he called last night, my firstborn did. he’s far far away in the land of his dreams. he is, as i type, tromping the streets of the city he worships, the city he hopes some day will be his.
you might know it, it’s new york city, noisy place just north of new jersey. that child of mine was born of a city, and to a city he must return. this stint in the ‘burbs, here on the leafy north shore, he endures. but he can’t wait to get back to the holy ground. figures he’d pick the biggest, busiest metropolis around. the one where a bagel, with shmear, will set you back a few bucks. and that’s from a pushcart right there on the sidewalk.
the boy, at 14, has set his sights. it’s not just the whole of new york he’s so keen on, it’s the part he told me last night is “the academic acropolis,” the top of some really steep hill, he tells me, on the upper west side, where a whole stockpot of smart places are stirred into one intellectual soup.
now, that sounds, for the first time in his short little life, like a place to make his blood gurgle and slosh. and mine, right along.
see, this is a child who, as he stood in the kitchen in tears night after night in sixth grade, i consoled with the truest truth i could muster, and the only words i could think of to help: “sweetheart, i know being you as a kid is really really hard, but i am positive being you as a grownup is going to be wonderful.”
in t-ball in kindergarten, when other kids worried about sliding to home, my firstborn stood in the outfield, back to the pitcher’s mound, pointing up in the sky, shouting, “hey, look, it’s venus.”
when al gore lost the supreme court vote, way back in the 2000 election, my second-grader crumpled himself on the stairs, and cried for a good part of an hour. “but that’s not fair,” he kept saying. “the supreme court is supposed to be fair. how can you get more of the votes and not be the winner?” he knew the names of every supreme court justice and which way they’d voted, and he was beside himself at what he called “the justice injustice.”
in short: it’s been a long road, with patches of bumps, for a boy with his eye on matters a few years–heck, a few orbits–ahead of his time.
and so, no wonder, when a teacher he loves, a teacher who knows him quite wholly, looked him straight in the eye a year or so back, and said, “this college is the one where you’d thrive,” he bought it. gave it his usual deep probing study, and, bing, signed off on the deal.
seems, maybe, on the long nights of homework, and on the saturday eves when the phone didn’t ring, he’d sit up in his room and daydream of the one place on the planet where he thought, after all, he might really fit in.
oh, we’ve tried to distract him. spewed off the names of all sorts of fine places. even cooked up some dinners just to change the whole subject. but with a child set in his ways, there’s only so much you can do. he has, since back in the days when he lived, ate, and breathed small wooden trains, been a child of serial obsessions. this college is simply the latest.
and since we happened to have a new-york-bound ticket, one that had to be used, we figured why not give him a taste. either it sticks to his ribs, or he spits it right out. and besides, the whole of new york makes for a mighty spring break.
well, the phone rang last night, and i knew right away. heard it in his very first syllable, uttered across all of the miles.
he was, flat-out, gushing. here’s a snippet or two:
“at first i had to convince myself it was real, then i had to convince myself, not only was it real, i was here. oh, man, this is heaven.”
and then this:
“we went in this pizza stand for a huge slice of garlic pizza, and dad and i were like the only caucasians in the place and i felt totally at home.”
and this, of the library:
“it’s like the parthenon, except instead of savage gladiators ripping each other to threads, there’s books inside.”
he nearly melted, he said, when they stepped inside that ol’ book vault, and saw a sign indicating the whole first floor was devoted to philosophy, law, medicine, and theology. he was incredulous; row after row of thinkers, and all shades of believers. why, it was a world he would have drawn up himself. probably did, up there in his room, where he keeps on the light till late in the night.
it is, i tell you, a spine-tingling thing to hear your child, at last, find his place in the world, and to find it so deeply, so unshakably. in merely three years, the place could be his (i could swear, just yesterday it was lightyears away). and if it is not, he says, he’s willing to wait, take a year building wells in africa, maybe. all that matters, it seems, is he knows, after all, where he belongs. that he belongs, mostly.
now, i’m less of a pragmatist than anyone else in this house. more of a gauzy-eyed dreamer. i’m less apt to worry about that alphabet of obstacles, ACTs and GPAs. more inclined to think they’ll look at his soul, open the door. heck, i would. so, far as i care, the ping in his voice makes me think it’ll happen. my own personal magical thinking.
and besides, i’ve never been worried, not once–okay, not twice–that my odd-fitting boy would someday, somewhere, fit in. celebrate the eccentricity, his father once said, proudly, with a faint wash of tears in his eyes.
for every child, and every grownup, who’s ever worried, who’s thought they didn’t belong, at least not in their little slice of the pie, this then is a hallelujah, and a reminder: don’t give up, and don’t give an inch. be who you are, and fill your lungs wholly.
for every child, and every grownup, who’s marched to a tune all alone, keep the rhythm. there is, some place on the planet, a place with your name.
lord only knows, it might even be in the stacks upon stacks of philosophy tomes, at the top of a hill, in a very big city. that’s where my firstborn might now never leave. but at least now i know where to find him.
not sure i quite said all i set out to. this was supposed to be less about a particular place, and more about the pure act of finding your seat in the world’s musical chairs. and even more, about what it feels like to be the grownup of a child who at long last has found that extraordinary, elusive somewhere. the boy was giddy, and so am i. have you taken a long and winding road to the somewhere you belonged? or, maybe, did you know well before your time, just where you wanted to land? what helped you believe in yourself along the way? p.s. i just have to say, in case it’s not clear, my child is odd in what i’d say are very fine ways: he is smart, and he’s funny. it’s just that he thinks in ways that are wise far beyond his few years. and he won’t play the games of most of his peers. dear college-of-choice: don’t hold that against him. but that, i think, is getting well ahead of the story…