FLETCHER JOHNSON, Throne, Sculpture. Grade 12, Age 17, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, Petersburg, VA.

FLETCHER JOHNSON, Throne, Sculpture. Grade 12, Age 17, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, Petersburg, VA.

Next in our series spotlighting the 2018 Gold Portfolio recipients are Fletcher Johnson and Sam Wachman. Fletcher uses found objects–Popsicle sticks, old toys, hair rollers, rhinestones, and more–to create objects that challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions on gender. Sam’s writing portfolio also delves into issues surrounding gender by presenting a viewpoint on what it means to grow up as a queer young person.

Fletcher Johnson

“My work is my way of processing myself and the world around me, exploring themes of gender, wealth, time, nostalgia, home, and human nature as shown through possessions. I work in found objects and the color pink to elicit a feeling of comfort and to invite my viewers to question preconceived notions. My family’s habit of collecting and keeping objects has inspired me to do just the opposite: use objects from my family’s attic in my art to rejuvenate their worth until there is no more to create from and they are free of worldly clutter . . . The use of pink is how I can best relay my voice and distinction. Without my art I would have no voice, no way to thoroughly express myself. My work is such a large part of who I am, and to share that with the world is simultaneously the most terrifying and most amazing thing of which I am capable.”

FLETCHER JOHNSON, Crown, Sculpture. Grade 12, Age 17, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, Petersburg, VA.

FLETCHER JOHNSON, Crown, Sculpture. Grade 12, Age 17, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, Petersburg, VA.

Sam Wachman

“My portfolio is about queer coming of age. It portrays queer teenage boys discovering their identities, grappling with their definition of masculinity and finding their places in life. I hope that readers come away with a better idea of what it means to live in the liminal space between boyhood and manhood as a queer young person.”

Ghost Stories

Science Fiction & Fantasy. Grade 12, Age 17, Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School, Cambridge, MA.

I told everyone about the ghost that day—how I had spotted him by the abandoned barn in the woods, how he had stood like a human but walked like smoke from a cigarette, like breath on a winter morning, drifting with the air currents. How he dissipated when I turned my lantern towards him, gone, all at once.

That morning, I told Mom as she sucked the last nicotine from her pack of Marlboros and stared down the urn on the mantelpiece. She told me not to joke about matters as serious as death. I told Aunt Bessie as she planted daffodils around her bathtub Madonna. She clutched the cross that hid the veins crisscrossing her wrinkled bosom and prayed for the Lord to cure my hysteria.

That afternoon, I told Old Leon down at the gas station with his shaky hands and his blotchy skin. He told me it was just a mirage. I asked what a mirage was and he told me it was a trick of the light. I asked how photons could be smart enough to trick me and he laughed so hard a thin sheen of sweat pooled on his forehead.

I didn’t expect them to believe me. These were the sort of people who walked past gray dandelions without blowing the seeds, who had never turned over logs in search of salamanders, who believed the Loch Ness Monster was only driftwood and you could catch cold by playing out in the rain. In other words, these were the sort of people who put up with the world instead of living in it. They had forgotten how to hear the voices of mere children.

That night, I slipped through my bedroom window with a blanket, a lantern, and the camera Dad bought me before he died. I shivered in my pajamas as I crossed the damp lawn into the forest. Pine needles nicked the soles of my feet. The trees there were gangly and hunched over, weathered as Old Leon down at the gas station, their branches like talons and their bark warped into liver spots. Turn back, they warned. These woods aren’t meant for little boys.

I clutched the camera that hung around my neck and thought of proving them all wrong, Mom and Aunt Bessie and Old Leon down at the gas station, and I walked deeper still, the wind whistling through my skeleton. The crickets gossiped about the boy out of bed. It is too late for him, they chirped to the trees. Boys who wander alone in dark forests meet nasty ends.

When I reached the old barn, I crawled into the hayloft, covered myself with the blanket, and waited. The planks creaked under my weight and my lungs filled with the scent of must. Moths kept me company, flitting about the lantern, worshipping the photons that pushed back the darkness. He is coming, they whispered to me. Just wait a little longer.

As soon as my body began to go slack with sleep, he appeared. He was silvery and a little blurred around the edges, as if he walked out of a daguerreotype, but I could still make out his tangled hair, his vacant eyes, the plumes of his nightgown billowing around his bare feet. My heart pounding, I raised the camera—

“Put it down,” he said. “It will not work.”

His voice was windy and thin, but sounded like a boy’s, almost like mine. I clutched my blanket closer, silent.

“How do you know?” I finally asked, my voice shaking.

“Many have tried before you.”

I told him that I need proof to take back, to show Mom and Aunt Bessie and Old Leon down at the gas station. To make them believe.

“Is it not enough that you believe?” he asked.

“They all think I’m crazy.”

“Then perhaps you are.” He tried to sit down next to me, but sort of hovered instead. “What is your name?”

“Benjamin. What about you?” I felt strange asking the question. Did ghosts have name?

“Nowadays, people call me ‘ghost boy,’ or ‘the ghost in the barn,’ but my real name was Zacharias.”

“What should I call you?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “Call me Zacharias. Nobody has called me by that name in a long time.”

“Za-cha-ri-as.” I sounded out each syllable to make sure I got it right. “That’s a cool name.”

“Thank you.”

“How old are you, Zacharias?”

“One hundred and seventy three. But I will be ten forever.”

“I’m ten too! Well, nine and a half. Can I ask you another question?”

“All right.”

“What’s it like to die?”

Zacharias recoiled. “Why do you ask? You will not have to die for a very long time.”

“My dad died a few months ago. I want to know what he felt.”

“If he died a peaceful death,” he said, “he would have simply felt like he was falling asleep.”

“Falling asleep,” I told myself. “That doesn’t sound so bad. Falling asleep.”

“It is not.”

“Are there other ghosts around here?”

“No. My family all died peacefully, so they feel no need to haunt.”

“That must be rather lonely,” I said. “Do you have any friends?”

He didn’t answer.

“Me neither,” I told him. “Do you want to be friends?”

Zacharias inched away from me. “No.”

“Why not? We both need one.”

“You will grow old and I will stay the same.” He said this like he was telling an old story. I could hear the hurt in his voice. “In a few years, you will forget about me.”

“Come on.” I offered my hand. “Give me a chance?”

I told everyone about the ghost the next morning—how I had talked to him in the abandoned barn in the woods, how he had finally agreed to be my friend, and how his hand had felt when he took mine, not icy cold like I had expected but warm, like steam, like something that could still be alive.

Nobody believed me, of course. But I didn’t mind.

To see more Gold Medal Portfolio recipients, past and present, visit our Eyes on the Prize series.

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