When the nurses handed me my son, I couldn’t believe how perfect he was. Ben was so robust, nearly fifty inches tall, including horns and tail. Even the doula was impressed.
“My God,” she said. “My holy God in heaven.”
Alan and I knew instantly that our child was exceptional. He was just so adorable, with his pentagram birthmark and little, grasping claws. His red eyes gleamed with intelligence. When the doctors came in with all their charts, they just confirmed what we already knew. Our child was “one of a kind” and “unlike any creature born of man.”
Alan and I were ecstatic – but also a little bit nervous. Raising a gifted child is a huge responsibility. And we were determined not to squander Ben’s talents. We vowed then and there that we would do all we could to ensure he achieved his full potential.
The first step was getting him into the right preschool. We figured it would be a breeze, given Ben’s obvious star quality. But, to our great surprise, he struggled with the interview requirement. At Trevor Day, a teacher asked him how old he was. Instead of saying “three,” he gored open her stomach and then pinned her to the ceiling with his mind. We were able to get him an interview at Trinity, thanks to a family connection. But when Ben saw the crucifix in the lobby, his eyes turned black and the walls wept blood. Why was Ben behaving this way? There was only one logical explanation: attention deficit disorder. We took him to a specialist on Park Avenue, and within five minutes our son had his first prescription for Ritalin.
At first Ben wouldn’t take his pills. Padma, our nanny, had to chase him for hours around the apartment, blowing incense in the air to try to scare him down from the ceiling. Sometimes we had no choice but to crush up the pills and slip them into his ram’s blood. Within months, though, Ben got used to his medication. He became calmer, more alert, and far less murderous. He was a real joy to be around.
In some ways, Ben still lagged behind most children. He spoke only one word: arrgh. And he was unable to tie his shoes or blink his eyes. We didn’t care, though. Because, by the age of five, he’d finally found an outlet for his gifts. Art!
Her daughter was still doodling fluffy clouds and rainbows, and here was Ben, already sketching three-dimensional bone altars. Carolyn would never admit it, but I could tell she was jealous.”
Ben always had a creative temperament. He could grip crayons by his second birthday (which is very rare), and by the age of six he was drawing every day. His favorite colors were black and red. Sometimes, while composing a sketch, he would become so excited that his crayon would break apart in his claws and he would start to ram his horns against the wall as noxious steam emitted from his ears. If Ben’s art supplies were taken from him, he would respond with so much violence that Padma would have to subdue him, using one of the sleeper holds she’d learned. It didn’t take long for Alan and me to realize we had a true artiste on our hands.
One time, my friend Carolyn – whose daughter, Esther, is Ben’s age – came over to our apartment for tea. When I showed her Ben’s drawings, she was so impressed, her face turned pale. Her daughter was still doodling fluffy clouds and rainbows, and here was Ben, already sketching three-dimensional bone altars. Carolyn would never admit it, but I could tell she was a teensy bit jealous.
We decided to enroll Ben at Dalton, because of its emphasis on creativity. I wasn’t going to let Ben’s talent go to waste at some cookie-cutter public school where every child is forced into the same dull mold. I wanted him to have a chance to find himself.
The truth is, both Alan and I had secretly hoped that our child would be a ‘creative’. We each harbored artistic dreams in our youth (Alan wrote poetry and I made collages). Our parents, though, discouraged us from pursuing ‘les arts’. In their opinion, it was just too financially risky. I’m thrilled that I ended up at Synergy Unlimited, and Alan loves his job at the Globex Corporation. But even though we’ve made successful careers in business, there’s still a part of us that wonders, What if? With Ben (who’s five times more talented than Alan and I ever were!) we finally had the chance to answer that question.
Ben’s time at Dalton was not without incident. He’s incredibly unique – every teacher said so. But his creativity could sometimes be a burden. If a subject didn’t ‘grab’ him, he would have trouble focusing – and instead create a game of his own design. For example, in fifth grade, a teacher asked him to calculate the area of a four-by-six-foot rectangle. Instead of multiplying four by six, as a typical child might have done, Ben crab-walked across the ceiling and blinded the teacher with a fire stare. A custodial worker was able to subdue Ben with a sleeper hold. But the incident was very traumatic for our son. Alan and I decided it was time to reexamine his treatment.
After consulting with our specialist, we chose to switch Ben from Ritalin to Focalin, which is a slightly stronger medicine. We also hired Han Cho, an astrophysics PhD candidate at Columbia, to tutor Ben five days a week after school. When I mentioned the tutor to my friend Carolyn, she said, “It must be nice to be able to afford help.” I had to laugh. Ben didn’t need ‘help’. His teachers all agreed, in report card after report card, that he was “one of a kind” and “incredible”. What Ben needed was someone to translate his ideas to the page. The sad truth is, our world is just not designed for differently abled children. Many assignments at Dalton require the use of pencils, which Ben cannot hold in his claw. Other projects involve calculators, which Ben considers food, or the use of English, which Ben cannot speak. Enlisting Han allowed Ben to complete his assignments at his own pace and in a way that showcased his distinct gifts. The implication that Han did anything beyond that is offensive and insulting.
Ben’s grades soon improved. We were so grateful to Han for unlocking our son’s potential that we started to hire him for weekends, too. We even took him with us to Greenwich every summer, so Ben could get a ‘head start’ on the school year. Over time, Han became something of a big brother to Ben (although, of course, he was much, much smaller, physically). Once, they were studying vocab by the pool when I heard a loud splashing noise. When I went outside to check on them, Ben was holding Han upside down by the ankles and growling with delight.
“Help!” Han shouted, playing along with Ben’s game. “I’ve lost control! I’ve lost control!”
One thing I find particularly interesting is that Ben never mentioned the fact that Han was of Asian descent. Many children Ben’s age have problems befriending people from different racial backgrounds. But that’s just not how Ben saw the world. He treated Han exactly the same way he treated everyone else in his life.
Despite all of Ben’s achievements, he did not seem excited about college. When I tried to engage him in conversations about his future, he replied in typical teenage fashion, with a series of shrugs, grunts, and monosyllables.”
When Ben turned thirteen, and the pressures of his bar mitzvah were finally behind him, we knew it was time to start thinking about college. We met with a number of counseling firms before ultimately hiring Sterling Horizons, a small boutique company located near our weekend house in Greenwich. They helped us structure a four-year strategy for Ben that would demonstrate his skill set – and we followed the plan to the letter. By the time Ben was a senior, his résumé was absolutely glittering. He’d received five participation gavels from Model UN, been elected tri-captain of the Dalton golf team, and contributed numerous drawings to the school’s Fine Arts Magazine. His GPA was a respectable 1.4, and even though he’d accidentally eaten several sections of his SAT he still managed to notch a 420.
Despite all of Ben’s achievements, he did not seem excited about college. He’d spend hours in his room, playing violent video games and listening to moody, satanic music (I’ll never understand today’s bands – in my day it was ABBA!). The only time I’d see Ben was late at night, when he’d emerge from his room to raid the fridge for blood Popsicles. I worked to take advantage of these ‘sightings’ as best I could. But when I tried to engage him in conversations about his future, he replied in typical teenage fashion, with a series of shrugs, grunts, and monosyllables.
“Do you want to go to a big school or a small school?”
“Do you want to be in a city or in the country?”
“Would you prefer lecture classes or seminars?”
It was exasperating. In the end, we were able to persuade Ben to apply early to Bard. Alan and I had taken him there on a college tour and we were so impressed that we donated several tennis courts to their campus. When Ben was accepted, Alan and I were beside ourselves! But Ben wasn’t as thrilled as you’d expect. Here he was, accepted into his dream school, and his smile was so faint I could barely see his fangs. It was obvious what had happened: Ben had burned out. We met with Ben’s psychiatrist and decided it would be best for him to take a ‘gap year’. When I was growing up, this concept didn’t exist, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The college process has grown so insanely competitive. By the time it’s over, children need a chance to decompress. The only question was: where would Ben go? It was difficult to decide. He had his heart set on Transylvania, which I found baffling. (Italy would make more sense, since it has such a grand artistic tradition.) In the end, we compromised. Ben would spend two weeks on his own in Transylvania, as a reward for all his hard work. Then he’d spend six months at a wonderful program I found in Costa Rica that builds eco-friendly houses for the poor.
When Ben returned from his time abroad, he was a changed man. He had a swagger to his step and a confidence I’d never seen before. Part of me wondered if he’d maybe met a girlfriend overseas, but I knew better than to ask. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years as a parent, it’s that the mother is always the last to know!
Unfortunately, though, Ben had trouble adjusting to college. He thrived within his major, creating dozens of ‘splatter’ paintings in the Abstract Expressionist tradition. But he had difficulty with his core curriculum courses. Once, during a Spanish midterm, he escaped into the Hudson Valley woods and lived as a beast for several months, taking residence in a cave and eating neighborhood pets to survive. The local authorities were able to subdue him. And, thankfully, they turned him over to the Bard police, so that his outburst could be handled internally by the school. But the event was traumatic for Ben, and I decided it would be best for him to take a semester off. We also got him a prescription for Adderall, which is a slightly stronger medicine than Focalin.
It took nearly seven years, but Ben eventually earned his BA in painting. I’ll never forget how handsome he looked on the podium, with his cute little horns poking out through his mortarboard. No sooner had he snatched his diploma, though, than my heart began to race. All I could think was, What now?
Ben moved back home and quickly settled into his old teenage routine, sleeping past noon and drinking blood out of the carton. After several long months, Alan and I were beginning to get nervous. One day, though, we read an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine. It was a very long piece, but the gist of it was this: College alone does not prepare children for the modern workforce. Writing papers and taking tests is all well and good. But if a kid is really going to succeed in the rough-and-tumble business world, he needs hands-on experience in his chosen field. Armed with this knowledge, I decided to hire the Apex Consulting Group (a small boutique firm that specializes in career planning). After several enjoyable meetings, they gave me their recommendation: Ben should intern with a working artist. When they told me this idea, I was so excited I could barely breathe. Finally, after decades of work, Ben would have a chance to fulfill his dreams.
When I told him the plan, he was so enthused he punched his fist through a wall.
“Aaaaaarrrrrgggh!” he screamed with obvious elation. “Aarrrrrrrgh!”
Ben quit his internship and disappeared into the Connecticut forest, where he lived as a beast for several weeks, drinking wild-deer blood to survive. I had to admit, part of me was disappointed.”
Apex Consulting introduced me to Jean Petis, an award-winning painter based in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. After I showed him Ben’s portfolio and committed to buy a series of twenty-by-thirty-foot paintings, he agreed to take him on for a three-month period.
Ben’s internship was not without incident. He gored some paintings, which Alan and I were forced to replace, and he did not get along with Jean Petis. After just four days, Ben quit his internship and disappeared into the Connecticut forest, where he lived as a beast for several weeks, drinking wild-deer blood to survive. I had to admit, part of me was disappointed. I’d trusted Bard to prepare my child for a career in the arts, and they’d completely ‘dropped the ball’. I wondered if we had made a mistake by not seriously considering Oberlin.
After Ben was captured, we got him a prescription for Kilmax, which is a slightly stronger medicine than Adderall. Then, on a rainy February morning, I sat down with him to talk about his future. As usual, it was difficult for us to connect.
“Do you think you’d like to try another internship?”
“Would you like us to rent you your own artist’s studio in Williamsburg?”
The Kilmax, I noticed, had produced several troubling side effects. Ben’s eyes – usually so bright and searing – had dimmed to a pale ocher. His horns were pointed downward and his fur was falling out in clumps. I was telling him about another option – the birthright trip to Israel – when he suddenly held up his claw, cutting me off midsentence.
I screamed for Alan, and he came running.
“Ben spoke!” I cried. We leaned in toward our son, keeping as still as possible. Ben gasped a few times, obviously struggling. Eventually, though, he managed to continue.
“No more… arrrrrgh! Pleeeeeaseeeearrrrrgh! Me… not… sick. Me… arrrrrrrgh! Monster. Let… be… monster. Let be monster.”
My eyes filled with tears. I’d always assumed that Ben would never talk – and now here he was, carrying on a full conversation! If Ben could master language, there was no limit to what he could achieve. I whipped out my iPhone and typed in Han’s number from memory.
It was time to start thinking about law school.
From the collection Spoiled Brats, published in paperback by Serpent’s Tail.
Simon Rich is the author of the short humour collections Ant Farm and Free-Range Chickens, the novels Elliot Allagash and What in God’s Name, and the story collections The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Spoiled Brats. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and his work appears frequently in The New Yorker. His novels and short stories are published by Serpent’s Tail. Read more.
Author portrait © Melissa Fuller