Raajeev's Corner - 2019


Algorithm

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

When we moved to Lexington, Massachusetts from Virginia, we had a hard time finding a decent rental. We ended up leasing a house on a busy street which the kids hated. Still, they were thrilled with the idea of walking just two blocks to school. The elementary school in Lexington was similar to the elementary school in Fairfax, Virginia where our kids went the previous year. It had modern facilities, a strong academic program and high test scores. Like many parents wishing the best for their children, our assumption was that if the test scores of the schools were good, our kids would get a better education. This new school was a little less diverse than what we were used to in Virginia. The population was so homogenous that they instituted a program to bring in a handful of inner-city kids to artificially induce diversity.

A couple of months after the start of the academic year, my wife mentioned that Mrs. Oscar, our youngest son's teacher, was concerned about his progress. She felt that he was immature. I am sure if Neil were a girl, her opinion may have been different. When my wife had brought up this topic, I had told her, “Well he's the youngest kid in the class. He is supposed to be less mature." However, Neil was a bit more problematic as he was more carefree, extroverted and friendly. In fact, Mrs. Oscar complained to my wife that, “Neil is so happy, he is not even aware of what he doesn't know."

I was not looking forward to the first parents-teacher's conference. In Virginia, I had accompanied my wife to such meetings but this time I had to go alone, as she was busy at work. Mrs. Oscar, a short stout woman, was sitting at the desk when I entered the class room. She reminded me of Kathy Bates in Misery which added to my anxiety. After the quick pleasantries, she started reciting the problematic areas: lack of attention span, disorganization, inability to follow instructions. “He does not even know the algorithms to do the math problems." She used the word “algorithm" three times. “Interesting choice of word," I thought. As a Computer Science undergraduate at Berkeley, I always used the term algorithm to define a series of steps to solve complex problems like airline reservations, student enrollment or an optimal route for stressed-out young mothers for their weekend shopping.

After listening to her second round of complaints about Neil's immaturity, poor performance in school and his happy-go-lucky behavior, I tried to defend my son. “I understand your concerns but this is only first grade." There was a pause. “Second," she said. “Pardon me?" I said. “Second. This is second grade." I scanned her face hoping to see a smile. It was expressionless and businesslike. I rested my case and let her patiently insult me for the remaining 12 minutes of the conference.

I am sure Neil must have been happy that his teacher's focus shifted away from him to me. I came home wondering why my kid was not a high performer like most Indian-American kids; maybe he had ADD or maybe we were just bad parents.

I don't know if we took any extraordinary measures after that but somehow Neil completed the year, laying low on Mrs. Oscar's radar screen. The following year we rented another house in a cul-de-sac. The kids were much happier. Neil was not held back and attended a new school that had equally good test scores. He completed second grade, oops, third grade with an overall rank of “outstanding." Sometimes you just get stuck with the wrong teacher.

Fast forward ten years later. Neil is 17 now. At 6 ft. he would tower over Mrs. Oscar if he met her again. He has had guest spots on network television and has booked a couple of commercials. His agent and manager recommended upping his game by taking some advanced acting classes. I find myself sitting in front of another teacher; in this case at a premier acting school in Hollywood. The class is competitive and Neil has to go through an audition to be selected. He decides to do the monologue in front of the teacher and the peers. I am not allowed in the class so I wait patiently outside. I call my wife again to verify that Neil is a senior and not a junior in high school.

The teacher, Caitlin, a young woman in her early 30s, is about the same height as Mrs. Oscar but a lot friendlier. I am sure the warm weather in Los Angeles makes her smile more genuine. I am also glad I don't have to be so formal with her as in a regular school. Still, I am nervous. Caitlin explains that Neil did well in the audition. She says, “He is a natural and is able to project his emotions seamlessly." She continues, “He must have had a happy childhood." I feel relieved. “So, is he in?" With that same 100 watts smile she tells me, “Yes, but he would have to work really hard to make up for some impediments … some disadvantages he has had."

I am lost. Is she referring to what I am thinking? I thought race and cultural diversity were being promoted in Hollywood. I gather the courage to ask, “You mean about being Indian-American?" “No, no. That is an advantage."

She explains that they use techniques to draw upon your own life's experiences to create the complex emotions of the characters. She shares the background of other young adults in the class; how most of them have experienced pain, depression or tragedy in their lives.

They may come from an abusive family background, broken homes, dealing with an alcoholic father or being born to a teenage mother. They may have had a drug addiction when they were in school.

I begin to feel a slight panic that I am putting my son at risk surrounding him with derelicts. It brings to mind horror stories of Southcentral gangs.

“Your child has had a very happy childhood. You and your wife have provided a loving, caring environment for him. That's great but do you see the problem?" I realize what she is saying. Neil's reservoir of painful memories is shallow. So, he would have to work extra hard to accentuate or magnify smaller moments.

I sit in the car with Neil. He is happy that he did well in the audition and is accepted in the class. He smiles and says, “How could you, Dad? If you had disappeared on us for some time or fought with Mom a lot harder, I would have been a better actor." I say, “Neil, I am so sorry. I should have punished you right after that meeting with Mrs. Oscar. That may have been a better."

He said, “Let's not worry about some Oscar from the past; let's focus on the future." I think Neil has mastered the algorithm for a successful life.

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Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos on YouTube.