NAUGATUCK — Hillside Intermediate School sixth-grader Xavier Bliege often has a hard time concentrating on classwork and even everyday conversations.
When talking with someone, he seems to get lost in his thoughts and quickly changes topics.
Yet when it comes to his favorite subject — maritime ships throughout history — Xavier is laser-focused. The bespectacled 11-year-old has a love affair with large vessels that he fondly refers to by their female pronouns. “She was a good girl” and “her voyage was 10 days long,” he often says about their stories.
Xavier was at center stage Tuesday at the Howard Whittemore Memorial Library downtown, where he will tell dozens of his classmates about a handful of ships that he crafted. The library, it seems, is awestruck by the story of how Xavier is using his passion for ships to help himself learn in the classroom, something that hasn’t come easy for a boy who has autism.
Library staff members have decided to display several miniature model ships that he has crafted in the library’s main lobby throughout the month of January.
“I feel really good,” he said of the honor. “I want people to see how I’m building them, and I want to help people learn more.”
Xavier’s interest in ships blossomed about five years ago after he watched the Hollywood movie “Titanic” for the first of many times, with his sister and grandmother, who raises him. He became infatuated with the power of the vessel and even sad for those who lost their lives when it sunk. It left him searching for answers to questions that haven’t stopped flowing in what he calls the “historical vault” of his mind. Consequently, his passion has helped him to become a better student.
For example, math helps him comprehend the distances of each voyage or the size of each ship. He has become more interested in history. And he’s reading voraciously — about ships, of course — during reading classes and at home.
When the topic comes up in history classes, he nearly busts out of his seat to raise his hand. He has the answers, history teacher Katrina Spina said. And when he’s in a period in school called “reader’s workshop,” a class where students get to read a book of their choosing, his book is always about battleships, reading teacher Jenna Dufresne said.
Dufresne said that Xavier concentrates diligently on reading and that she loves to see how happy it makes him. Dufresne was also moved by his shining moment at the library and organized a trip for the students to see the models Tuesday. Xavier plans to discuss a little about each model.
“Say people just know about one ship, the RMS Titanic,” Xavier said. “When they go to the library, they can see warships — ships like the HMS Hood, the USS Arizona, the (German) battleship Bismarck, the (Japanese ship) Yamato …”
Principal Johnna Hunt said Xavier talks so much about ships that everyone in school is a little more knowledgeable thanks to the lessons he provides. And, she said school staff members are helping him further his ship education. For example, school nurse Karen Alves recently cut out photos of old ships from the newspaper and shared them with Xavier, much to his delight.
“Every student has to find something they are interested in at school to make them want to keep learning,” Hunt said. “They have to find their niche, and Xavier has certainly found his.”