Children learn to write when they draw stories and dictate the words to an adult who transcribes the story onto paper. After a while, children learn about letters and sounds and crack the code so that they can begin to write their own words for themselves. Gus learned about writing that way. He had teachers who recorded his dictations about paintings and drawings. I have all of these—everything that was sent home and some that we made at home together. I have Gus’s, and I have Oskar’s.
Gus and Oskar started school at the Grace Montessori School in downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania. They went there for one year. Oskar was in kindergarten and Gus was in the pre-K group. That fall, the fall of 2001, Oskar turned 5 and Gus turned 3. After Grace Montessori, I got my first full-time teaching job at The Swain School. It was a short drive from where we lived at 2625 Liberty Street, on the corner of Liberty and Ott Streets. I had taught years before, but in a private school and without a proper teaching certificate. The Swain School was a relatively fancy private school. The families who sent their children there largely came from the upper- and upper-middle classes. There were many families who were transplants from different parts of the world—working for Air Products, Rodale Press, Mack Truck, and other companies located nearby.
The boys and I ended up going to The Swain School together for one year. Oskar went there for first grade. Gus was one of the older kids in the younger pre-Kindergarten group. The school, Gus’s father, and I thought that would be nice for him since he was the youngest person in our family and had been one of the youngest in the pre-K the year before. I taught one of the third-grade classes.
The school had different buildings. One building served as the gymnasium. Another building had the library, music room, and primary grades. Other buildings housed different combinations of grades. So, the boys and I typically saw each other in passing throughout the school day. Sometimes Gus’s class was walking back from the gym building while I was walking my third graders back from music, or I might see Oskar’s class going to music while we were on our way to the library. The boys knew I was nearby and that was really nice for me.
So began their academic lives. Gus’s pre-K teacher played guitar and sang. Gus grew plants from seeds, painted, and explored music and the arts. Oskar’s first grade was very traditional and bound by a lot of workbook work. There was not much room for creativity.
When we moved from Allentown to Long Beach, New York, they had to start a new school. They had to adapt to being the new kids in their classes. Even though Gus was only entering kindergarten, and because Long Beach had a public pre-K, all the kids in his kindergarten class already knew each other and had established friendships. It was hard for me to believe that friendships could be so solidified by then, but they were. Oskar and Gus had to work extra hard to find a way to fit in, but they did.
Their new school was Lindell Elementary, one of four elementary schools in Long Beach. The philosophy of the school was to allow each teacher to teach in the way they found most comfortable. For that reason, the classrooms were quite different, depending on the teacher. Oskar had very a traditional second-grade teacher and spent more time than I would have liked engaged in workbook- and textbook-related tasks until fourth grade or so, when he got to write more. It wasn’t until middle school that Oskar began to flourish as a writer.
Gus lucked out. His first, second, and third grade teachers were all older teachers who had been young in the 1970s and 1980s when teachers learned to let children write more creatively and less to writing prompts. They did not depend on textbooks and workbooks to teach. In first grade the teacher gave Gus and his classmates time to write in a journal and also time to write books. She must have read a lot of books to the class because Gus’s books show knowledge of different genres and styles. In the spring, she held a writing celebration to which parents were invited, and I went with my father. At the celebration each student read their work aloud to the audience. Each family was sent home with a big folder of their child’s books.
When Gus came home on the first day of school from second grade, he announced that his teacher loved poetry and that she was going to teach them all different kinds of poetry. He also told us that this was her last year of teaching school because she was going to retire at the end of the year. I had the feeling that year that Mrs. Schonberger had decided to just have fun with her students rather than worry too much about workbooks and textbooks. Gus wrote a lot of poems that year, really enjoyed it, and came home and taught us about different types of poetry. His year of poetry made a deep impression on him.
Gus’s third grade teacher was wonderful and got to know her students very well. She saw their strengths and encouraged them. She contacted me to tell me what a creative writer Gus was and nominated him to be tested for the school district’s gifted and talented program. He was tested and began that program in the fourth grade. Sadly, it was one of the most teacher-centric, rigid programs I ever witnessed, if only from my vantage point as a parent. Gus hated it. Oskar didn’t like it either.
So, as a little kid, Gus got to experience the pleasure of writing freely. I have all of his written work from the first grade, as well as his early writing from Pre-K and Kindergarten. It is interesting to analyze Gus’s early written work with all his other writing to think about as well. I see patterns in his writing. From the moment he began writing, as a child, until the day he died, Gus mixed reality with make-believe to express his feelings whether they were playful or sad.
What stands out the most to me when I read Gus’s early stories is how so many of them are evocative in the same way that his lyrics are.
Gus’s Early Writing
Gus wrote a total of twenty-five books in first grade. Of these twenty-five, seven books could be best described as non-fiction. In his first five books, he taught his reader about a tree, Halloween, the world, the ocean, and bats. Later in the year he wrote non-fiction books about penguins and George Washington.
There are thirteen books that are narratives. The only one of these that is a story from his own life is My Guinea Pig. In it, he accurately tells how he got a guinea pig but turned out to be allergic to it, and we had to give it back to the store. Almost all the rest—nearly half of all his books—are fantasies. There is one story that could be considered realistic fiction. It is a little vignette about how nice a rainy day can be and it ends with a cup of hot cocoa. Those four pages evoke the cozy happy feeling of enjoying a rainy day.
Four of Gus’s books list different reasons to like something. These persuasive titles are the pot, Saint Patrix, my classroom, and sports. The books read like Gus felt uninspired, thought up something to write about, and just wrote without really thinking too much about it.
It is the fantasies that show how Gus began to play with writing. He was experimenting and playing with structure—how a story goes. He was aware of his audience and enjoyed creating a fun story to enjoy. Gus was learning how to write characters, surprise endings, and even dialog. What did you say? is a story that is written entirely in dialog. One character claims to have a dinosaur fossil, the second character does not believe him. There is a back and forth between the two, and then a group states that it is only a regular old bone, winning the argument.
In Deck Tecks, a teacher asks her students about their math projects. One of the students, whose name is Deck, has created something called a “Teck.” The teacher asks to see everyone’s projects. The characters rush to find them. The story ends with “Hip hip hooray.”
Once again, by writing what the characters said, Gus invented and described them and apparently understood completely what he was doing for his reader. In CLumpty Cumpty and THE LITTLE Egg, he writes about a whiny and scared egg who wants to climb up a hill but might turn into scrambled eggs if he falls.
In A Playdate with a Leprechaun, Gus has what seems to be a relatively normal playdate. The leprechaun dresses up in Gus’s clothes, shows Gus a model, and some four-leaf clovers. Then the story becomes playful: Gus tells us, the readers, to “Sssssh, don’t tell. He lives in my closet. I play with him every night.” Gus took the fantastical and made it part of his reality.
Sometimes the stories he wrote got scary—with accompanying scary illustrations. When that happened, Gus ended by saying it was only a dream. Even his Halloween non-fiction book about all the scary things you might see on Halloween got so scary that he ends his book by reassuring his reader not to be scared because “They are only characters.”
Santa Claus is Coming to Town is about Gus and his brother waking up, finding lots of presents, and opening them all up. Borrowing an idea from Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express Gus ended his own story with “and I got just what I wanted. A bell.”
Conscious borrowing from mentor authors carried through into the third grade. Gus wrote a fantasy called The Prince of Persia. He had borrowed ideas from a video game he and his brother had played in to write a story about a prince whose horse was stolen. With the help of a talking lion and a fairy, Rex the Prince gets his horse back. The lion ends the story by saying “At least it’s a happy ending.”
Gus continued to play with combining fantasy and reality in his writing through middle school. He wrote a couple of drafts about flying on a jet with his family. The family members were real, and most of the facts about us were real. However, Oskar did not roller skate all the time, and the story about meeting Brad Pitt on the plane while flying and having a roller-skate party was fantasy. So was the Florida-to-Hollywood trip.
Around 8th grade Gus wrote a version of the Three Little Pigs called The 3 LiL Gangsta$. This was a spin on the story we all know, except the “Gansta$” were Tupac, Fifty Cent, and P Diddy, and they built houses out of guns, bullet proof vests, and grills. In the end the house built of grills was the strongest.
You can see how all these stories are playful and funny. There are two more that are not. The first is The Ugly Crab. Written toward the end of first grade, it has a clear message about teasing and hurting people’s feelings because of their appearance. It has a happy ending in which the teasing stops, the bullies realize what they have done wrong, and the characters all become friends.
The second serious story is called The Squirrel and The Pup. This is a story about friendship, trust, listening, and the cruelty of owners, aka adults. The trustworthy and honest, though scared, persist and win out in the end. I believe this is an allegory for something sad and hurtful that happened to Gus around fifth or sixth grade. He found a way to write about it without revealing the truth. He made the characters animals. He changed the problem a bit, and he gave his story a happy ending. Friends rescued the pup. He never looked back. The Squirrel and the Pup represents a significant moment for Gus as a writer. This was when Gus capitalized on his ability to communicate something without really saying it. He was expressing his feelings, his situation, and his dreams without having to tell anybody what he was really going through.
Gus’s playfulness, passion, and honest expression of pain and sorrow are what shine through his lyrics. Some songs sound happy and have playful lyrics. “Keep My Cool,” for example, written two weeks after Gus’s eighteenth birthday, describes a character who keeps his cool, enjoys smoking various strains of marijuana, and hangs out playing Madden (a video game) with people he likes—and even with leopards and cheetahs, all while eating lemon pepper. Gus warns us: watch out, this character might sneak a dollar from your wallet when you aren’t looking.
The second half is more serious. It is an analysis of the corrupt justice system. The character promises that he will never allow himself to be caught up in it. It’s fortunate that Gus made a video for this song. Like the song, the video is funny and playful, with shots of Gus peeing on the side of his house, buying snacks at the store with his friends, and gently swinging his kitten Dennis over a dining table covered in empty gin bottles. You can tell when you listen to the beat, the lyrics, and watch the video that Gus enjoyed the process of creating this song. It also becomes clear how Gus told stories with his lyrics. This was a funny one.
Six months later, in May, 2015, Gus wrote a funny, passionate love letter to his girlfriend. The letter was, in fact, a song. The lyrics are sexy, loving, and ghoulishly funny at times. In it, Gus expresses his intense physical attraction towards his girl. He also tells her that wherever she is feels like home to him and that he will always be hers. He tells her he is so in love with her that he swears he will kill her if she ever leaves him and that he will leave her in a moldy cabin in a bayou for someone to find. After he played the song for her, they laughed about how it sounded both creepy and funny at the same time. It was then, though, that she knew he really loved her. He found a funny, goofy, and passionate way to tell his girlfriend how he felt. Unable to say these words out loud, he could express them in a song.
Many of Gus’s songs evoke strong feelings of emotional pain, sorrow, and hurt. Many of his fans have said it is these songs that have helped them through their own hard times because the songs spoke their feelings for them. He helped people find words for universal feelings that that they were unable to express. A lot of these songs are about Gus’s relationship with his first girlfriend.
The entire Hellboy mixtape, created in the summer and early fall of 2016, when Gus was nineteen, reflects the pressure, loneliness, and confusion Gus was feeling while he was working hard towards independence and success as a music artist in the underground music community. Gus’s songs can evoke feelings of sadness about feeling rejected, or lonely and alone. “Angeldust,” written December 2, 2015, is about someone who must make up his mind about something--immediately. It also reveals that the person, unnoticed, has seen “the strangest things.” He expresses feeling like his life doesn’t mean anything and that the only way he can explain why he feels this way is by singing “a symphony.” It hints at the idea that making music can give you strength and can provide a mode of expression where no others exist.
Anyone who knows Gus’s songs well understands that the ones about his struggles with girls are often the sad ones. They are partly truth and partly fiction. For example, “Driveway,” written in May of 2016, has a reference to blowing one’s brains out “with my gun.” Gus did not have a gun. There were no guns nor had there ever been any guns in our home. However, that line delivers the dramatic punch Gus wanted to deliver with that song. The lyrics express anger and frustration, and there is an element of fiction in them.
One of the saddest songs for me is “Red Drop Shawty.” The beat alone makes me want to cry. The lyrics are about a desperately sad character who feels hopeless about life. He has all kinds of drugs and girls available to him, but he is lonely when he is alone. We see that the character has no other way to have company around him than to go to a strip club or deal drugs. Gus may well have met or observed people out in Los Angeles who exhibited these types of behaviors. His verse is heartbreaking. While it is about a character, not Gus, the character shares an important quality with Gus that all his close friends know well: he was lonely when he was on his own. Gus hated to be alone. Knowing that someone he trusted was nearby made him feel safe and calm and that was especially important for him at the time he wrote the song. He had not been home in a couple of months. He was couch-surfing in the Los Angeles area with friends, making new contacts, working hard, exhausted, but determined to succeed on his own. He wanted to be able to support himself by making music. Getting there had meant staying in new places and meeting lots of new people. It was overwhelming and unstructured. He felt alone at times, and being alone remained something Gus disliked and sometimes feared. It had been that way from the moment he was born. “Red Drop Shawty” evokes a feeling of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness. No one wants to feel like that, but sometimes we do. Gus understood that universal feeling that and wrote about it.
Recently, I re-read the correspondence between Gus and his friend George (Aka Bexeyswan) from October-November, 2015. It was during that time the boys met and collaborated to make a four-song EP entitled Romeo’s Regrets. Embedded in the message thread was the second statement I had found in which Gus expressed to a friend that he wanted to write a song about poverty and homelessness. It was the first such message that I had found in his old iPhone message texts with another collaborator. It was with Bexey that Gus realized this goal.
It materialized in a song called “Shelter.” Gus wrote the first verse about poverty and homelessness, sent what he had to Bexey, and asked Bexey to create the second verse about the selfish people who have no clue. It is in this set of exchanges that we learn of a way Gus wrote his lyrics. He created characters to tell a story in song. What’s more, Gus adopted the role of the invented character. So, in “shelter,” Gus wrote his verse from a first-person perspective, thus adopting the persona of someone who is desperate and without a home. It was as the person, not as himself, that he told a story of desperation.
The power of these messages is that they demonstrate that while Gus wrote most of his songs using the first-person, they were not always about him and his experiences. Sometimes they were. Other times he wove together his and his friends’ experiences or the experiences of people he had heard of. The lyrics are meant to evoke and spark feelings in his listeners.
Only the people who have shared experiences with Gus, or who collaborated with Gus, can tease apart the reality from the fiction. What matters is that the songs stand on their own. The songs’ power are the songs themselves, not whether or not they were truth or fiction, or some combination of the two.