A ‘Classic’ Tale of Coming Into One’s Own

Lenore Skenazy.

BY LENORE SKENAZY | This is for all the parents worried that their kids are cutting class, falling through the cracks, overeating, underachieving, or spending all day playing video games — and for all the kids doing just that.

Dominick Vandenberge was raised in the Bronx — Pelham Bay — and no one would call him a star student. He was forced to repeat first grade, and already felt like a failure at the age of six. He became the oldest kid in the class. He hated everything to do with school. And then his weight started to balloon.

By high school, Dominick weighed 220 pounds and he struggled to make friends. He started skipping class. And then, things got even worse. His dad died of a heart attack, at home. That same night, the family moved into his aunt’s basement in Queens.

Dominick transferred to Francis Lewis High School and when he arrived that first day, his teacher mocked his weight in front of the whole class. She asked him if he was on drugs. Everyone laughed.

Except Dominick. He’d played hooky before. Now he became a serious truant. Sometimes he didn’t show up for an entire month. The principal called him in and said if he missed one more day, he’d be out. Out he was.

“I can remember me wanting to change,” Dominick recalled. But how? He was fat, friendless, fatherless. “I had nothing to show for the past 17 years, other than that I had completed some video games.”

He remembers lying down on his bed, “and, cliché as it was, I was looking up into the sky at night and I was just hoping that one day I could find someone, because I didn’t want to be alone, and I wanted to be successful.”

He decided that the first thing he’d do was try to lose some weight. If he could do that… . Well, first things first.

Dominick started watching exercise videos, and kind of “lying” to himself. He told himself he was just going to “stretch a little bit.” He didn’t want to aim for anything harder. He’d disappointed himself enough already.

But instead of just stretching, he added a little more exercise each day — some push-ups, some squats. He started walking in the park, which turned into power-walking, then jogging. At the same time, he changed his diet. Now he ate mostly oatmeal, apples, and carrots.  In seven months, Dominick lost 80 pounds. He applied to a GED program in Elmhurst, passed the test, and applied to his dream school, Hunter College.

He didn’t get in. So he enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College — and promptly failed every class.

But by now, Dominick knew all about starting over. So he did, and this time he took a course in “Classics.” He thought it was going to be about classical music. Instead, it was about the history of Western civilization, starting with the ancient Greeks and Romans, taught by the tough-but-fair Professor Gerard Clock.

“He’d teach the class as if he was telling a story,” Dominick recalled.

When Prof. Clock told the class about how the Athenians needed help fighting the Persians, so they sent their fastest runner to ask Sparta for help, Dominic was hooked. After all, he was a runner now, too.

Clock took an interest in this motivated student, advising him in academic matters, and encouraging him, too. When he found out Dominick’s educational past, he was shocked. He thought Dominick had always been an “A” student.

For his part, Dominick started writing papers on things like the Code of Hammurabi. He liked Prof. Clock so much, he took his class on American history — but classics really turned Dominick on.

Upon graduating, Dominick was finally accepted at Hunter. He studied Greek and Latin. He got a scholarship to study in Athens, a scholarship to study in Rome, and a scholarship to present his paper at Harvard University.

Just a few weeks ago, along with dozens of other exceptional graduates, Dominick stood on the stage at Hunter commencement at Radio City Music Hall as the college president, Jennifer Raab, announced his grade point average: 3.96. Then she also announced a surprise guest. Onto the stage strode Prof. Clock. Wild applause.

Dominick will return to Hunter this fall to earn his master’s in classical literature. His goal is to become a Latin teacher and inspire students like he had been. You know, the brilliant ones — who just don’t know it yet.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, founder of the blog Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com), and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”