13 St. Petersburg Times: Interactive Special Report
Love. Identity. Secrets. Loyalty. Sex. Betrayal. Power. Grades. Rivalry.  Glory. Parents. Subterfuge. Divorce. God. Guitars. Life at the edge of everything.
 
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 


Last semester, at a school dance, Carlo asked Kalie to dance with him, and for one song they were together. Ever since, Carlo has refused to wash the shirt he was wearing that day.
See Rembrandt's The Night Watch from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
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It would be so simple to dismiss him. So easy to agree with Eric and assume that a seventh-grader cannot possibly understand something as complex as love.

And yet what about Romeo and Juliet? In Shakespeare's play, Juliet is only 13 when she meets her forbidden suitor; it says so in Act 1, Scene 2. But do we dismiss the two of them? Doesn't pretty much the entire world agree that theirs is one of the greatest love stories ever told?

Carlo's mother takes the long view. Remember, Giovanna is a history professor. One of her areas of study - she's been researching it for decades - happens to be Florentine culture during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Renaissance was still flourishing. When she talks about Carlo and his feelings for Kalie, Giovanna can't help but point out the tender ages of Romeo and Juliet, who met and died in Verona, not far from Florence.

"Romeo," she says, "was 15 or 16."

During the Renaissance, the notion of adolescence - a transitional period between childhood and adulthood - was unheard of. Once boys and girls reached a certain age, they were simply treated as adults. It was widely accepted that teenagers were ready for duties and experiences that would seem inappropriate today. Males and females were educated separately and kept apart, except for formal occasions. Boys were often taken to courtesans to be initiated into sex. Girls were sometimes married off at 12. Love didn't enter into it.

"Usually, marriages were arranged," says Giovanna. "That was the common situation."

Today, things are a little different. There is a general recognition that adolescents are special cases, neither children nor adults, just beginning to figure out who they are.

Giovanna and Fraser see it so clearly in Carlo. One moment he'll be sitting at the dinner table, calmly sharing his views on politics and the world, carrying himself with so much poise that he seems more like a college student visiting his family for the weekend. An hour later, as he gets ready for bed, he'll be acting like a 5-year-old, bouncing around in his underwear and dancing with his Beanie Babies.

These extremes can be unnerving to some parents, but not to Carlo's. They're pleased that he can still access that childlike abandon. Though they want him to grow up, they have no desire to see the joy squeezed out of him. Of course, they're aware of Carlo's unrequited interest in Kalie. And while they don't want him to get his heart broken, they're hoping he'll work things out, one way or the other. They've seen him in this situation before.

According to Giovanna, Carlo has always been loyal in his affections. From kindergarten on, he liked one girl each year, and one girl only. It didn't matter if the girl liked Carlo back; he would still write her name on a piece of paper and sleep with it under his pillow.

His parents do not discount his current attachment to Kalie. They don't completely understand it, and they don't necessarily agree that what he feels for this girl qualifies as love. All they know is that something profound is happening inside their son. Whatever it is, whatever name it deserves, Carlo doesn't have to defend it to them. He doesn't have to prove anything to anybody, not even to Kalie. In fact, what Carlo is feeling - and the way he handles those feelings - reveals far more about him than about the object of his attentions.

As his parents will tell you, Carlo has always liked puzzles. When he was little, he would sit quietly with the jigsaw pieces and study them until he knew where each piece fit, not particularly caring how long it took. Even then, he had that stillness about him, that way of vanishing inside his concentration.

"Carlo," says his mother, "approaches things slowly."

Once, when Carlo was in third grade, his parents took him and Vittorio to Amsterdam for a vacation. While they were there, the family visited the art collection at the Rijksmuseum. At one point, as Giovanna and Fraser moved through the crowds, they lost sight of Vittorio and had to leave Carlo for a moment while they scrambled after their younger boy. When they returned, they found Carlo transfixed in front of a painting.

It was a Rembrandt. One of his most famous works, known as The Night Watch, it shows the members of a militia company marching down a street, brandishing their muskets and lances, their faces lit with anticipation. In the center of the street, a lone girl watches the men pass with an expression on her face that could be interpreted as pride, anger, perhaps even fear. The painting is massive - almost 12 feet tall and 14 feet wide - but every inch conveys an expectation that something momentous is about to happen.

When Carlo's parents came upon him, he was standing motionless before this scene. To them it seemed as though he were trying to project himself inside it. His hands were folded behind his back, his mouth open. His eyes stared upward, contemplating the girl, the men, the weapons, every detail of the mystery that Rembrandt had created in light and dark and then left, on this canvas, three and a half centuries before.

As Carlo studied the painting, his parents studied him. At that moment, they knew they had been given a chance to see their son clearly.

This was who he was. It was who he would always be.

The boy who waited until he understood.

***

 
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