I once knew a high school teacher who made, in my mind, a curious comment. Referring to a wayward student, he remarked, with a tone of grim resignation, “People don’t change.”
I was immediately nonplussed. Yes, older folks tend to become set in familiar ways, but a 15-year-old? I knew the kid well. He lived in my neighborhood. In the parlance of a past age, he was what one would call a “juvenile delinquent.” But if schooling held no promise of rendering positive changes in kids, what was the point of teaching?
I knew whereof I spoke. My own son, Alyosha, is currently serving aboard a US Coast Guard cutter. This is a wonder: He’d never shown any affinity for boats, water, or uniforms, for one thing. But the real kicker is his specialty: machinery technology. He tends to the ship’s engines.
To understand why I find this so remarkable requires a little background. Alyosha, growing up, was athletic, energetic, impish, and occasionally hard to handle. But he never showed the least interest in tools, tinkering, or working with his hands in any way. The result was that he couldn’t tell a screwdriver from a paintbrush. I recall one day, as I fussed under the car, calling out to him to bring me an adjustable wrench. He fetched a pair of pliers. “No,” I pleaded while trying to hold a greasy car part in place. “Pliers.” He went back into the garage and returned with a pry bar. “No, no,” I corrected him. “The adjustable wrench! For loosening a nut.” To which, in his own defense, he exclaimed, “Well, I don’t know!”
Not knowing was one thing, but not wanting to learn was another. I did try my best. While working under the hood on another occasion I called to him, “Alyosha, want to learn how to change the oil?” His response: “Er, no, Dad. I don’t want to get in your way.” Painting the picnic table on a brilliant summer day: “Alyosha, want to pick up a brush?” “It’s OK, Dad, I think it’s a one-man job.” On another occasion: “Hey, I’m doing some plumbing. Want to learn how to solder?” Alyosha: “Nah. I’d just burn myself.”
And so he bounced happily along. Except for his allergy to tools and handiwork, he was a neat kid to raise. He was a gifted soccer player, and his claim to fame was not the number of goals he made but his skill as a playmaker, placing the ball just right so a teammate could plant the goal. OK, so he didn’t know what a ball-peen hammer was. He had a generous heart.
The years passed. Alyosha zigged and zagged – a little bit of this college, a little bit of that one. A low-level job here, another one there. And then, one day, well into his 20s, he told me he had decided to join the Coast Guard. I supported him 100 percent. After boot camp and a stint of shore duty, he told me he had decided on a technical school: machinery technology. Of all things!
I nodded approvingly, but already knew that it was a challenging field, full of moving parts, tools, and dreaded math.
And somewhere in the works, I was sure, someone would ask him to fetch an adjustable wrench.
During his period in Coast Guard technical school I thought about him daily, wondering what the outcome would be. I had prepared myself for the phone call telling me that it was just too much and he was being sent to sea as a deckhand.
It didn’t happen. He prevailed. The phone did ring, but it was Alyosha asking me to fly to Virginia to attend his graduation and pin his new rank on his collar. Prouder I couldn’t have been.
As I stood before my son, fiddling with the rank insignia, Alyosha, standing at attention and staring dead ahead, broke protocol to glance at me. “You want me to help you, Dad?” he chided. “Always,” I answered, as I snapped the insignia clips into place, “but not this time.”
Yeah, people do change. And, in my experience, it’s usually something to behold.