatened to take away his job. I guess that’s why he’s not my math teacher anymore.
Anyways, it is strange to see the average Mister Whitaker shouting, saying that there is a fire in the 600 wing raging through the entire school. I didn’t even realize that Miss Charyl has fainted onto the floor.
“DOES ANYONE REMEMBER THE PROCEDURE FOR PUTTING OUT A FIRE,” Mr. Whitaker asks frantically to the front row. He’s banging his hands together like the seals in Ocean City.
Most of the students stay scrolling deafly through their chemistry notes. He grabs one of them, Dylan, by the shoulder and forces him to look up.
“Young man, do you have any ideas?”
“Um, combustion of two moles of ethane requires seven moles of oxygen? And that makes like, a big fire?” he offers.
Mister Whitaker takes a deep breath and says that that is a good start. Then he asks Dylan how to reverse the process – instead of creating a fire, how does one extinguish a fire.
Dylan shrugs helplessly and says we never covered that in the single replacement reaction lab practical. Mister Whitaker throws his hands in the air. Dylan uses this as an opportunity to put his head back down and review his chemistry notes. Two doors down, there is screaming.
He turns to Sophie and asks her if she knows anyone who might be able to help. She says that she doesn’t, though he could reach out to the Stop The Amazon Rainforest From Burning club. That doesn’t calm him.
Now he’s pacing back and forth getting noticeably more agitated. He asks to use someone’s phone to call 911.
“That’s the one hundred and fifty-sixth prime number,” Jared murmurs from his seat. He is graphing a parabola.
“Jared! May I borrow your phone to call 911!”
He holds up a finger asking Mister Whitaker to wait while his concentration is on sketching the directrix and focus on his parabola. When he finishes, he raises his head slowly and says it’s in cubby seventeen. The air feels heavy, and I wonder if it’s from the Juul or the fire.
Mister Whitaker mutters something profane under his breath and stalks to the cubbies. Miss Charyl chooses this exact moment to rouse from unconsciousness. With a renewed sense of energy she slaps Mister Whitaker’s hand away from Jared’s iPhone.
“Nobody touches their phone until class is over. According to the American Optometry Association, excessive use of one’s cellular device can cause high levels of stress and anxiety in daily life,” she snaps.
He just stares, waiting for someone to back him up, but most of the class, realizing that the chemistry test will be cancelled, has begun to work on their college applications instead. The room feels awfully hot. I wonder if it is a coincidence that there are tendrils of smoke creeping under the door.
Obsessive compulsions. We are all claustrophobic potato chips. Suicidal tendencies. I don’t fear death as much as I fear life, because only the latter involves Pringles cans. Delusions. If I am going to die, I will make sure I take this sour cream and onion papered classroom down with me. Disconnect with reality. I feel bad for Pringles cans. I wonder if they feel sad once they have lost their chips and their purpose. I wonder if emptiness is a state or a lack of one. I used to fear Pringles cans until I learned to identify with them. Now I fear them even more. I am the can and the contents, the glass and the knife, the artist and the masterpiece.
Now the green wallpaper is peeling away from the wall, curling in the heat. I suppose the flames are the light at the end of the aluminum-lined tunnel. I smile and wait for the fire to burn this horrid sour cream and onion cylinder into oblivion.
Samantha Liu is a fifteen-year-old student and aspiring writer residing in New Jersey. Her work has been recognized by The New York Times, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, and is forthcoming in The Blissful Pursuit. When she is not reading or writing, you may find her taking a nap.