My son Artist Boy, now 14 years old, was… I don’t want to say difficult, exactly… but he was a complicated toddler. For one thing, he didn’t play with toys. (Being a new mom, I blamed the toys: Don’t these companies do research? Can’t they figure out how to make toys that kids will actually like? It was only after my daughter came along that I realized my error, ha ha.) He didn’t play with toys, and he didn’t play “let’s pretend” either. It was hard to know what to do with him, and it was nearly impossible to get him to play by himself for more than a few minutes at a time.
And then one morning he woke up and discovered he could draw. It really did happen practically overnight, and the change in him was absolutely dramatic. Once he discovered this outlet, he turned into a calm, happy kid who could keep himself occupied not just for minutes but for hours on end. In fact, he needed to draw. I can recall occasions when he saw something really fascinating, for example an exhibit at a “hands-on” children’s science museum, and was visibly distressed until he could get home and draw what he’d seen.
His drawing had a curious quality to it. Oh, the drawings themselves were just fine — he comes by his fine motor skill and spatial awareness quite honestly, from Hubs’s family, which is thickly sprinkled with architects, carpenters, potters, artists, engineers and inventors — but his drawing always seemed to fill a cognitive, not artistic, need. When he drew that science exhibit, he wasn’t just making an artistic rendition. He was taking that exhibit apart and putting it back together again. And when he was done, he understood it. Drawing, for him, was a means to an end. What he craved was the understanding, and he achieved it by re-creating his world on paper.
As he’s gotten older his need to draw has dissipated to a large extent. But he hasn’t stopped re-creating the world on paper. First it was architecture. He scoured the library and bookstores for books of houseplans, bought pads and pads of graph paper, and spent hours designing houses. His architect cousin, delighted, sent him a heavy-duty professional-grade tape measure and suggested that he practice with it by drawing the blueprints of our own house. Artist Boy didn’t follow through with that. He had absolutely no interest in rendering an existing house. No, his way of learning was to design his own. Once it was down on paper, he was done.
Eventually there came a time when he was done with architecture, simply done with it, and he moved on to Dungeons & Dragons. Here too he was more interested in creating campaign settings than actually playing the game. He rolled up sheets and sheets of characters, spent hours designing terrain (learning quite a bit about geography in the process) and creating towns, cities, and cultures. He did this with the same obsessive quality that characterized the drawing and the architecture.
His current obsession is language. About a year ago he stumbled across a website called The Language Construction Kit and he was instantly hooked on conlangs. Conlangs are constructed languages, like Klingon. So now Artist Boy is essentially taking apart language and re-creating it on paper. I’m not sure he himself sees the similarity between this and his previous interests but to me it is clear as day. And holy cow he has learned so much! Not just grammar but also orthography, phonology, and even the anatomy of the mouth and throat. He is totally fluent with the International Phonetic Alphabet. He also devours books about linguistics and existing languages, and next year when he starts high school he is planning to skip first year Latin because he already knows about moods and cases and tenses and declensions and whatnot. I’m sure he will do just fine.
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In writing this, I feel like I am bragging about how smart is my son. I don’t mean to come across this way. Actually, he has been driving me crazy lately and I thought it might help to remind myself of what a cool and interesting kid he is. Because in addition to being cool and interesting, he is arrogant, selfish, mean to his younger siblings, and occasionally dishonest. In other words, he is a normal fourteen-year-old boy. Argh!