Yesterday evening, I was just settling in to polish the draft of today’s blog about fun with Craigslist, when my son came home early from his Dad’s. At first I was psyched because that often means he finished his homework early. And then I saw his face. It went beyond normal teen indifference to downright morose. Uh-oh, there’s trouble in Homework City. With no prodding (also a bad sign) he said he’d been feeling bad all weekend about a history essay assignment. So much for my superior parenting skills – I’d just thought he was in a classic teen bad mood. He had to read two original, dense articles published in academic journals in the late 1940s, one calling for peace with the Soviet Union and one calling for containment. He had to outline each article, then choose a side, and write an essay using one of the articles as a source. He’d been at it for over an hour and had barely gotten though a page and a half of the first article. I saw the despair on his face and looked at the blinking lights on my laptop. I took a deep breath and closed it.
Moving quickly into efficient mom mode, I told him brightly that he could do this, and I would help. I assumed the issue was his tendencies towards perfection and detail. Math and science are easier for him, and in those subjects perfection and being detailed is useful. In writing, though, perfection is like Superman’s Kryptonite. So feeling the return of my parenting A game – one might even say overconfidence – I took a look. As predicted, the outline was highly detailed, with a maelstrom of roman numerals, letters, and numbers. I barely started to tell him that he just needed to highlight the main ideas of the article (In my mind, I was already triumphantly wielding that essential college tool, the highlighter, like Excalibur) when he showed me the teacher’s outline instructions. The happy, free-spirited highlighter got ripped unceremoniously from me. My son was actually following the instructions. For each paragraph (whether it was three sentences or 20) he had to write the main idea (roman numeral), then the main points (A, B, D), then examples of the main points (1,2,3). I really wanted to head to the unopened bottle of wine on the counter whispering my name. But even I could see this would require sobriety. Did I mention I hate the word “rubric”?
Now, I started to panic. Yes, he started this monstrosity way too late, but I learned long ago that finger-pointing just makes him fold in on himself, and then I have to feel guilt over both the pointing and the folding. Better to stick it in my back pocket, and then vigilantly pester him every weekend, “Got any history homework? You don’t want to repeat the Soviet Union essay do you?”
Much like the Soviet regime, which I learned about from the containment article, we needed to brutally ramp up production, only we’d be sacrificing that insanely detailed outline instead of the Russian population. See? We already have learned from history. He’s an auditory kid, so I read the paragraphs aloud and we talked through summarizing the main ideas and he wrote those down: no main points, no examples. It still took nearly three hours. It was close to midnight, nearly two hours past my bedtime and past any time my brain can actually work. I desperately wanted to go to bed, but then he gave me a big hug and thanked me, saying he couldn’t have done it without me. Damn that kid and his gratitude! I could see from his face that he needed me to hang around a bit longer for moral support as he started the essay. I stayed up another 30 minutes, floating in an out of consciousness. until his essay was well under way. Ah well, that’s how the Communism crumbles.