The magistrate of middle school

Except for his wonderfully raucous laugh, my 18-year-old son Alyosha has always been a rather low-key kid.

With his good looks, easygoing nature, and athletic ability he could have been quite a leader among his peers. Instead, he chose to follow his own path and keep his own counsel.

When he was about 15 I joked with him, "You know, Alyosha, you would make an excellent benign dictator of a small country." His deadpan response: "Funny."

When I look back on my "dictator" comment, I realize that I may not have been far off the mark. If there's one thing that - for better or worse - places a high school kid on a pedestal, it's athletic prowess.

Alyosha had this in spades, and he only got better as the years passed. When he entered high school, he was the only freshman on the varsity soccer team. "Is that a strut I perceive?" I asked him one day. In typical Alyosha fashion he replied, "Gimme a break," before strutting away.

In truth, Alyosha was a democratic and generous player in his premier sports of soccer and basketball. He pursued these games like a composer of chamber music, working things so that everyone got a chance to shine.

In soccer he was a playmaker, positioning both ball and teammates so that they would have the best possible shots on goal. In basketball he usually played point guard - once again, he was the person who set up the plays, and he did it with energy and style.

What I didn't know was that Alyosha very quickly developed a following, especially among younger students. One day, one of the other dads came up to me and asked, "Do you know how venerated your son is in the middle school?"

"The middle school?" I echoed.

"Yes," he affirmed. "It's like a cult of Alyosha."

I had no idea. One day, during a fatherly tête-à-tête on personal responsibility, I mentioned the middle-school fan club to Alyosha. "Yeah, I know," he said, in a manner indicating that he didn't know but was well pleased.

A couple of years back I adopted a second son, Anton, from Ukraine. Ten years younger than Alyosha, he immediately came under his big brother's spell. Just the other day I was hectoring Alyosha (but gently!) about his neglecting to mow the lawn, after my having asked him several times. "I can't do it right now," he insisted.

Anton, age 8, piped in with, "Yeah, he can't do it right now, Dad." As I threw him an admonishing look, he stepped behind his big brother, looked up at him, and said, "Isn't that right, Alyosha?"

What I didn't realize was that Anton was only one of a coterie of neighborhood munchkins who had also developed a sort of Alyosha fan club.

The spark that had ignited their devotion was the sight of Alyosha popping baskets in our backyard. In one memorable scene, Alyosha deigned to play a game with them - one on five.

I watched from the kitchen window as he dribbled the ball between their legs, over their heads, and around their bodies, invariably punctuating these acrobatics with a perfectly placed hook shot or the drama of a slam-dunk.

And just when he had whipped the band of half-pints into a frenzy of adulation - for what little kid doesn't want a big kid to pay attention to him? - Alyosha dropped the ball, announced, "See ya later," and headed for the house to take his repose. He had the instinctive feel of the born entertainer: Always leave them wanting more.

And that is exactly what happened. The next day - at 7:30 in the morning! - the gang of 7- and 8-year-olds was pounding at the door. "Anton's still asleep," I said. "We're not looking for Anton," they replied. "Where's Alyosha?"

I thought this a very sweet scene. I called into the house and Alyosha came to the door.

"They want you," I said. Alyosha threw them a cursory glance, said, "Not right now, guys," and retreated back into the house. I could feel the free-fall of their little hearts.

I wanted to console them, and so I whispered, "He may feel like playing after lunch. Come back then." Their spirits took flight, and they skittered away on wings of hope.

Alyosha. Benign dictator. Small country. Do I know how to call 'em, or do I know how to call 'em?

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