I’ve found that there’s a significant learning curve involved with helping a middle schooler manage the world according to homework, and the first couple of weeks required quite a bit of guidance on my part. One afternoon, my fifth grader enumerated his assignments to me after pickup, which included a page of math in his workbook, a round of math fact fluency practice via an app, and a word search for Spanish. We identified that he wouldn’t have time for all of it before our scheduled nightly reading, so he suggested he save the word search for after his siblings went upstairs to do their pre-bedtime preparations because it was the easiest. While he worked on the word search later that night, I went through the motions of putting the kitchen to bed, shaking ants off the figs I’d picked and brought in after an afternoon of downpours, switching out the masks the kids had worn that day and snapping clean ones onto their lanyards, supplying the insect habitat with some fresh food (a few leaves, wet with rain), and making sure everything was in order for the next morning.
Every couple of minutes or so, he’d give me a progress report, commenting that he’d found “lunes”, then “domingo”, then “martes” and “sábado.” “Only three left,” he said, then “two to go,” followed by a few more quiet minutes. When I hadn’t heard anything for a while, I checked in for an update, hoping to hear that he was finishing up and ready to head to bed, but he replied that he was having trouble finding the final word, “jueves”. Though I love crosswords puzzles and games like “Boggle”, I’ve always thoroughly despised word searches, but in the name of expediency I offered to have a look after making him spell the word and translate it for me until I was confident that the objective of the exercise had been met, despite the fact that he hadn’t completed the assignment per se. I sat down next to him and laser focused on every single “j” on the grid, certain that I could have this task accomplished in under a minute. The minute passed, and I did a second inspection, this time trying the method he’d been using, which was to find the letter sequence “eve”. No luck. I explained that he’d learned the spelling and meaning of the word, which was ultimately more important than finding it on this piece of paper, and it was late, and he’d given it plenty of time and effort, so we’d have another look in the morning.
Halfway through my second cup of coffee the next day, “jueves” still hadn’t made itself any more accessible to either his or my eyesight, though I swear I must have gone over every single glyph on that photocopy twelve times. We decided enough energy had been spent on this, and he packed it up ready to ask his teacher to solve the mystery of the missing Thursday when he got to school. I said, “What’s funny is that we decided to save that assignment for last because we thought it would be the easiest, but it turned out to be a lot harder than we expected.” At this point, his sister chimed in to remind us of something she’d said the evening after the first day of school. Liam had been telling her all about the new homework regimen he’d have for fifth grade, and I just happened to pass by in the hallway in time to overhear her response, which was , “Wow, Liam. Middle school is harsh.” We’d all found this uproarious at the time and now had another good laugh at the memory, remarking on the appropriate reapplication of the comment to this situation as everyone filed out the door.
But, seriously, she really got it right with that assessment. And as it turns out, homework for middle schoolers can be every bit as harsh for their parents as it is for them. Here, you have a go:
So much of life feels like this: we’re told the world is one way, that the answers are there in black and white, and all we have to do is find them. But too frequently we can turn what’s obvious inside out and still fail to see through to some kind of clarity, to find meaning in a scrambled situation. Sometimes, as in math, the answer to a problem is actually “no solution”, which feels like an ultimately anticlimactic way to fill in a blank, but in reality it’s the right response. What we ended up doing that morning was close the binder and go on with the day, which is often the only way to move forth through time when faced with a task that’s unreasonable or unrealistic. And even if we didn’t fulfill an expectation as it was presented despite making every effort to complete what was asked of us, it’s enough to know that even if we’ve failed to meet the letter of the law, so to speak, we’ve done our best. And that knowledge, though true, sure is harsh.
P.S. The next night he had another word search for Spanish, this time for the months of the year, and I’m happy to report that all twelve were accounted for this time. Whether or not the weeks in those months contained Thursdays in any language, however, has yet to be determined.