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September 20th, 2017

Society

He Flunked 1st Grade --- and Now Look

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published July 21, 2017

He Flunked 1st Grade --- and Now Look

This is for all the parents worried that their kids are cutting class, underachieving, spending all day playing video games — and for all the kids doing just that.

Dominick Vandenberge was raised in the Bronx. He was forced to repeat first grade, so he already felt like a failure at age 6. 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 a different part of the city.

Dominick transferred to a new high school, and on his first day, a teacher mocked him for his weight in front of the whole class. She asked whether he was on drugs. Everyone laughed.

Now Dominick started skipping school for weeks at a time. The principal called him in and said that if he missed one more day, he'd be out.

Out he was.

At that point in his life, says Dominick now, he "had nothing to show for" the previous 17 years other than that he "had completed some video games."

He remembers lying down on his bed. "Cliche 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 don't want to be alone, and I wanted to be successful."

He decided that the first thing he'd do would be to try to lose some weight. If he could do that... Well, first things first.

So Dominick started watching exercise videos and simply stretching. Then, almost without admitting it to himself, he added a little more exercise each day — some pushups, some squats. He started walking in the park, which turned into power walking, which turned into jogging. At the same time, he changed his diet. Now he ate mostly oatmeal, apples and carrots and drank water.

From the kid who had no self-discipline.

In seven months, Dominick lost 80 pounds. He got his GED. He applied to his dream school, Hunter College — and didn't get in.

So he enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College — and withdrew from every single 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 professor Gerard Clock.

"He's very strict," Dominick recalled, "but he'd teach the class as if he was telling a story." When Clock told the class about how the Athenians needed help fighting the Persians and sent their fastest runner to ask Sparta for help, Dominick was hooked. After all, he was a runner now, too.

Clock took an interest in this motivated student, and pretty soon Dominick was writing papers on such things as the Code of Hammurabi.

Upon graduating from community college, Dominick was finally accepted at Hunter, and then? There was no stopping him. He studied Greek, Latin. He got a scholarship to study in Athens, another to study in Rome, another to present his paper at Harvard.

And last month, along with dozens of other exceptional grads, Dominick stood onstage at Hunter's commencement ceremony as the college president, Jennifer Raab, announced his GPA: 3.96. Then she also announced a surprise guest.

Out strode Gerard Clock.

Wild applause.

Dominick will return to Hunter this fall to get his master's degree in classical literature. His goal is to become a Latin teacher and inspire students the way he was inspired.

You know, the brilliant ones ... who just don't know it yet.

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