When he was 18 months old, he used a flathead screwdriver to take every knob off his grandmother's kitchen cabinets, then he put them back on. For his sixth birthday all he asked for was an air compressor. By age 8, instead of toys, he wanted Bunsen burners, beakers and kits from Radio Shack for building buzzers and robots. That summer he went to engineering camp at Perkins Elementary School and ended up helping the college students teach the class.
Now at age 12, Alex Hessler rides around on the hovercraft he made out of plywood and a leaf blower. He melts lead in the furnace he built in the backyard and knows how to make hydrogen from solar panels, salt water and aluminum plates.
"I just came home from a walk and there's vinegar and baking soda and flour out on the counter," Nancy Hessler, Alex's mom, said recently. "I should find out what's he's been doing."
Most kids are consumed with soccer practice, swim meets or art projects. Others are destined to be mad scientists. Or contortionists or future stars of the bowling league. When they want to throw themselves into something their parents never dreamed of or know nothing about, what's a Momma to do?
"You kind of have to let them do it. I think kids just are who they are when they are born," Hessler said. "(Science) is truly his passion and I think what he'll end up doing for a living. The more experience he has now, the better." She's convinced her son researches what he's doing enough not to accidentially burn the house down. He wears safety goggles and respects the risk of danger.
One thing about Alex's eccentric interest that wears her down is his messy workshop, which is also his bedroom.
"I spent three days cleaning it one time when he was on a trip to NASA. When he came home he was devastated," she recalled. "It's a wreck, but he has proven he knows where everything is." Alex's former third-grade teacher has visited their house and assured Hessler that her son's disaster area of a room is his comfort zone, where he feels free to learn and create.
Under the Big Top
A messy room is the least of Kristine Slater's concerns when it comes to her daughter Emily's passion: circus art.
"She's all the way up to the ceiling when she does the drapery," the Clearwater mom of three said recently. "I pretty much have to put my trust in God and Beth (Emily's instructor) that she knows what she's doing."
Beth Bryer is the owner of B.B. Dance Factory in Clearwater, where about 75 students, from age 5 to adults, learn dance, tap, jazz and circus art such as acrobatics, tumbling, contortion and trapeze. Emily, who is a second-grader at Plum Elementary School, was a talented gymnast who quickly decided she didn't want to spend all her weekends competing.
"The circus art is more fun for her," her mom said, though not always fun for her parents. When Emily performs on stage high above the floor, there is no mat.
"Many times we have suggested maybe she should stick with a more normal activity. My husband tried to steer her back to gymnastics and I said stick with dance," Slater added. "But I believe in watching my kids and seeing what they enjoy doing and what they are really good at. They kind of guide me in what I support them in and don't support."
Emily Benham of Tampa echoes the sentiment. In the two-and-a-half years since her 10-year-old son, Josh, tried a summer bowling league, then joined a year-round Saturday morning league, she and her husband have given him his own bowling shoes and three different bowling balls as he has progressed. The fourth-grader at SunFlower School in Gulfport is now up to an 8-pound ball.
"And he has a one-handed glove, which I guess you need. My husband and I do not come from bowling families, so I had no idea about any of this," she said. "We were looking for something that he would just love to do, so we tried bowling and it has been great." Josh is in a kids' league at the Pinarama Bowling Center in South Tampa. He joins about 30 kids ages 5 to 15 every Saturday morning to bowl.
"He gets instant gratification, he loves math and keeping track of the scores, it's an individual sport yet he's still part of the league so he's with other kids," Benham added. "And that ball is pretty darn heavy, so he gets a workout. From our perspective, we don't mind being inside the air conditioning in the summer and dodging the storms at other times."
Another benefit of a child trying an activity parents know little or nothing about is that Mom and Dad can't become overbearing sideline coaches.
"I read all the rules and I didn't understand them," Benham said with a laugh. "So we can't over coach him. We just cheer him on."
Katherine Snow Smith is the editor of Go Momma magazine.