A streak of compassion in a growing teen

When Anton turned teenager, self-absorption grew – but never to the point of clouding his compassion.

My son is a handful. Active, brash, unbridled. In divulging this, I'm not violating a confidence or saying anything Anton wouldn't own up to. If my son were a nation, "Proudly Loud" would be his official motto.

But there is a flip side to his personality that unmans me. The same 14-year-old who can be heard from two blocks away, routinely forgets his "pleases" and "thank-yous," and has a dedicated desk in the detention room at school, is capable of the most moving acts of compassion.

I don't know who seeded Anton's charitable impulses, because he was already 5 when I adopted him from a Ukrainian orphanage, where life was austere and everything was done for him. But adopted children are interesting for this very reason: One doesn't know what influences they carry with them and what, in the course of years, will bubble to the surface, for better or worse.

The "better" revealed itself one day when Anton was 7. We were at a concert in a local park, where everyone but my son was respectfully listening to the music. Anton, for his part, was running, laughing, and tumbling, having found a friend in a 4-year-old boy. I bought them helium balloons, which I tied to their wrists. Alas, my tying skills left much to be desired, and I watched as the smaller boy's balloon soon untethered itself and headed skyward. He began to sob uncontrollably, whereupon Anton put his arm around the boy's shoulder and said, "Don't worry, Nathan. My dad will buy you another one." How could I not?

On another occasion a new family moved to our neighborhood. They were terribly poor, but the three children seemed well cared for. Anton and the older boy, age 11, became fast friends. This eventually led to some meaningful conversations between me and Anton about the nature of poverty and how people can become victims of circumstances.

The ensuing winter here in Maine was a rough one, with snow upon snow. Anton and Philip asked for a couple of shovels so they could start a business clearing people's walks. Well, anything to get them away from the computer and TV, so I was happy to oblige.

Hours passed and the sun began to set. Finally, Anton showed up at the house, ruddy with cold. "How did it go?" I asked him.

"Great," he said. "We did five houses and made $40."

"Oh?" I said, proud of my son's industry. "Where is it?"

"I gave it all to Philip," he said. Thinking that the older boy might have cajoled the cash out of my son, I asked Anton why he had given his share away. "Well," he said, "Philip's mom can't pay the bills, so I wanted to help her."

I'm almost ashamed to say that, at the time, I was conflicted about Anton's charitable deed. I knew that there were other, sometimes better, ways to help people than to hand them money. And yet I held my tongue, patted my son on the head, and said, "Good boy. Good heart." But now, at a remove of four years, I realize that he had indeed done the right thing, and that the greater danger lay in curbing such empathy than in handing out free money.

When Anton turned teenager I thought his compassion might be consumed by the normal self-absorption of that age group. As it turned out, the self-centeredness did, indeed, precipitate, but it didn't cloud his heart. Only a month ago, just before his 14th birthday, I noticed that Anton's new sneakers had been replaced by ratty ones with flapping soles. I asked him what the story was. Displaying the same sympathetic eyes he had when, years ago, that balloon had flown from Nathan's wrist, he said, "Jacob's sneakers were all torn up, so I gave him mine." "But now you have torn-up sneakers," I noted. "Yeah," said Anton. "But it's OK."

Yeah, I guess it is OK. We can afford new sneakers but his friend's family can't. I think that it may very well be as simple as that. And I'm gratified that Anton was able to sense this while I had to reason it out.

As for his summer plans, Anton wants to volunteer at the Habitat for Humanity store. Good for him. Now, if he's not too tired at the end of his workdays, maybe, just maybe, he might have a smidgen of energy left to clean his room. That, for me, would be his greatest act of charity yet.

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