Thousands from around globe celebrate online birthday of map-loving 12-year old boy
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Turning 12 amid home isolation orders is hardly any tween's idea of an exciting birthday, but one Houston boy's socially-distanced celebration is turning out to be more memorable than anyone could have expected.
Jody Smith was eager to find an alternative to help his son, Brandon, celebrate his April 11 birthday while still obeying stay-at-home orders, and turned to Twitter for a simple request: Reply to a picture of Brandon holding his hand-drawn map of the world and tell him where they are so the cartographically-inclined 12-year-old could mark it down.
"I thought it would be fun to get 50 - maybe 100 - people to reply from around the world, and most would be in the U.S.," Smith told The Washington Post by phone Saturday. "That's really what my expectations were."
Instead, responses to Smith's request came in by the thousands: Pictures of oceanside views from Trinidad and Tobago, shots of downtown Sao Paolo in Brazil, and nighttime scenes from Istanbul. Even accounts like BMW in Germany sent Brandon a birthday greeting from Munich.
By Saturday afternoon, "Brandon" was Twitter's number-one trending topic.
Asked about how Brandon was taking the overwhelming response, Smith said he was busy dutifully adding dots to his map. "He's having a blast," he said.
Celebrations in the age of coronavirus have forced people to tap into their creativity to keep the party going: Parents have turned garages into comically exclusive bars for their newly-minted 21-year-olds; friends organize socially-distanced birthday parades and any number of candles are blown out as family members look on - from Zoom.
But a socially distanced birthday didn't disrupt Brandon's plans quite the way it might for other kids, Smith said.
"Brandon is on the autism spectrum, so he doesn't relate to people the same way; doing a birthday party didn't really resonate with him," Smith told The Post. Ideally, Brandon would spend his birthday doing things he likes, like playing mini-golf.
"He's had a tendency to be almost about obsessive about things that interest him for a few weeks or months at a time," Smith said. Golf is one of the two things that Brandon continues to love; the other is maps.
Whenever a new birthday greeting pings on Smith's phone, Brandon adds a dot - usually without having to look at his iPad for reference.
"He's studied maps so well, so he knows where Helsinki is," Smith said.
By midday, Brandon's map was already covered in clusters from the U.S. and Europe; most of Asia was still asleep when Smith first put his request on Twitter, but he still got middle-of-the night replies from Australia and Hong Kong.
"I think he was happy to see someone from Tasmania," Smith said, who was still in disbelief that "a little tweet from a football writer guy would go crazy enough to reach the middle of the Atlantic" - a birthday greeting from Ascension Island, the tiny landmass halfway between South America and Africa.
The outpouring of well-wishes has been a welcome break from the slog of anxiety-inducing news about the coronavirus outbreak, Smith said. He was grateful for the response - and that people were being kind (something he knows, as a writer, is not always the case with Twitter replies).
"These are pretty trying times and it's so great to see people rallying around a warm story. And it's made him feel so special," Smith said of Brandon. "Kudos to all the people taking time out of their day to make a 12-year-old boy feel good."
In the meantime, Smith has an entire year to plan for Brandon's 13th birthday, but added, "this will be hard for me to top."