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IN FILM AND IN LIFE,
A MOTHER AND SON
DREAM AND DO
by Richard Seven
Photographed by Benjamin Benschneider
IMAGES OF GRAVITY-DEFYING torques and twists from skateboard showman Tony Hawk jump from the te levi sion monitor perched near the front of an auditorium stage, effectively sedating 81 Lakeside Middle School students who had been screaming and chattering in the hallways a few moments earlier.
Paul Gordon lets Hawk, and the video's pounding background music, open the talk for two reasons. First, he knows the skateboarder will lock in eyeballs. More importantly, Gordon, a budding filmmaker, shot and edited the 10-minute show. It is a slick way to slip into his theme, one that can send many self-absorbed kids -and adults - into slumber: community service.
"All of you have a talent like Tony Hawk, or a passion like filmmaking, like I do," he says, scanning the wide rows. "Think about what you love to do and how you can use that to be of service. Helping others is such a great feeling, and it doesn't have to be big and it doesn't have to be boring."
He's preaching, but it helps that Gordon is still only 20 - young enough to relate, old enough to carry a little been-there wisdom, but not so old that he seems like a parent. It also helps that he's wearing a retrohip bowling-style shirt, blue jeans and gleaming white sneakers. With his dark-haired, slightly spiked - flattop and long sideburns, he looks a bit like Tom Cruise's preppy fighter pilot in "Top Gun." He tells them how, as a senior at Mount Si High School, he made a 32minute anti-violence feature film that was shown at a Sundance youth film festival and on the HBO Family Channel. Horrified at the killings committed by two picked-on students at Colorado's Columbine High School , he used his talent to explore causes and solutions. In his movie, "Silhouettes in Time," a troubled student comes to his senses just as he prepares to open fire.
What he doesn't tell the kids in the auditorium is that he gave up a scholarship to the Air Force Academy and his dream of becoming a fighter pilot to make the film. He had graduated early from a private high school, but chose to transfer to the public school for a fifth year so he could make his film there. Gordon goes on to speak of remarkable teens he had met, from a boy who mowed lawns across the country to a terminally ill kid who set up a fund to help others. He leaves out most of his own remarkable achievements: raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help two youngsters get liver transplants and testifying in Congress to help make sure the transplants happened, setting up a charitable fund of his own, and already writing a book, titled "There's Hope for America 's Youth."
Turning back to the monitor, he flips on one of his latest videos. This time, it's a powerful tour around the rubble of the World Trade Center , where he recorded the carriage and interviewed exhausted recovery workers and kids still dazed by the terrorist attack. The students, again, are rapt. During the brief question-andanswer time, Gordon gives them more tips on volunteerism, describes his camera equipment and impresses them by mentioning a behind-the-scenes production he filmed for the Miss Teen Washington Pageant. He doesn't tell them he now dates the runner-up of the pageant.
As smooth as he is, Gordon is more complex than a cheerleader or a do-gooder. He says, without a trace of a smile, glint of conceit or hopeless naivete, that he wants to someday be President of the United States -but first, the next Steven Spielberg.
THROUGHOUT THE TALK, Gordon's mother, Elaine, sat quietly in the back of the auditorium, several feet from the last row of students. She has had a hand in much of what he has accomplished, doubling as his publicist and production manager, his confidante and even his teacher until ninth grade. She walks the tightrope between guiding and pushing.
While he is calm and accommodating, she is high-energy and strong-willed. Those traits helped her own journey from being a kid raised in the New York projects to becoming a successful businesswoman. Along the way, she brought up three children and two stepchildren, challenging and shaping each one toward a personal best. Borrowing desks from the public schools, she taught them all at home, making them wear uniforms each day.
The guiding and pushing has paid off. Her stepdaughter Heather got her high-school degree at 16 and is now an accountant. Stepson Sean is a script writer in Los Angeles . Elaine's youngest, Jonathan, is a standout football player and, at 16, already an accomplished musician despite never taking formal training. Her oldest daughter, Shavawn, is Madonna's nanny. Shavawn hated and balked at her mother's home-schooling, so much so that Elaine recalls it as "the worst experience of my life." Yet the two have become very close.
"Mom influenced us in every aspect," Shavawn said from London . "When she puts her mind to something, she will accomplish it. She is someone who will nurture you, but not in a way that makes you weaker." Paul and Jonathan still live with Elaine, while also spending time with their father, Allen, who lives in the Bellevue area.
When Allen and Elaine separated and then divorced a few years ago, she sent the children to school. But the guider was still there, aggressively monitoring them for signs of trouble. She took up karate, too, became a black belt, and won several tournaments.
Through it all, Elaine was building a flourishing Eastside maid service from an office at home. She especially looks to employ single mothers or women on welfare, setting them up as subcontractors and teaching them business acumen. She was raised by a single mother who subsisted on welfare and died young. Her mother was so ill that Elaine took cleaning jobs before she was a teenager to help with groceries and other expenses. When Elaine herself became a young, single mother, she, too, went on welfare for a time. To get on her feet, she cleaned houses. And when she suffered a collapsed lung, she called on friends to clean the houses for her in return for a percentage of the bill. Her system for subcontracting maid services was born.
"I was always determined to rise above all where I came from," she says now in her rapid-fire New York accent. "I never used my poverty as an excuse. I was a dreamer." Take the time about 16 years ago when she recorded her own exercise video, called "Shape up Kids." The entire family hit the road for a year as she promoted it. She and Allen kept up the home schooling all along the way, and though Elaine was pregnant with Jonathan, that didn't stop her from doing demonstrations of the workouts.
Washington State Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, whose office recognizes people helping others and publishes their stories in a booklet titled, "Take a Page from Our Book," included Paul in one of the editions. "Paul has vision and ambition, but also one other important thing that many of us don't have - confidence," Owen said. "I think that was instilled by his very, very supportive mother. It's probably a contest between the two of them to see who can keep up with the other."
PAUL WAS A WILLING student and an easy child to rear, exhibiting a calm and maturity beyond his years. Early on, he showed interest in both the technical and artistic, building elaborate Lego sculptures, breaking down and rebuilding electronic innards and following Shavawn around as she shot on both still and video cameras.
He also showed an innate selflessness, say his Mom and sister. Not that he shuns nice things. There's exercise equipment in the family room, snowboarding gear, musical instruments and a huge round trampoline. He just bought a fancy racing motorcycle with his own money (then promptly scratched it after taking a spill).
His downstairs bedroom is an eclectic mix. He's got digital computer equipment pushed against one wall and Legos and a bookcase full of figurines on the other. A parachuting Spiderman dangles from the ceiling; posters and his accomplished artwork crowd the walls. There's an American flag not far from a poster of Yoda. A director's chair with his name on it sits next to a te levi sion monitor and a collection of movies, such as "Planet of the Apes," which he has seen many times.
He has a French edition of Vogue that cover subject Guy Ritchie autographed. Ritchie, a hot film director, is Madonna's husband, so Shavawn sent it to Paul, who loves his work. It reads, "Paul, money is producing, but the real money is in directing. So are the ladies." Paul has also been in touch with Dreamworks Studios executives and sought advice from his neighbor, feature film director Kevin Reynolds.
On the floor of his room rests a helmet with goggles built in. They allow him not only to see but also to hook into a digital camera to record the motion as he drives. He will work in his room all night when editing a film, and when he begins explaining a filming technique his usually smooth delivery gets as speedy as his mother's. He has been studying filmmakinn at the University of Washington , but took a few terms off to promote his book and make videos,
Five years ago while stopping by a restaurant to eat, Gordon saw a jar marked in a restaurant with the words 'Pennies for Eric" sitting on the counter. After learning that 11 year-old Eric Graeve needed a liver transplant, Gordon helped raise $240, 000 for the operation. The two became friends, and Paul keeps a portrait of Eric above his bed.
The large, framed photograph above the head of his bed, however, represents his major accomplishment so far. It's a portrait of Eric Graeve, who was a stranger five years ago when Paul and Elaine stopped by an Eastside cafe, Sherm's Bar-BQ, for lunch. As he ordered, Paul saw a jar with a young boy's picture and the words, "Pennies for Eric." Instead of dropping in pennies, he asked the restaurant owner about the boy and learned he had a liver disorder known as Wilson 's Disease and needed a transplant.
Within days he was inside someone's living room to talk about raising money. lie was the lone teenage boy there. Everyone else seemed to be a mother. They had hoped to organize an event to raise $30,000. He gulped and spoke up, saying he had helped on school auctions that had raised many more thousands than that. Soon, he was in the thick of the planning. By the time the group was done, it had raised about $240,000. Gordon brought in $24,000 by himself. But he wasn't finished.
He went to Washington , D.C. , and successfully lobbied Congress to reject new rules that could have jeopardized the operation and others in the Northwest. He became the boy's friend and waited outside the operating room through the procedure. At 17, he helped another kid in need of an operation, then started his own fund to help children waiting for transplants.
Eventually, he and Elaine flew across the country over several weekends, recording interviews with other teens doing amazing communityservice work. He is shopping the project as a potential te levi sion show that would highlight what young people could contribute. It was after talking to his mom about Columbine that he decided to turn down the Air Force and its free education to go back to high school and work on his film. Elaine gulped at that, but she went along and, in fact, produced the movie. It was also Elaine who, a few weeks after 9/11, suggested Paul go to the World Trade Center rubble, film the scene and work there. She used her connections and power of persuasion to get him behind police lines. Gordon and his brother, who provides much of the background music for his films, are thinking of repackaging it into a music video that will bring the message of commitment and heroism to a wider audience.
It was at her suggestion that he decided to write his book. "She has put a lot of faith in me," Paul says. "She didn't want me to get the motorcycle, but she trusts me. And that puts a little pressure on because I don't want to let her down."
INSIDE A CAVERNOUS meeting boom at the Washington State Convention Center a few weeks ago, young delegates from across the state crowded around three sides of a table, where five panelists furnished inspiration and ideas on how to make volunteerism grow. Three of the five speakers were grownups and well-spoken, but not as forceful and concrete as Gordon.
He launched into his message, using specific examples from his life and those other youths profiled in his book to make community service seem real and do-able. Once again, Mom sat as far back as she could from the action. But she watched intently before approaching an organizer of the conference to introduce herself.
"I'm not doing this for me," she said. "I'm successful on my own and have lots to do, but my job as a parent is to help guide my children and make them as successful as they can be in whatever they want to do. It's hard being his publicist and his mom. Sometimes the roles can get confusing and people will go, `Well, you're his mom.' The bottom line is, no one will ever love your kid as much as you do."
A few days later, Paul sat in the family living room and pushed one of his early film efforts into the VCR. It was a sequel to a film he did a few years ago for his brother's Bible class, a film that was not only a hit with the class but earned Jonathan an A.
That success necessitated the follow-up, Paul explained. This one, called, "Essence of Time II," follows two cops traveling through some sort of portal to track down an anti-Christ figure in the future. It was shot in two days, mostly in a field in Carnation. His brother and a friend were the main actors, and Paul was the villain. It has a distinct backyard feel, but also shows flashes of technical sophistication, managing to reveal at the same time how young and yet how advanced Paul Gordon is. Suddenly he was on his feet, retrieving a fancy, metal jacketed notebook and scribbling down some ideas for a sports-club commercial. In short order he was slipping in a tape of the pageant filmed last November and announcing he might write a second book. This one would be on the tricky topics of true love and maintaining relationships. His girlfriend, the pageant runnerup whom he hopes to marry one day, inspired the idea. All this was news to Elaine.
"Our relationship is changing, and that's been hard," she says. "I've been so involved. I've been his teacher, his mom, his producer, but he told me he might not let me produce his next film. That's been hard. I don't want to hold him back. I just want to be part of his life." Paul knows he's a product of his mother's fire and attention, and responds with characteristic diplomacy. "Sometimes," he says, "I just need space."
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.