Recently, while sitting at the supper table with my 15-year-old son, he posed the following question out of the blue: "Dad, what do we have in common?"
I raised a finger and pursed my lips to emit what I thought would be a litany of common ground. But nothing came out. This perplexed me, because our relationship has always been good, the communication channels pretty wide open. "Hmm," I finally noised. "Well, we love each other...."
Alyosha rolled his eyes and then leveled them at me, throwing out his hands: "Things, Dad! I'm talking about things!"
He had me there. In truth, there was no thing that we both pursued as a shared avocation or interest. Oh, we occasionally tossed the baseball in the backyard, and Friday has long been our designated evening out in the local pizza joint. But these answers would be too trivial for my son.
His question set me to brooding. Scientist that I am, I tried to approach his challenge in an empirical manner by first listing the things that he does well. He is a fine, natural athlete. He has a head for math. A flair for art. And he doesn't sweat details. Nor does he tend to get flustered.
By comparison, my athletic grace is that of a marionette, math for me is as enigmatic as Klingon syntax, my artistic talent is limited to line drawings, I like my t's crossed and my i's dotted, and I might be a fit candidate for the presidency of the Society of World Hand-Wringers.
Once, when Alyosha and I were driving on an Interstate in Massachusetts, I took the wrong exit and was suddenly awash in a tsunami of traffic taking us to parts unknown. I wasted no time in slapping my head and lamenting our situation to the high heavens.
At which point Alyosha leaned toward me and, with phlegmatic confidence, counseled, "Dad, you know it's gonna turn out OK, so just relax."
But I do have my good points. I love books and learning, and will read anything that crosses my desk, no matter how obscure. I even find contentment in reading the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast.
My son, by contrast, is what I'd call a dutiful learner. He is not drawn to books in a magnetic way, although he is aware that they exist (one must be thankful for small favors). If one of his teachers directs the class to read to page 116, paragraph 6, line 3, Alyosha will do just that, willingly.
And, having arrived at that assigned juncture, he will not venture another syllable further. He will shut the book and shuffle off, whistling, the picture of contentment.
My son still doesn't realize it, but when he asked me what we had in common, he was putting his finger on one of the profound mysteries of human relationships. As a teacher, I know that it's not so much common ground that makes us interesting to one another, but the differences.
Recently, as we neared the end of the semester at the college where I teach, I spent a few minutes chatting with my biology students. One of them asked me if I found teaching repetitive or sometimes even boring.
My answer was immediate: Teaching is an ongoing adventure, a never-ending story. What I most look forward to at the beginning of each semester are the new faces, new voices, and new points of view that give each class a personality of its own.
Where would the spice be if all the students shared the same interests and opinions?
And so it is with me and my son. Even though he had me scratching my head as I rattled my brain for those things he was looking for, I realize now that even if I had been able to enumerate a few shared interests, it wouldn't have sufficed to describe the bond we share.
The next time Alyosha asks what we have in common, I'm going to stick with something resembling mutual affection. I would say "pizza" just to please him, but then I'd feel as if I were giving in, and that's something neither of us likes to do.
Well, lookee there!
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor