Warning: This post has NOTHING to do with biking or with our trip.  I just wrote it for fun.  If you want biking-related blogs, check back with us on May 31, when we will be on the road and posting, hopefully every day.

Meanwhile, as I was writing about the dioramas, I got to thinking about all the homework assignments that required shoe boxes, crafty materials, and me.

Ever since I came home with my first ever homework assignment pinned to my jumper in 1962 – I believe I had to color a ball yellow – my feelings about homework have steadily declined.  As a kid I hated all homework, although as an adult I see the value in some of it.  Read a chapter and answer the questions in the back?  Do a page of math problems?  Fine – as long as I I’m not the one who has to do it.

But somewhere along the way, homework assignments got out of control.  As a parent, I dreaded the homework the kids were bringing home every afternoon.  While much of it was reasonable, sometimes it would throw off my entire afternoon, even my entire week, like the day in 4th grade when Katie came home and announced “Tuesday is immigrant day.  I have to dress like a Scandinavian immigrant girl in 1918.  My name is Inga and I’m poor.”

What?!?!  Is a 10 year old really supposed to do this on her own?  Not to mention that it was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.  Nor that we had just turned in a poster of the Grand Tetons, complete with peak names and elevations, lake names, and indigenous specie names.  I was still scraping paint off the kitchen floor!

So I made her a skirt, and we managed to find a shirt that looked poor-ish, Scandinavian-ish, and 1918-ish.  I taught her how to use the sewing machine to make a little travel sack out of old material and shoelaces.  She collected the stuff that Inga would have traveled with – a bible, a candlestick, silverware, whatever.  For the bible, I had her make a book cover for the most irreverent book I could find.  My own little private joke.

Over the years, we (yeah, right, we) have made many costumes.  In second grade the kids had to do biographies.  Bill is probably the only kid in Westford to ever do Moe Howard.  Katie did her biography on Helen Keller.  I didn’t give her a choice.  I figured the 2nd grade Helen Keller costume would make a perfect turn-of-the-century schoolgirl outfit for the 3rd grade field trip to the old schoolhouse in town.  I was right.  A freebie for mommy!   Then in 6th grade Katie had to dress like Harry Houdini, so I went back to the thrift store and turned a woman’s black dress suit into a small cutaway tuxedo.  When Bill had to sell kilts in 6th grade, we went to the fabric store and bought red plaid material.  Then there were the food assignments, and the nature assignments, and the science projects.  All of which, somehow, involved me.  Not cool.

When Bill was in 6th grade, his English class read Ben and Me, a book narrated by a mouse named Amos (get it? Amos? A mouse?), who lived in Ben Franklin’s pocket. The assignment was to build a house that Amos would live in if he were alive today. Another use for my shoe boxes! This time, Dana helped. They spent that Saturday in the basement, building a mouse house with electricity and a TV made from an old wristwatch. They had fun, and I think Bill might have learned something, or maybe he just spent the day hitting things in the basement with sticks. Nonetheless, he brought his wonderful, electrified, state-of-the-art mouse house to school Monday morning, and came home crying Monday afternoon. Seems the teacher didn’t want electricity in her mouse houses, and all electrified mouse houses would get a 0 for a grade.  Not cool.

And then there was Katie’s ski hill project, which I will probably still be muttering about 30 years from now, from my bed at Meadow Brook.  It was a science project about contour lines.  A few years before, a teacher got the idea that if the kids drew ski hills, they could draw contour lines denoting steep trails .vs. beginner trails.  Not such a bad idea, but then they figured, while you’re drawing ski hills, why not draw the entire resort, with parking lots and lodges and first aid stations?  And then some bored parent must have taken it to the next level and built the freakin’ thing out of wood and clay and shoeboxes.  So by the time it got to Katie’s class, everyone had to build an entire ski resort.  Over Christmas vacation.  With a partner.  Definitely not cool.

Since the partner was leaving town to visit Grandma in Buffalo, we helped Katie start the ski hill, although Dana and I managed to get into an argument about the specifics.  Then, on the morning of December 26, Katie and I went to the crafts store to figure the thing out.  We collected clay and spray snow and a few other crafty things, and when we brought it all to the register, the cashier asked “6th grade ski hill project?”

So we brought the stuff home, and Katie shaped a ski hill, and she baked it, and she burned it, and then she made more ski hills, and she baked them, and we went back to the store a few times, and Dana figured out how to make a chair lift out of toothpicks, and Katie made little buildings out of shoe boxes, and we sprayed snow on the ski hills (and the wall, and the cat), and by the time the partner returned from Grandma’s house, we had built a decent ski resort.

Then the 2 girls, along with 3 parents, attempted to draw contour lines on the snow-covered clay hills, which required more than a few tools, a steady hand, and 3 Sharpies.  And the partner had brought home little plastic people from Grandma’s house, so we made little skiers with twist-tie skis, and we made a pond just so a skier could drown in it, and we made a few trees just so skiers could crash into them.  It was almost sort of fun.  But it was still not cool.

On the first school morning after break, I drove Katie and the ski hill to school, and when we got there, the parking lot was filled with 6th grade parents carrying ski hills.  One kid was hysterically crying because he had dropped his in the parking lot.  The hallway was filled with more ski hills, and the math teacher was barricading his classroom door screaming “You can’t bring ski hills in here!”

Katie got an A- on the project because, supposedly, her contour lines were not correct.  (Which they were.  Just sayin’.)  But if her contour lines really were wrong, why didn’t she get an F?  I mean, the contour lines were the whole point of the assignment, weren’t they?  So what did Katie learn from this project?  She learned teamwork, and a few new swear words, and some crafty tricks, and what not to wear (new Christmas clothes) while playing with paint.  But I don’t think she really learned about contour lines.

[I thought this post would have nothing to do with biking, but I was wrong.  If you want to teach kids about contour lines, make them ride their bikes randomly around Westford for a while, since this is a fairly hilly town.  Then give them a map with contour lines, and let them pick their own route.  I guarantee they will understand contour lines instantly, and the lesson will last a lifetime – just like the spray snow on the wall.]

A few months later, everyone in Bill’s History class had to make a travel brochure about their favorite country.  Bill chose Belarus, which really wasn’t a good fit for this project. I mean, there’s a reason you never hear about people vacationing in Belarus. So after a morning of searching, in vain, for trivial but picturesque facts about Belarus, I was bemoaning the assignment on the sidelines of the soccer field.

Another mom replied that her son wasn’t doing very well with his Mexico brochure. (I’m not sure what she had to complain about! Mexico!?!? Much better than Belarus, right?)  Anyway, she said that, earlier that day, her son had been dragging his feet on the assignment, while her daughter was complaining about being bored. So she offered her daughter $10 to make the thing. Her son was now the proud owner of a beautiful Mexico travel brochure, if perhaps $10 poorer.

Other sideline moms gasped. “That’s cheating!” “That’s not fair to your daughter!” “What will your son learn from this?” And the offending mom calmly replied “Yes, you’re right. But here’s the deal. They shovel the crap into my house, I’m going to shovel it out any way I can.”

Words to live by.