At last, the pilot light of learning was lit

My son Alyosha has graduated from high school, an event that elicited from me a grateful sigh of relief. High school and Alyosha were never the best of fits. He liked the social scene, and he excelled in athletics, but the academics really never, shall we say, "spoke" to him.

Nevertheless, he pulled through, jogged up to the auditorium stage on that warm June afternoon, and shook the principal's hand before gleaning a chuckle from the crowd of family and friends with a smartly executed curtsy.

But this outcome was never preordained.

Shortly after Alyosha entered high school I began to look on with a mixture of apprehension and wonder as he grappled with courses in English literature and composition. The social sciences were also a struggle, as were the natural sciences.

There were two reasons for this: One, Alyosha had come to me from a Russian orphanage at age 7. Although his English arrived quickly, it has always remained a pond into which he has never waded very deeply. This was a prescription for a long, hard slog when it came to confronting the intricacies of textbook language and the subtextual undercurrents of literature.

The second reason for Alyosha's daunting relationship with high school was that he just didn't feel much of a "pull" toward what it had to offer. (In the same way that I feel no pull toward bungee jumping.) He persisted, of course, but despite himself and, to a degree, for my sake.

Alyosha never realized it, but soon after he entered high school four years ago, I became his student. As I observed his halting progress and his struggles, he got me thinking about the "one size fits all" approach to education. What do we do with a bright kid who, despite distractedness or ennui or lack of interest, suffers through a curriculum against his natural antipathies?

I acquired many insights from watching Alyosha.

Principally, I came to realize that some kids will learn under any circumstances, good teachers or bad, interesting material or not. They're just built to compete and do well.

But others have a much narrower window for what they will let through. The sciences might be a conundrum for them, but their feel for the language arts is honed to an acute edge. This disparity will never meet the nation's need for nuclear physicists, but who's to say that a scientist is worth more than a poet?

For Alyosha, the one discipline that gripped him was art. He has a significant gift for it, but more important, he enjoys it. When it came to art in high school, Alyosha was focused, diligent, and consistent. He even, from time to time, committed the saintly sin of delight by cutting another class to spend more time in the art room. (When the vice principal called to report these misdemeanors, I could do little more than listen patiently and smile.)

As Alyosha's high school career drew to a close we had some heart-to-heart talks. The topic: his future. Although he had visited several colleges, neither of us could comfortably envision him spending four more years at a school where he'd have to endure courses with titles like, "Geometrical and Fourier Optics."

"Alyosha," I said, "you're good at art. Why not find a school, a program, where you will be doing art?"

I didn't realize it at the time, but I had lit a pilot light.

Shortly thereafter, Alyosha stumbled upon the name of a school in New Hampshire. It was a public university with a professional program in art where he would have to take only a minimum of those "other" courses that had dogged him during his high school years.

And so, in the very depth of the Maine winter, in the middle of his senior year, we drove five hours through hill country and snow country and small New England villages into our neighboring state. We came to the town of Plymouth, high in the mountains, alongside a gently coursing river, with its small university overlooking the Currier and Ives scene.

My son was well received, given the grand tour, and came away with stars in his eyes. As we hit the road for home, I ventured to ask: "Well, what did you think?"

"Dad," he said while staring straight ahead, as at some clearly defined point on his personal horizon, "it's the only place that made me feel welcome."

If he wanted to attend, he would have to do some preliminary catch-up work at our local community college in Maine, but he was more than game.

There it was, then: something to move toward, under his own steam, because he wanted it.

All of this came home to me forcefully the other night when I returned home from work. I found Alyosha at the kitchen table, awash in books and papers. As I came through the door I reflexively sang out, "So, how was school today?"

Without turning or looking up, Alyosha threw out a hand and said, "Shh! Dad! Can't you see I'm studying?"

I couldn't believe my ears. Those words had never been uttered under my roof before. What could I do? I quietly slipped away, murmuring my gratitude to the powers that be.

After all these years I finally had a student in the house. A student. What a wonderful thing to be.

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