Woog's World / When heritage and 21st century life collide
Published 11:00 am, Thursday, February 17, 2011
And he is -- except that he'll be the first person in his family to graduate from high school. And he'll do so as a husband: Alexander is getting married in May.
Most Westporters can't relate to Alexander's life. But Alexander is not like most Westporters. He's a Roma, and every day he navigates the rocky shoals between observing his heritage and living in Fairfield County.
Romas often are called "gypsies," a term many in the community say is derogatory. And although Alexander likens it to the "n-word," he uses both Roma and gypsy interchangeably.
His great-grandfather -- who died three years ago at 93 -- was called "The King of the Gypsies." Following tradition, Alexander's formal education ended at third grade. "Gypsies weren't allowed to go to school or have jobs," Alexander says. "Their families only want them to learn to read, and then stay together `as one.' "
"This is 2011," he says. "I want to be different. He moved to Westport in sixth grade -- his father works in real estate, and owns a psychic shop in South Norwalk -- and always liked school.
In Coleytown Middle School, Alexander says, "I changed. I saw a lot of things gypsies don't see, like responsibility, work ethics and different cultures. I wanted to go to school. A lot of gypsy kids don't." He doesn't blame Roma parents for not encouraging education. "That's just the way they grew up."
In eighth grade he won the Peter Weisman Award, given to a caring student with a kind heart. "When I saw my name on the plaque, I knew it would be there for life," he says, his eyes shining. "It was so inspiring to see my name on something that represents growth."
That fall, he entered Staples. As he walked through the front door, it felt huge. But he welcomed the excitement and possibilities of a new school.
During sophomore year, his mother discouraged attendance. "She's a true Roma, and wanted me to follow traditions and have a good Roma name," he says. "I thought I could still have that life, but go a little further. Everyone has a future. I want to work my way up, try something different."
His father -- who finished seventh grade -- supported him. "He could only teach me things he knew," Alexander says. "He said school could teach me how to teach myself. He's the only person in my family who was always there for me in school."
After a brief experience with home schooling, Alexander returned to Staples. "I fought my mother hard and strong," he says. "School is important. It's for learning but also for socializing with students and teachers. I wanted the experience of being with people."
Going back to Staples was "the happiest moment of my life. It's a hassle getting up in the morning, but it's worth it."
That experience, he says, "taught me to take responsibility for my own actions. It's my choice to go to school; that's what I want." He emphasizes, "I'm not judging other people. I did this on my own."
Junior year was tough. His family sold their house. His teachers, guidance counselor Denise Honeycutt, Principal John Dodig and Assistant Principal James Farnen all worked hard to help. When Alexander returned to Westport, he says, "I ran back to Staples and gave Mr. Farnen a hug. It was a big moment for me."
Music technology is his favorite subject. He learned Logic Pro software and how record producers work.
He also enjoys the tech education program. It's given him a good background for a possible career in architecture, construction or building.
Alexander may love school more than any other Westporter. He kept all his yearbooks -- even his notepads -- from middle school. "It's big to me," he says. "I want to know I went to school and accomplished something. I didn't do it, excuse my language, half-assed."
He reports with pride that his teacher Johanna Driscoll said he led two lives -- home and school -- and was very good at both.
As for marriage: "That's a big Roma tradition," Alexander says. He's engaged to a 19-year-old girl he met at a party. Their fathers have known each other since they were 5. That helped during negotiations over the dowry.
Alexander was in a previous relationship -- headed toward marriage -- for several years, but it did not work out. "This is the one," he says confidently. "Ann Marie is very caring, and has a big heart. She lives in Philadelphia, but she calls to ask if I've eaten. She's got a great mind, a great personality -- and she's beautiful."
After the ceremony, set for May, in Philadelphia, Ann Marie will move in with Alexander's family. She'll learn their special traditions. "When we feel old and mature enough, we'll go on our own," he says.
His fiancée wants him to go to college. Alexander is not sure. He may take a gap year, or enroll at Norwalk Community College for a construction degree. Sounding like a typical Westport teenager, the Roma says, "When the time comes, I'll figure it out."