Do all young children run away from home at some point, or at least threaten to? I once did – when I was 8 – but I got as far as the corner before realizing that within the hour it would be dark and my parents would be angry with me if I wasn't home for supper.
My first son, Alyosha, now grown, also ran off, when he was 9. I can't recall the impetus, but I do remember his hangdog expression, conveying the sense that I just didn't understand him. And so, with ball cap pulled down over his eyes and hands buried in the pockets of his jeans, he set off down the street. He, too, returned home a short while later, no worse for wear and ready to have a meal.
My other son, Anton, age 10, seems to be out of a different mold. Where Alyosha was reticent and relatively thick-skinned, Anton is more methodical and emotional. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and his feelings are easily hurt.
I don't think he realized that threatening to run away from home was ever an option when things weren't going his way – at least until a few days ago.
Here's how it went: We were working together on his homework (math – woe is me). The assignment dealt with metric vs. English units of measurement.
He understood the sense of the assignment, but the actual calculations didn't seem to have much rhyme or reason for him. His frustration mounted to the point where he refused to go any further.
"Take a break," I advised him, to which he replied, "Oh, so you want me to go away." It was an odd connection between what was said and what was heard – certainly much more complicated than converting quarts to liters.
Be that as it may, he trudged up to his room.
I stayed below with the hated math homework, listening as drawers were opened and closed above me. Five minutes later, Anton returned with a backpack sloppily stuffed with clothing, a toothbrush, and his Game Boy.
But he didn't leave the house right away. As I looked on in wonder, he pulled out a map of the world, spread it on the floor, and began to draw lines with his fingers. I realized that this was for my benefit, to show his intent.
I lay down next to him. "Where you headed?" I asked.
"Ukraine," he said. (I need to mention here that I had adopted Anton in Ukraine when he was 5.)
"It's a long way," I said.
Anton shrugged. Then he arranged his navigational gear: a compass, pencil, paper, and ruler. He must have thought he was inflicting great emotional pain upon me, but in fact I was fascinated. "How far do you think it is?" I asked him.
"I don't know," he said without looking up.
I directed him to the scale in the corner of the map. "Use your compass here," I nudged, ever so gently. "See how many miles are in an inch."
Acting as if this counsel had come out of the clouds rather than from his father, Anton did as the voice suggested. I watched as he flipped the compass across the Atlantic Ocean and down through Europe, the instrument pivoting like a Russian folk dancer until it had reached its mark. Anton sighed. "It's a lot of miles," he said.
"It's even more kilometers," I told him. "You'll have to convert, because they don't use miles in Ukraine. Here, I'll show you."
Anton allowed me to appropriate his pencil and paper. I wrote out the equation for him. "Now plug in your numbers," I said. "Work it out while I get us a snack."
By the time I returned with a bowl of popcorn, my son had finished his ciphering. He was scratching his head like a man awed by the sudden realization of the immensity of the world. He held his paper up to me. I scanned it and smiled. "Perfect," I said. "Have some popcorn."
For the next half hour we indulged ourselves with vicarious travel and English-to-metric conversions. We crossed Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, measured the breadth of the Pacific Ocean, and, as a final act, high-tailed it from North Pole to South Pole.
I think all that trekking must have taken the wind out of Anton's sails, because he seemed to have forgotten about running away from home. It might also have had something to do with the fact that it was now dark – and he was hungry.
It had been a long diversion, but after supper we again approached his homework, with greater success this time. And why not? After traveling to the poles and back, converting ounces to grams is a cakewalk.