One of my favorite columns of 2010 featured Carson Atlas, a Haverford boy presenting grown-ups with a challenge: How do you teach, and parent, a prodigy?
Six months after the 8-year-old took his first piano lesson, he won accolades in a national classical music competition. A few months after that, Carson performed Mozart's Alla Turca and Schumann's Fantastic Dance at West Chester University. (Watch his fingers fly at www.youtube.com/user/carcadale.)
"I am brilliant teacher but he is extraordinary kid," declares Russian expat Nelly Berman. "He learns Beethoven and Chopin when other students still playing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' "
In November, Carson suffered a concussion in a freak playground accident. Doctors insisted he rest his brain, a tall order for a child mastering Mandarin for fun.
Watching her son grow restless, Leah Atlas caved and bought a composition program he'd long craved.
"One morning he said, 'I've got this music in my head, please let me write it down.' Within two days, he had written a 28-page piece!"
Now, in addition to piano, Carson studies with Daniel Shapiro, a composition student at the famed Curtis Institute.
"Carson's first piece is a multi-movement suite for piano, strings, and woodwinds," Shapiro relays. "His flair for sculpting sound is the somewhat esoteric 'spark' that cannot be taught."
Still a boy at heart, Carson wanted a baseball pitch-back machine for Christmas. Music may come easily, but a born athlete he's not.
"You've been given this gift," his mother gently reminds. "Nobody gets everything."
A teacher's lesson
April's column about Maura DiBerardinis, the enterprising music teacher who raised more than $15,000 to give poor students the gift of song, inspired readers to dig deep.
"We got a karaoke machine and $2,000 in donations!" exclaimed DiBerardinis, of John Welsh Elementary, a K-8 in North Philadelphia. "I bought more percussion instruments so the next teacher is better equipped than I was."
Next? In an unexpected twist, the young teacher won a position vacated by her mentor at Watson Comly Elementary in Somerton. Leaving Welsh was brutal, but DiBerardinis sought the challenge of a more diverse K-5 school and fell hard for her new charges.
Comly, she says, "feels more like a melting pot - which is nice since in music we're constantly traveling around the world."
The Jennifer Garner look-alike inherited an established program with old instruments. Given the district's budget woes, she'll soon resume her musical appeals.
"It's still a public school, and public schools are still lacking."
Gambling as work?
I met Eric Anderson in March at Parx Casino in Bensalem, where the 32-year-old father of four blew my mind after mentioning he gambled twice a day for a living. The unemployed cement mixer saw playing the slots as a flextime job he could do while smoking.
Parx records said Anderson lost $30,000 in 2009. Naturally, I wondered if he did any better in 2010.
"I quit," he claimed when I called. "Everything died off as soon as they put those table games in."
Table-game revenue dipped in November after a booming debut, but slots players made up the difference. Though state officials monitor everything that happens on gaming floors, suspicious regulars like Anderson believe casinos tinker with machines to limit jackpots.
Before, he says, he often made $600 weekly wagering comps Parx put on his frequent-player card.
"Now," he laments, "you spend $200, and it's gone in 10 minutes. They take it as fast as you put it in."
Hungry in the suburbs
When I visited the Lord's Pantry in Downingtown in February, the award-winning nondenominational agency was feeding record crowds in the hungry suburbs.
A man in a Wegmans uniform eyed items donated by his own employer. Such is the lot of the working suburban poor that if he timed the visit right, he could score a $20 gourmet fruit tart for free.
Each week brought more people who never thought they'd need help feeding their families in the land of the $82,000 median income.
"People who at one time donated to us are now coming for help," director Jan Leaf told me. "They walk through the doors and cry."
My column generated more than $10,000 in donations and more attention to the nonprofit. Demand surged 18 percent this fall, with the all-volunteer staff serving 332 people 11,620 pounds of food per week.
In a still-puzzling development, board chairman Ken Ross noted a sharp increase in elderly suburbanites "caught in a number of traps."
Some face prescription costs exceeding their income. Many, he said, are struggling to raise grandchildren whose parents are in even worse financial shape.
Reflection and resolution
My last update is a clarification. Turns out, Northeast Philly's brothers Boyle - State Rep. Brendan and Rep.-elect Kevin - won't be the first to serve in the Pennsylvania House simultaneously.
How do I know? Because Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Baldi's father and uncle earned that distinction nearly 100 years ago.
Baldi, who sits on the bench in Bucks County, wishes the Boyles well but corrected the record as a favor to his mother. "Our family," he noted, "does not have thin skin."
House archivist Heidi Mays confirms that Charles Baldi Jr. was elected in 1917, followed by Joseph F.M. Baldi II in 1929.
"We saw the second and junior," she said regretfully, "and assumed" the men were not brothers.
The Baldis (from South Philadelphia and Roxborough) were Republicans with a frugal streak: Judge Baldi recalls his father, Joseph, telling "stories of driving to Harrisburg with his brother."
The Boyle brothers joke that they don't trust each other behind the wheel, but may share an office.
Legislators voluntarily saving taxpayers' money? That's refreshing.
Speaking of promises, hundreds of you logged on to www.resolution11.org to post your plans to do anything other than blow a diet in 2011. There's still time to follow Penn chaplain Chaz Howard and make your pledge. Here's mine:
At home, I resolve to listen more and scream less; to teach my kids to be charitable and kind; to practice the patience I preach.
At work I resolve to write columns that make people think and act, telling powerful stories that take me out of my comfort zone, and readers out of theirs. (Got ideas? Send 'em my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.)