My friend's sixth-grade son Evan shuffled into my office the other day.
“Hey, Aaryn. Do you have a calculator?” He came around the corner, offering up a coy smile, his dark eyes partially hidden by a slightly askew, oversized baseball cap. He got braces two weeks ago and—poof!—like that, the child I'd known for nearly eight years had vanished. Against my door leaned a sweetly gawky, noodlesque kid balanced—in oversized clothes and un-laced skate shoes—on the precipice of everything teenagery and terrifying.
“Are you doing math homework?” I asked him distractedly. “Because I only have the one on my computer.” I moved my cursor to the icon and double-clicked as he mumbled something about needing to figure out—indecipherable tween-speak—pages in his—more indecipherable tween-speak—at which point I'd stopped listening since I couldn't understand his explanation. Anyway, I adore Evan and was eager to inspire his thirst for knowledge by displaying my enduring familiarity with the distributive property and the practical applications of said property in the real world.
“OK, Evan, what's the problem? Give it to me straight.” My cursor hovered above the desktop calculator.
“Three-hundred and forty-four…” he rattled off as I concentrated, robotically clicking on the numbers.
“Minus…” I clicked the symbol. And waited.
“One-hundred and sixty-three.” I entered the digits and hit the “equals” sign.
“One-eighty-one,” I told him. He was standing next to me, this child-boy-manish-creature. I swiveled my chair slowly in his direction to face him. I looked him in the eyes.
“That's it?” I asked suspiciously. “That's the problem for which you needed the calculator?”
“Yeah,” he grinned meekly. “I, uh—I guess I coulda gotten a piece of paper.”
“Um, yeah. Yup. You coulda.”
And I coulda been less of a show-boater and more of a parent-er.
I jotted the entire equation on a sticky and handed it to him, vigorously shaking my head in an attempt to halt the repetitive voice inside it, which was berating me for being an enabler. A few minutes later, when Evan came back needing to divide the answer by 11, I pointed my finger at him using my entire arm like an épée for emphasis and exclaimed that he'd be doing that one on his own. (Of course, I quickly checked his long division by doing the problem myself. On my calculator. But I'm a grownup and I can do that. He's in sixth grade and should be held to a more antiquated standard.)
I've frequently taken great solace in the knowledge that never again will I have to endure that awful rite of passage that is high school. I loathed high school, nearly every minute of it, save Larry Ficks' psychology class (both sections), Barbara Woll's creative-writing class and cutting the rest of 'em to get high at Destry Woozley's mom's place.
What I've come to realize, however, through years of anecdotes told to me by Evan's mom Jennifer is this: When you become a parent, not only do you have to go to high school again, but you have to go to elementary and middle schools, too. Can you sense my unbridled thrill leaping off this page?
I remember Jennifer recounting, to a horrified me, details of an assignment Evan was given in kindergarten. He came home with a chore mandated by the San Diego Unified School District and enforced by the stooge he called “teacher.” He was to research his favorite animal (the shark), guided by a set of 10 or 12 questions, and create a poster-board presentation to be given in class. Did I mention he was 5 years old? It's sort of implied by the word “kindergarten.”
Did I mention he was in a Spanish-immersion school? Right. I didn't. Well, he was—and still is—which meant his 10- or 12-question poster-board presentation on the finer points of sharkery would be written in Spanish, since English isn't spoken or even written until the second grade.
Jennifer's inquiries to the teacher were met with a resigned I-know-it's-a-third-grade-level-assignment-but-it's-out-of-my-control-take-it-to-the-school-board answer. But the solution was simple enough to me, the high-school slacker: Blow it off! Or, if that's not your style, Jenn, send the boy to the library, where he can take notes about sharks—their dining preferences, their baby-making habits, their lifespan and the like—from the Encyclopedia Britannica. You know, just like I did when I was 5. Never mind that I've had years of therapy to get over my parents' lack of involvement.
Now, Evan is really smart, but, unfortunately, he didn't take so well to the shorthand taught in preschool, and he was out sick the day they covered poster presentations. Add to that his inability to read in English or Spanish. So today Jennifer knows a whole bunch about sharks and poster presentations. In Spanish, which she didn't speak. She's my hero.
Over the years, I've listened to her stories about building dioramas and creating science projects. She doesn't do her son's homework for him, by any means. She's an incredible mother who's raising up a good man. But her involvement in every step of the process has been, and continues to be, essential to Evan's success.
I can see, though, the temptation parents face to simply say, “Screw it all!” and just do it themselves, like I carelessly did with Evan; it's much faster, much easier to punch a few numbers into a calculator and scribble off the answer. In less time than it would have taken Evan to write out his problem, he and I both learned that he must read 16.4545454545 pages in El Señor de los Ladrones every day if he is going to leave himself two days to prepare a book report. (Which is cutting it close, if you ask me, but I'm not his mother. I'm just his mother's pliable friend with a desktop calculator, a desire to appear cool and a string of useless A's in math.)
Taking the longer route of sitting down and explaining why it's important to do the problem with a pen, paper, brain cells and synapses is Where It's At. Yes, it requires that parents engage in the mandatory, über-evil, education do-over (I rue the day), but it will pay off in the end. Especially if there are no calculators left in the real world.