Remember when you were a child, sitting at the kitchen table after school, working on math problems — I'm sorry, we should probably call them math challenges — and thinking to yourself, "I can't wait to grow up so I won't have to do this (grumble-grumble) homework anymore"?
I remember thinking that. Vividly. And I was the kind of student who savored a good algebra problem every now and then.
Once I graduated from college and got a writing job I love, I figured my days of trying to determine how many slices of pizza Alphonse ate or how far the red train traveled or the effect of colored cellophane on the growth of bean plants (my third-grade science fair project) were history — like the Gettysburg Address I had to memorize.
Then I had children. And they started school. And they got homework.
And now I know why my mom made delicious after-school snacks and then disappeared to the other end of the house to "change the sheets" or "wash the curtains" or "make a few calls about important PTO business."
Homework can be painful, even from the sidelines.
It probably doesn't help that my children, now in sixth and eighth grades, are doing work I struggled with in high school. Or that even when I know the answer — yes, son, it's possible for moms to know the answer sometimes! —I can't explain how I got it.
I often work from home in the evenings, conducting interviews or finishing up stories. (So much for that no-homework-for-grownups dream.) Jack plops down beside me with his stack of books and binders. Sometimes Hannah joins us, too, and it's like Study Hall.
One big, happy, jovial gathering of children and adults celebrating the joy of learning and the intrinsic rewards of a job well done.
Hahaha! I can't believe I just wrote that. Actually, it goes more like this:
Jack: "This one doesn't make sense."
Me: "Can I help?"
Me: "Let me see it."
Me: "Seriously? You keep forgetting I was in school once. I can do sixth-grade math, you know!"
Jack: "OK, here."
Me, after a pause: "Yeah, I have no idea how to do that. ... How about a snack?"
I've seen homework sessions turn angry or tearful, kids' heads in their hands, cursing the person who invented geometry or the Spanish alphabet.
"It was the same guy: Salvador Miguel de Geometry," I joke. "Heard about him on NPR. Fascinating Bolivian mathematician. Hated children, apparently."
I rub their backs. They don't even smile.
Eventually, usually, my kids figure things out. The whole point of this ritual, I realize, is that moment when clouds part and concepts click into place. For Jack, that moment usually precedes a joyous romp around the room or a gratified, fist-pumping "Yes!"
His expression makes my heart smile. I love that feeling of accomplishment, of learning something new and unlocking another of life's mysteries. I felt the same way recently when I figured out how to program the DVR from my cellphone.
"I knew you could do it," I tell him. "And you didn't even need help!"