Off they go to college, to hone their skills, navigate relationships and, ultimately, look beyond themselves to a complex world in need of their talents.
Unless you’re Stryker Thompson, and you pretty much had locked all that up before move-in day.
Thompson, 18, began classes at the University of Minnesota last week on a Presidential Scholarship. He enters the U from St. Paul’s Como Park High School, carrying 65 credits from 14 successful AP exams. He graduated fourth in his class, won policy debate competitions, played baseball and held down a part-time job.
But the big story here is none of those things. It’s quiet and sweet, much like Thompson. It’s the story of a uniquely perceptive young man, and his mother, a writer, who now wakes up every morning “filled with self-purpose.”
Mary Petrie cannot believe “the labor, stealth and detail” her son employed to self-publish her novel this summer. She had put the book, and her dreams, on hold more than a decade ago to help care for her family.
Her son, though, was taking copious mental notes. “There are things in people’s lives that need to be fulfilled,” he said over pancakes at a St. Paul diner.
He wore a casual blue and beige shirt and wire-framed glasses. His light brown hair was closely cropped, with a lively flip in front. The soft-spoken Thompson apologized for being groggy: He had had his wisdom teeth pulled a few days earlier.
“I felt that it was an injustice to not have a tangible object,” he said. “I wanted her to have something she could hold onto, to say, ‘Look, this is mine.’ ”
Thompson has always been an old soul. As an infant, he refused to sleep more than six hours a day. Everyone was frantic, except for his pediatrician, who said, “This kid doesn’t want to sleep. He’s alert and smart. He just wants to be part of the picture.”
Thompson and his two younger siblings, Scarlett and Merrick, grew up in St. Paul’s Mounds Park neighborhood. Dad, John Thompson, is a Realtor. Mom’s writing has been honored with a Loft McKnight Award and Minnesota State Arts Board Grant.
He wasn’t always a fan of his mother’s literary pursuits. As a teenager, he “hated” her blog, which was about her family. “I always demanded that she not write about me,” he said. “I was a stubborn 13-year-old.”
He knew, vaguely, that she had written a novel when he was about 6, and that it had come close to being accepted by a major publishing house.
“At the End of Magic” tackles universal themes of grief and loss through a distraught and angry young mother, Leilani, and a college student, Delphi, forced to accept her psychic gifts as the two women’s lives become further entwined.
Ultimately, the book went nowhere. As the real estate market tanked, Petrie jumped in to help the family financially, taking a job teaching English and gender and women’s studies at Inver Hills Community College. Still, she often talked about self-publishing.
“She said that for years,” Thompson said. “She repeated it so much. You keep on putting it off until it’s part of your schedule to put it off. She didn’t have time in her schedule to do it.”
She even shared with her son what the book cover might look like, pulling from a closet a yellow dress, sleeveless, sprinkled with red poppies.
Eventually, she stopped talking about the book altogether.
Toward the end of his senior year last spring, Thompson wanted to do something for his parents, “to thank them for raising me. I was feeling really sentimental.”
He thought again about the yellow dress. He casually asked his mom to send him files of her chapters, one by one. Maybe he’d read them, but he wasn’t promising.
Of course, he read every one, in the evenings and on weekends, in between studying for seven AP classes and serving as captain of the debate team and pondering German philosophers Nietzsche and Heidegger.
He fixed typos, added page breaks and indents, deleted extra spaces between words. “I got into a groove,” he said, “but it was very meticulous work.”
He also made one editorial change. Mom had referred to “Pokemon” as a comic book. He changed that to “The Simpsons.”
He studied online forums for the pros and cons of self-publishing. He ultimately went with CreateSpace.com, a website that allows printing on demand.
An hour after his graduation party, he headed to the home of his girlfriend, graphic designer Tessa Portuese, to design the cover and pick a cover font. Only Tessa, his dad and a neighbor, to whom the proofs would be sent, knew anything.
On June 20, after returning from a debate tournament, Thompson nervously crossed the street to where the book proof awaited. He went into his basement and wrapped it up in blue tissue. He came upstairs and walked toward his mom, who was sitting in the kitchen after yoga, eating alone at the table. “Mom,” he said. “I got you a little something. For raising me.”
She tore at the paper and saw the book — with the yellow dress on the cover. “I’d never seen her cry that much,” Thompson said. “We were both crying.” And hugging, Petrie added.
Excitedly, they added the finishing touches, which Thompson had saved for his mother. She wrote the book’s synopsis and dedication, “For John, Stryker, Scarlett and Merrick,” plus a special thank-you to a son “for taking your mother’s dreams off the shelf.”
Twenty-four hours later, Thompson headed out on a road trip with his buddies, and Petrie was preparing for her first public reading, at St. Paul’s SubText bookstore, which turned out to be a standing-room-only event. (The book also is available on Kindle and Amazon and at the Red Balloon and Common Good Books in St. Paul.)
“I have been lit with desire to work,” said Petrie, who is on sabbatical this year from Inver Hills. “I wake up wondering, ‘What can I do next to promote my book?’ ”
Wondering, too, how to thank her son sufficiently. “What I felt, and tried to say to him, is that it means so much to me because he saw me as a full person,” Petrie said. “He recognized my greatest dreams and hopes. Isn’t that what we want from the people we love?”