Excerpt: 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'

"So when you get to school you'll be better than anyone else at arithmetic."

"What good is arithmetic."

"Well, you remember yesterday, and Mommer paid the bills? You have to be able to add and subtract to pay bills, and know how much money you have left."

"You used a calculator."

"Well, you have to know arithmetic to be sure the calculator is right."

"Why would you use it at all if it doesn't always work."

"It always works," I begrudge.

"So you don't need arithmetic."

"To use a calculator," I say, flustered, "you still have to know what a five looks like, all right? Now, let's practice our counting. What comes after three?"

"Seven," says Kevin.

We would proceed in this fashion, until once after one more random exchange ("What comes before nine?" "Fifty-three.") he looked me lifelessly in the eye and droned in a fast-forward monotone, Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve … ," pausing two or three times for a breath but otherwise making it flawlessly to a hundred. "Now can we quit?" I certainly felt the fool.

I roused no more enthusiasm for literacy. "Don't tell me," I'd cut him off after raising the prospect of reading time. "What for. What good is it. Well, I'll tell you. Sometimes you're going to be bored and there's nothing to do except you can always read a book. Even on the train or at a bus stop."

"What if the book is boring."

"Then you find a different one. There are more books in the world than you'll ever have time to read, so you'll never run out."

"What if they're all boring."

"I don't think that would be possible, Kevin," I'd say crisply.

"I think it's possible," he'd differ.

"Besides, when you grow up you'll need a job, and then you'll have to be able to read and write really well or no one will want to hire you." Privately, of course, I reflected that if this were true most of the country would be unemployed.

"Dad doesn't write. He drives around and takes pictures."

"There are other jobs—"

"What if I don't want a job."

"Then you'd have to go on welfare. The government would give you just a little money so you don't starve, but not enough to do anything fun."

"What if I don't want to do anything."

"I bet you will. If you make your own money, you can go to movies and restaurants and even different countries, like Mommer used to." At used to, I winced.

"I think I want to go on welfare." It was the kind of line I'd heard other parents repeat with a chortle at dinner parties, and I struggled to find it adorable.

I don't know how those home-schooling families pull it off. Kevin never seemed to be paying any attention, as if listening were an indignity. Yet somehow, behind my back, he picked up what he needed to know. He learned the way he ate — furtively, on the sly, shoveling information like a fisted cheese sandwich when no one was watching. He hated to admit he didn't know something already, and his blanket playing-dumb routine was cunningly crafted to cover any genuine gaps in his education. In Kevin's mind, pretend-ignorance wasn't shameful, and I was never able to discriminate between his feigned stupidity and the real thing. Hence, if at the dinner table I decried Robin Williams's role in Dead Poets Society as trite, I felt obliged to explain to Kevin that the word meant "like what lots of people have done already." But he'd receive this definition with a precocious uh-duh. Had he learned the word trite at three, when he was faking not being able to talk at all? You tell me.

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