My son turned nine around the dawn of the internet. Although I worked for a computer company, I did not have a personal computer at home and did not talk at the dinner table about this internet thing that seemed to be rising in popularity. Except for his propensity for risky activities like snowboarding off jumps, biking off ramps, and leaping off high places, he seemed reasonably normal. He jangled my brain with his numerous questions. He seemed to comprehend my answers. . . until he twisted my answer to his question “Who’s Alexandra?” That’s when he began spreading false information that made his school believe I was a serial husband.
Several problems arose when he entered the third grade that Fall. As he always did on Halloween night when he returned home from trick-or-treating, he dumped his bag of candy on the living room rug and counted. “What a coincidence,” he said when he had finished counting. “Eighty-seven. I was born in Eighty-Seven.” One day later he woke up complaining of a sore throat. My wife gave him a thermometer. Ten minutes later I went to his bedroom. He lay in bed, looking ill and rolling the thermometer slowly along the sheet. I asked, “Do you have a temperature?”
“It’s ninety-seven point four, but Mama says she sometimes has a strep throat and no temperature.”
He rose suddenly and said, “I don’t think it’s strep, Dad. Actually, I think I can go to school today.” Two minutes later he was downstairs, dressed, and playing a video game called “Sonic and Knuckles.” Modern miracles.
In class, he learned cursive writing, how to write a short essay, and how to read chapter books (all words, no illustrations). The teacher gave his reading group some book report assignments. Shortly after he’d read a couple books, he said, “Dad, when can I read the book you wrote?”
“I wrote the book for teenagers. You’d understand it better in a couple years.”
“I’d like to try to read it now.” A few days later, after supper, he said, “Where’s your book?”
I told him, and he retrieved it from my bookcase. He asked questions about the cover, read the title page, read the dedication page, and said, “Who’s Alexandra?”
“How many ex-wives do you have?”
HOW MANY?? Is this kid a lawyer? “Just one.”
“Why do you have an ex-wife?”
“Because we didn’t get along very well. So we got divorced, and I eventually met Mama.”
“I don’t know. Last I heard she lived in Washington State.”
He proceeded to read the first two pages out loud, while my wife and I winced at some of the teenage slang. He then inserted a book marker, closed the book, read my name on the book jacket, and said, “Are you famous?”
“No. Some authors who sell a lot of books are famous, but most authors are not famous.”
“Is your book in the library?”
“It was there the last time I was at the library.”
So that’s what he told his teacher the next day — that his father had a book in the library. When he came home, he said to me, “Mrs. Coleman would like to borrow a copy of your book.”
“Did you tell her it was for teenagers?”
“I told her it was for ages thirteen and up.”
So I gave him a book to take to his teacher. When he returned from school, I said, “Did she ask you any questions about the book?”
“Did she ask you who Alexandra was?”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her she was one of your ex-wives.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
That Spring, the boy’s interest shifted away from my ex-wives to baseball, facing nine- and ten-year-old pitchers who threw hard and mostly wild. Big contrast from the previous year when coaches pitched and lobbed the ball in. He approached the plate ready to duck, walk, hit, but never strike out. When he did strike out, he’d slump back to the dugout, fighting the tears. As an assistant coach, I was there to remind him that great players like Ken Griffey struck out lots of times, that he’d already hit a home run off the fastest pitcher in the league, that it wasn’t possible to hit the ball every time. Nothing I said seemed to ease his pain. He hated striking out with a lot of people watching. At the end of the season, he said, “Dad, do I have to play baseball next year?”
I said, “You shouldn’t play any sport that isn’t fun.” I thought about why he had played well but hadn’t enjoyed it more. When I grew up, we kids used to organize our own baseball game — no coaches, no umpires, no parents. We had fun. With adults organizing baseball teams, coaches yelled at them, umpires yelled at them, and parents yelled at them from the sideline. No fun. The Boston Globe reported that early immersion in organized sports can cause kids to burn out by high school or college. No fun anymore.
At the beginning of fourth grade, the boy learned that he could order computer software (GAMES) through his school. “How come we didn’t get a computer this summer?” he said. “Didn’t you say we were going to get a computer this summer?”
“I’ll be bringing my old PC home from work when they get my new one set up.”
As soon as we had an Internet Service Provider, he said, “When can we find Internet addresses that have games you can download?”
I said he could read game descriptions on the Internet, but only I could download. He grumbled when he discovered many downloadable games required a faster processor than the one in my outdated company PC. He said, “Dad, when can we get a Pentium chip for this computer?”
I read once that setting limits for a boy that age is like building a wall. You think he understands that the wall cannot be moved, but the boy will push forever to move the wall. If he moves it an inch, then he’ll try for another inch. Whenever I became tired of holding my son’s wall in place, the F-word rushed to my lips, forcing me to swallow it before its resonance proved I was unfit to raise a small child.
I didn’t know then that the dawn of the Internet Age was infiltrating our house like some insidious and odorless gas. I didn’t know then whether my answers to his questions held any wisdom that he would absorb. He never asked me to elaborate about my ex-wife, which was fine with me.
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