Everyone who knew Miles Young agreed he was a remarkably good boy. His parents had of course heard the stories from friends and family members: sleepless nights, infants constantly demanding attention with chilling cries and incurable restlessness, homes filled with tension and fury and tears, sometimes even into the second and third years of the child’s life. But Miles had never exhibited any of this behavior. Of course occasionally he would cry, but he was easily consoled with just a pat on the back or a tickle. He had begun sleeping through the night early in his infancy, mercifully allowing his parents to do the same. Weaning him from his mother’s breast was nearly effortless, as was the transition from bottle to baby food, each requiring only a day or two of mild tears before he was accustomed. When guests would visit or when the couple relayed their tales to friends, the reaction was almost always stupefied disbelief, as if Miles were writing out calculus equations or reciting poetry instead of merely not crying. Those who were parents would shake their heads and smile incredulously when the Youngs expressed their gratitude at their good fortune. Laughter was also a common response, but not necessarily out of sheer joy. Often it was laughter that was flavored with dashes of jealousy, pinches of covered sadness, sprinkles of faintly detectable bitterness at their own ill-behaved infants.
Early on, Miles began showing signs of exemplary intelligence as well as good humor, and the Youngs couldn’t help but be grateful. In prayers each night, they thanked God that He had blessed them so richly with such an atypical child. By the age of three he was already beginning to read complete sentences, much to the amazement of babysitters and friends who had the pleasure of keeping him. Mr. Young took a special measure of pride in this accomplishment; he was a high school English teacher, and struggled at times to arouse even the faintest interest in reading among his students. Most, it seemed, were concerned only with the social realm, and though this was certainly not a new development among high school students, the rampant proliferation of digital communication made it nearly impossible to stifle. He had confiscated more phones engaged in sending texts and running Facebook apps than he could count. He frequently came home sad, having yet again failed to elicit even a single enthusiastic response from his students regarding a work about which he was intensely passionate. In recent years, he had even begun to steer toward the margins of the approved reading list, trying desperately to select options that would engage and inspire his students. He had long ago, as much as was possible, given up on antiquated titles like “Wuthering Heights” and “Great Expectations,” (which, frankly, he found lacking in concision anyway) and had incorporated as many modern texts (and as many short ones) as allowed, titles such as “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Catcher in the Rye.” Nevertheless he felt that with each passing year, his students became increasingly apathetic, increasingly unable to grasp the importance of even the most relevant and fresh of novels, and he frequently contemplated giving up the task altogether. He wondered often where he should place the blame: was it the students, who, because of the increasing availability of digital distractions, who were at fault? Was it the system that had failed them, by means of sacrificing challenge and accountability for the sake of artificially inflating the numbers of passing students? He hoped, prayed in fact, that one or both of these were at fault, because the alternative was that it was he who was to blame. And as each year passed, and he found his connection to students ever diminishing toward some asymptotal nothing, he began to suspect, in the deepest untouched unspoken regions of his heart, that this was in fact the truth.
From infancy he had read to Miles, hoping that on some subconscious level, the words were taking root, forming a sapling love of the written word that, when watered by time and education, would flourish into robust flowers of uncontainable passion, just as it had happened to him when he was younger. Thus when Miles began reading very early on, an exhilaration sprang up in Mr. Young’s chest like he had never known, and he saw in the boy the potential and the promise that he was beginning to feel had disappeared entirely from the younger generations. He fed this promise eagerly, reading to Miles continually throughout his childhood, not from children’s books about talking giraffes and silly shapes and brightly colored block numbers, but from carefully selected works of literature. Each night, as Miles was drifting off to sleep, Mr. Young would read to him from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” or from “Life of Pi,” knowing full well that the boy did not fully grasp the themes and nuances of the works, but hoping nevertheless that he was building the foundation for a literary life.
Mr. Young’s attention to Miles’s intellectual development was matched if not exceeded by Mrs. Young’s fervor to instill proper behavior in the boy. Truly he seemed to be a sponge, soaking up every bit of etiquette and courtesy that Mrs. Young could provide in his moral education. This was to her a great relief, as her own occupation as a first-grade teacher brought her into contact with all manner of horrid little scoundrels. Of course, she did her best to encourage her students to treat one another kindly, to ask politely for things instead of grabbing them forcefully, to respect her decisions instead of throwing tantrums when they did not get their way, but her efforts were largely in vain. She was not naïve, of course, and knew that young children had always been prone to fits of temper, but nevertheless it seemed to her that they grew just a bit more volatile and reckless every year. There were many possible reasons for this gradual shift, but Mrs. Young suspected it resulted from increasingly dissolute nuclear families. It was rare that parents and children ate together anymore, even at dinner. (She, of course, made a point to do so every day with her family, breakfast and dinner.) Sometimes every member of the family was rushing in a different direction, from tee-ball practice to ballet to Scouts to swim team, slicing up the week into indigestible crumbs of minutes, few of which were spent together. Other times, it was not the activity of the children causing this division, but that of the adults. Increasingly it seemed she had students with two working parents, who dumped the children on babysitters or in after-school programs almost every evening. In such cases, parents were often just too tired and too disconnected to muster up interest in what their kids were doing. Mrs. Young was starting to believe that, particularly in the eyes of many of the wealthier parents, school was merely daycare without the nap. As long as their kids made it home each day alive, the parents were free to play golf or tennis or go to social events in the evenings without the burden of investing any effort into their children’s education. Perhaps all of this was merely speculation, but nevertheless she felt almost powerless to keep her students from being unruly, and much of the time thought she was more like a zookeeper than a schoolteacher. But with Miles, it was different. When she asked him to say “please” and “thank you,” he immediately obliged, and rarely needed reminding. When she explained to him that he should not hit, or that he should not wail, he seemed to understand instantaneously, and would assimilate the instructions into his conduct immediately. When he played with other children at the park, he would always wait his turn for the slide or the swing, even if other children were clawing and elbowing their way past one another like sewer rodents fleeing a fire. When the Youngs would take him to friends’ houses for dinner parties, the friends were frequently astonished at his table manners and his ability to avoid conflict with other children. Each night, they would put him to bed, tell him they loved him, and he would say it back. And somehow, they knew it was true, and not just empty parroted words.