Wonder 15

“I think our Chazzie’s gifted,” Beryl said the other day.

We looked over to where he sat working on his homework.

“Charlie?” I asked. “He’s average, right? Middle of the Bell curve.”

“I don’t think so, Mae. He’s off the curve. In the very best way.”


“Whatcha working on, Charlie?” I asked him.

“It’s some kinda formula-thinger,” he said. “Like when you mix stuff, what do you get.”


And he dove right back into his work.

“He’s not,” I whispered to Beryl. “He just works hard. He knows how to apply himself.”


He closed his book when I joined him with my cup of tea.

“All done, sweetie?”

“I’m done with the first part. Now I get to do the extra part.”


“You want help?” I asked.

“Naw,” he said. “I like to do it myself. But can you hang out with me while I do it, and then after can I practice a joke on you?”

“Sure!” I said. “I’d love a joke!”


When Charlie finished his work, he said, “Ok. Joke time. So this goalie walks into a library. He goes up to the librarian and says ‘May I have a cheese burger and fries, please?’ The librarian scratches his head and says, ‘Sir, you are in a library.’ The goalie covers his mouth. ‘Oh, sorry. May I have a cheese burger and fries, please?’ whispers the goalie.”


While I was still chuckling, Charlie ran over to the old chemistry set that Mr. Fennis, the store owner, dropped off.

I watched him work. He maintained intense focus and concentration.


He pulled out a notebook and wrote down notes.

“What are you writing, Charlie?” I asked.

“The formula-thinger,” he said. “In case I want to make this tomorrow. Think it’ll explode?”


It didn’t explode, but it was combustible.

“What did you put in there?”

“Iron!” Charlie shouted.


I had to admit it was really cool.

“Be careful, spud,” I said.

“Yeah, we’re doing aqueous solutions next,” Charlie said. “Nothing combustible about those. You like blue? This is copper.”


“Where’d you learn that stuff?” I asked Charlie. “At school?”

“Sort of,” he replied. “I went to the library. First I asked for a cheeseburger,” he cracked up. “Then I said for reals, ‘Can I get a book about color stuff and chemistry?'”

It was hard for me to believe that this is the same little guy who insists on watching the Freezer Bunny Jump Show with breakfast every morning before school.

How much more is going on inside his mind that I haven’t a clue of?

It hit me then–how much of life happens outside of us. Here is my little boy, not so little anymore, growing up with his own interests, his own discoveries, his own adventures. They’re happening outside of me. There will be so much to him that I never know.


Before bed, Paolo called. “Can o menino come to visit before the bed?”

It was nearly nine.

“I will send him back before the half of the hour,” Paolo said. “He said he had the something to tell to me.”

“You could come here,” I said.

“No,” he replied. “I am making the supper for Jade and Eva. I have the caldo verde on the stove now.”

Charlie was eager to run over to his dad’s.

“Do you want me to come?” I asked.

“No!” said Charlie. “I mean, yeah, if you want to, but for me, no.”

I watched him run across the courtyard until he disappeared down the hill. I imagined him sharing news with his dad. Maybe he was telling him the goalie joke. Or maybe he was describing the color of iron sparks and copper solutions. Or maybe he had his own secrets that a boy wants to tell his father.


While he was gone I felt a pang. Oh, I understand my mother so much more now! When I was growing up, I always wondered why she felt she had a right to my thoughts and feelings. They were mine. What obligation was there to share them with her?  Sometimes I would share, and when I did, she lapped up every word greedily. Her eagerness made me less inclined to share the next time. I needed something of my own.

I decided that I wouldn’t ask Charlie what he had wanted to share with his father.


When Charlie came home, he pulled out his violin.

“Can I play before bed?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said.

I sat outside and listened. He played a Mozart violin concerto, and he played it with ease. I knew he’d been studying with someone at school, and he’s been practicing hours every day.

It was as if I were hearing him for the first time. Charlie is no longer my baby: he is an individual, with a curious mind and a full range of talents, ideas, and explorations.

And maybe Beryl is right about him.


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Wonder 12



“Tia Berry!” Charlie said this morning. “Guess what today is?”

“Chips-for-breakfast day?”

“No, silly! Kickball day! And if I get there first at recess, I get to be the captain!”

Charlie ran off to school full of excitement.

The day passed quickly. Beryl painted. I cleaned house and watched a boring movie on TV. It felt good to sit for a few hours and let my mind go numb from bad acting.

We were standing out in the yard chatting by Beryl’s easel when Charlie came home in the afternoon.

He stood out front for a moment.


I wondered if he was taking in the view. Sometimes the clouds over the mountains steal our breath. Berry spends hours telling us stories about the captains and crews of the tall ships sees in those clouds.


“How was kickball?” I asked Charlie at supper.

“Good,” he said.

“Not great?”

“It was OK. I was captain, and we won. No big deal.”

After supper, when he was drawing, I came over to listen to him. When we were kids, Berry used to talk so much when she was drawing. That’s when she’d really open up with me if something was bothering her. I thought maybe Charlie might be the same.

“Why do there have to be losers?” he asked.

“What do you mean, Charlie?”

“When our team won, the other team lost, and they were sad. Pierce said they were losers, and Martin started to cry. I don’t want to be a winner if it means it’s gonna make the other guy sad.”

Huh. I didn’t know what to say. Did I think about ethical dilemmas when I was a little kid? I guess I did. I never thought about how my winning made someone else feel badly, though. I always wanted to do my best, and if that meant I won, so be it.

“I’m not sure I know the answer to that one, Charlie,” I said at last. “Some questions don’t have easy answers. But that’s cool. That means you get to think about it. So, you can keep on thinking about this one, and maybe you can talk about it with me, your pai, and Berry, and you can fill us in on what you discover. This can be one of those lifelong questions you explore.”

“Do you think the robber goes faster if his car has more glitter or less?” he asked me, turning back to his drawing.


Berry brought out a surprise she’d gotten him: his own fiddle. She showed him how to hold it, how to use his left hand to play notes and his right to hold the bow, and, to our surprise, within half an hour, he was actually sounding decent.


After forty-five minutes, we could recognize the tune he was playing, the team song for his dad’s old soccer team.


I expected he’d grow bored, or his fingers would hurt, or his bow arm would get tired, but he stayed out in the garden playing for hours.

“Should I let him keep playing?” I asked Berry.

She laughed. “You’re the one who insisted that he be allowed to play computer games to his heart’s content, and now you’re wondering if you should restrict his time on his violin? What happened to ‘every obsession is a chance for mastery’?”

I had to laugh. I guess, for me, playing computer games for hours on end seems like fun, so why curtail fun? But playing a violin for hours seems like such hard work! To Beryl, it must be the other way around–the computer’s boring, but the violin is heaven.

Charlie loves both.


He came in for a snack eventually.

“You like the violin, then?” I asked him.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I like Berry’s scrambled eggs better.”


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Wonder 11



I asked Charlie to tell me about his drawing.

“I’m in the green car,” he said, “and I just stole lots of money and the guys in the blue car have the red lights, and if they catch me, the red lights will eat up the green car.”

“They’ll eat it up?” I asked.

“Yeah! Like the arithmetic game where the red lights eat the green numbers when you’re not fast enough!”

“Oh,” I said. “I see. But why did you steal the money?”

“To buy candy.”

“Oh. But you know stealing is wrong, right?”

Mae!” he said, drawing it out to about five syllables. “It’s just a story!”


Today was his first day of school. We’d made a plan to do homework first thing in the morning. He told me about his drawing while I made the bed, and by the time I finished making the bed, he’d not only finished his story, he’d finished his homework. Smart little monkey.

He looked so confident when he headed off to school.


As soon as he was gone, it struck me. The house is silent. My little boy is at school.


I decided I’d spend the morning at the chess park. It’s just down the street. I was enjoying meeting new people, looking at a few opening positions, and then, my body shivered–not a cold shiver, but electric. I looked up and saw Paolo entering the park.

We’ve hardly seen him. He’s called once or twice when I was busy and couldn’t meet up with him or even chat on the phone, and he’s hardly even stopped by.

I don’t mind, for, oddly enough, when he’ not around, I don’t think about him. I would’ve guessed that Charlie would always remind me of him, but Charlie is just Charlie, not little Paolo.

I assumed that Paolo was my two-night fling–nothing to it but a bonus gift for me. All of Paolo’s talk about wanting to be there, wanting to be part of his son’s life, that was talk. Sure, he probably felt it at the time, but I figured Paolo was like me, as soon as Charlie and I weren’t around, we were out of his thoughts. Out of sight, out of life.

But this shiver. This electric jolt. Sure, it’s physical, but that doesn’t make it less real. Maybe that makes it more real.


“What is the happening with the little Carlo?” Paolo asked.

“It’s his first day at school!” I said.

There were people around, so I couldn’t say to Paolo the one word my body was screaming for me to say, “Closet!” But I could tell from Paolo’s grin that he was thinking it, too.

We’re going to have to make an appointment with each other soon.


When Charlie got home from school, he was furious.

“The test is so stupid!” he says. “It’s little circles! What do I learn from circles?”

He had filled them in in a pattern that he liked, and when his teacher saw it, she’d scolded him for not following instructions.

I had a moment’s rage. Standardized tests? Here? Even in Windenburg?

Berry stepped in. “Chazzie,” she said, “how about you take a shower? Let the water wash away all your angry feelings. Water can do that. When you come out the world will feel new again.”


While Charlie showered, I did some research on the school district’s website. Standardized tests–bubble-tests, no less!–were government mandates. But they weren’t evaluated on an individual level, and, in fact, it seemed that they hardly served any purpose at all. So perhaps, like so much in life, they’re simply one more innocuous waste of time.

Maybe I’ll run for the school board. I could have fun making change.

“Can I use the computer?” Charlie asked when he got out of the shower.

“Do you feel better?” I asked. “I downloaded a typing game for you.”

“Good,” he said. “I want to relax.”

As I left the room, I heard him telling a story while he played the game.

“The C-A-T wasn’t a normal cat. It was a S-U-P-E-R cat with magic H-A-N-D-S.”


What does a standardized test matter when a little boy can turn a typing game into a story about a magic cat?

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Wonder 10



Chazzie did this drawing. He calls it his Triangle Study. I was glad to see that there weren’t any triangles in it.

“Nice use of macaroni,” I told him that morning.

“Hey, Tia Berry!” he called back. “Could you make me macaroni for lunch?”


“We’ll see,” I replied.

“Please?” he said. “I saved some in the box. And I didn’t get any glitter in it!”

“Oh,” I said, “maybe I should make macaroni and glitter! Wouldn’t you like a sparkly lunch?”


After breakfast, Chaz went out to play. I was really glad to see him outdoors. He’d been on the computer practically nonstop for since Monday evening.

Mae-mae says that we need to trust his own natural process of learning and discovery, and I guess she’s right.


After lunch, Trey Triceratops, Pony Po, and Chazzie played near the easel while I was painting.

Chazzie was teaching Trey how to add. Po didn’t have to attend the lessons because he already knew that you bang your hoof seven times for three plus four. But Po listened in anyway, “Because he finds numbers fascinating.”

“Now, Trey,” Chazzie explained, “it really does serve a purpose to understand numbers. Can you feel them? Try. That’s what Tia Berry does. No? Can you see them? That’s what I do. No? OK, Trey. You do what makes sense to you.”

“I eat them,” grumbled Trey.


While I was putting the finishing touches on a small architectural study, Chazzie said to me, “You know what happens to mathematics when you eat up all the numbers?”

“No,” I replied.

“You get a null set,” he said, and giggled.


I went inside and googled “null set.” Holy cow! Where does this boy get this stuff?


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Wonder 9



“Chazzie’s spending an awful lot of time at the computer,” Beryl said to me. “Should we suggest he go outside and play?”

I said not.

“Remember how we were as kids?” I said. “Remember that year when you barely came out from under the bed because you were building the mines under there for the Gandorfian kingdom? Mom and Dad let you spend every free moment under there. You even slept under the bed all winter!”

“But that was different,” Berry said. “That was using my imagination and creating something.”

“This is important, too, Berry. This is part of a process. I don’t want to limit the learning that’s happening. He’ll be done when he’s done, ready for the next enthusiasm.”

“I just hope the next enthusiasm is something that doesn’t involve the computer,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to play games or check my email in days!”


As I was heading into the kitchen, I heard her ask him, “Did you figure out how to feel the numbers yet?”

“Naw,” he replied. “I see them. Like I see the five dots and the seven dots so when they combine in the pattern of the five and seven, that’s when I know it’s the twelve.”

“Dang!” Berry said. “Not bad!”

“Help!” Charlie shouted. “How do I see one hundred and fifty-seven! The dots cover everything! It’s dots from here on down!”


We’ve been letting Charlie stay home from school. I know he’ll have to go in a few days–we’ve nearly used up our allowance of time-off for excused absences. But right now, I’ve been watching Charlie’s development on the computer, and he’s learning at such an accelerated pace that I don’t want to interrupt it.

The school encouraged him to call his teacher each day so that he will feel familiar with her when he does start attending school.

He seems to really like her.

“You play with balls at school?” I heard him say to her on the phone. “I love balls! Meu pai is the player of futebol! We think balls are the greatest! Do you have those kinds with honeycombs on them?”


I feel grateful that we’re bringing up Charlie in Windenburg. The flexibility of the school system is great, and the culture suits us so well.

We haven’t received any prejudice or scorn due to our lifestyle. At home, I feel that I would always be brushing up against resistance and pressure to marry Paolo or at least move in with him. As it is, here, we’ve been able to maintain an easy flow–we see him when we see him, and no one resents the self-sufficiency of two sisters and their boy.

It’s a village–we came as outsiders, but now we’ve been welcomed into it, and there’s room for us and our way of doing things. We fit. We contribute. I don’t think we could’ve created this back home.


Charlie’s friend Joaquin has been coming over. He always does something kind and helpful when he stops by. Today he took out the trash.

“You don’t have to do that,” I told him.

“Ah, but it is my joy!” he said. “The single mother, she is like a something special. Something honored. My mama raised me with only her and my grandparents alone. So for me to give it forward, this is something that I do with the gratitude.”


After supper, Charlie came out and announced, “I’m done with the computer!”



“Yeah!” he said. “I took a break from the dots and number game ’cause all I saw were dots on my brain, and I thought, ‘hey! let’s look up Pai!'”

“You looked up your dad?”

“Yeah!” said Charlie. “Did you know he’s like a super hero super star guy with the futebol?”

“I knew he was a professional,” I said, “but I didn’t know he was a superstar.”

Gosh! I feel a little bit embarrassed now that I think about it, but I never even googled Paolo! Not once! Paolo had told me a lot about his career as a soccer player, of course, and I guess I knew he was talented–I mean, he’d been recruited. But I’d never realized that he’d been something of a star before his injury. It explained a lot. It also made me respect him even more, for he’s never tried to trump his fame or even to impress me. I like a modest guy.

“So, pao said to this writer guy that he would play all day long. He slept with the ball and took it to school. One article said to get really good at sports you need to play outside and do stuff. So that’s what I want to do now! Can we go to the park?”

It was late–after midnight. But Charlie had had a good nap that afternoon, and he had one more day of vacation, so as soon as he finished his sandwich, we caught the late bus to the park.


“Where are all the kids, Mae?” Charlie asked.

“Honey, it’s late! They’re all home sleeping.”

“That’s OK,” Charlie said. “I’ll play futebol with the vampires!”


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Wonder 8



I can spend all day watching Charlie. When I was a kid, I remember my mom sitting near where Berry and I were playing, doing nothing but looking our way with a smile on her face. I caught myself doing that the other day, and I understood. My mom didn’t spend the years of my childhood doing nothing: she spent those years being a mom.

“What are you drawing?” I asked Charlie the other evening.

“Those pointy things,” he said.

“You mean roofs?”

“No, like roofs but more… more anywhere. Like the blue line comes down like this, and the other blue line down like that, and it makes that pointy thing.”

“A triangle?”

“Right! This whole drawing is all about those. Triangles.”


The program wants us to have Charlie tested to establish a baseline against which they can measure future physical, social, creative, and mental development. The administrators say it’s a requirement for all participants to undergo evaluation at regular intervals. So far, my requests for special dispensation have been accepted. I just don’t want Charlie to be tested.

Berry and I are letting him develop in his own way. We know that he probably won’t develop intellectually, creatively, physically, and emotionally in the exactly the same way that we did: he’s his own person, with his own personality, his own style, his own approach, and rather than comparing him to us, we want to enjoy and support his own unique blueprint for success.

I’m not sure he’s all that smart, truth be told, but he is curious, friendly, and enthusiastic–and that goes a long ways.


Chess doesn’t interest him that much as a mental pursuit, but as an activity that lets him meet interesting people, he’ll give it a try.


What has captured his interest is an arithmetic game I downloaded for him.


He’s been playing it with only breaks for meal-times since I downloaded it.


I overheard Berry and him talking about game and mathematical problem-solving strategies.

“Tia Berry,” he said, “how can I get quicker? By the time I figure it out, the bar has dropped and the red lights eat the numbers.”

“Feel the numbers,” Berry said. “Close your eyes, and feel them. Is it plus? Then feel it more. Is it minus? Feel it less.”


“Help! It doesn’t make any sense!” he said. “How’m I supposed to know what five times seven feels like?”


I had to laugh.

“You’ll find your own way of solving problems,” I told him when I kissed him good night before heading to bed. I could hear him talking to the computer screen while I fell asleep.

“Seven fives! Seven fives! That’s thirty-five! That’s the same as five sevens, you dunder-nose Freezer Bunny red-flashy light! Take that!”

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