Monthly Archives: September 2021

Dónde está?

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:

In search of Thursday

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.

A mortarboard moment

During the first week of fifth grade, my newly-minted middle schooler learned how to use email. His social studies teacher set each student up with an account linked to gmail through the school, and she showed them the basics of how to manage the technology, encouraging parents to send their kids a message using this platform. Eager to take advantage of the opportunity to communicate to one of my children via email for the first time, I carefully modeled a format that I’ve spent a long time considering, wondering if he’d use mine as a sort of boilerplate and respond in kind or whether he’d develop his own interpretation of salutation, closing, content, and tone. When I opened my email that evening to discover his response, what I found was easily the single most magnificent email I think I’ve ever received.

I love it so much that I even resisted the urge to point out the homophonic misapplication in that last line, instead reveling in the fact that he hadn’t copied my style but had borrowed from it what features he preferred, combined with his very own approach to punctuation, syntax, layout, and structure. It is truly a thing of beauty to behold this very concrete evidence of a young person’s growth and personal progress, to see his voice take on its own individual dimension, to witness the manifestation of so many efforts in the production of a single message, to see it spelled out in black and white but with a countless catalogue of elemental color hidden there between the lines.

And what’s more is the postscript that occurred in our house that night: my middle-school son followed through with the laundry, and the next morning he even took it out of the dryer, put it into a laundry basket with the mesh bags of clean masks on top of the pile, and brought it downstairs for folding. The kids may still be in their first full week of the school year, but I feel like I just graduated.

Bottoms up

Most evenings after dinner, the kids retire to the playroom for their nightly show, each with a bowl of sliced fruit and their choice of a small chocolate treat. They use those small plastic bowls we’ve had for probably a decade, the ones that are nearly indestructible, easy to rinse or toss onto the top rack of the dishwasher, and color-coded so each child knows which bowl is intended for whom. After the show concludes, the kids have been instructed to bring their bowls to the kitchen, and at some point we upgraded this responsibility for the older kids to not only bring in their bowls, but to also rinse them and put them in the dishwasher. On one of the first nights after the upgrade, my daughter followed through, and I was happy to lay eyes on her pink bowl in the dishwasher. At first I thought how interesting it was that she had placed it with the concavity facing the rear of the appliance, while it’s my habit to nestle bowls with their bottoms to the back. For a moment I wondered at how similarly and differently our two brains operate, hers and mine, and then I bent over and looked in the dishwasher again, only to realize that what I’d thought I was seeing at first was actually an optical illusion. Here’s the scene from the original angle:

Upside down and backwards?

If you imagine that you’re looking at the bottom of that pink bowl, it appears to be placed with its outer rim facing the darkness back there. But upon investigation, this is the situation I was actually beholding:

When right side up is wrong

She’d put the bowl right there on the top rack, just as I’d requested, obviously lacking the knowledge of how dishwashers function. I mean, the bowl is stored upright in the cabinet. It’s served with the convex surface facing the table. In the sink, it’s rinsed and soaked with inside up. It’s not hard to guess why she’d think to follow suit here. As a parent, there are countless instances when you realize how unintuitive life can be, how so much isn’t abundantly obvious and needs to be taught or learned. The experience of parenthood is a lot like this: how could one know that that bowl would end up filled with water and the silt of foodstuffs if it went through a cycle in that orientation unless one either understood the physics of dishwashers or had been given articulate instruction regarding the bowl’s position to favor the desired outcome?

I thought for a few minutes about how to approach sharing this information with her when I realized I’d gone about the responsibility upgrade in the wrong direction. Rather than ask kids to load the dishwasher before they’ve ever unloaded one, perhaps a more productive way to go about it would be to have them unload a clean dishwasher first; that way, they’d understand how the water remains in any crack or crevice that has no method of downward egress. That way they’d know to take the tupperware out and shake it in the sink before putting it in the dish drainer, face up this time, so the water caught in the downturned lips of its edges can evaporate. That way they’d know that when one of the small bowls gets flipped by the upward spray of water while the cycle in running so that it rests with its base facing down, it will collect water in its rounded basin and fail to cooperate with the “dry” portion of the cycle.

Sometimes we have to start at the endpoint and retrace our steps, work backwards through a process, in order to understand how to begin again. Sometimes learning best practices is most effective retroactively, when the ends actually do justify the means, when we have a clear idea about what steps to take to favor fortune. For most aspects of life, of course, this isn’t possible; we can’t get a do-over when it comes to the intractability of time, and our little pink bowls will again and again end up brimming with dishwater, potholes on the road to progress. But in some small ways–like learning to use an appliance–it’s nice to know that you can start at the end to inform the next beginning, to use the understanding of the endgame at the outset. And when things aren’t obvious, when we don’t know which side of a situation is up, sometimes it takes sense to make sense, and the only way forward is back.