The Moth­er­lode of Home­work

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters - Beth Horn­ing

Am I smarter than a fifth- grader? Youth wants to know. Or, if not youth per se, at least the band of pre­co­cious cu­tie- pies on the new game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th- Grader?” And so I say: Glad you asked! Yes, in fact, I am smarter than a fifth- grader, and that is be­cause my daugh­ter is a six­th­grader.

Ev­ery af­ter­noon my daugh­ter comes home with a new truck­load of work in so­cial stud­ies, math, read­ing and science that has to be trans­formed into a sheaf of ac­cu­rate, neat and above all creative out­put by the next morn­ing, even if it is an “ Amer­i­can Idol” night. I don’t mean to em­bar­rass her with this dis­clo­sure, but un­like oth­ers of her de­mo­graphic, she is mor­tal and of­ten can’t per­form this straw- into- gold- like feat with­out parental in­ter­ven­tion.

Can I deny that I have de­rived a sense of pride from my ef­forts? I can­not. Like so many adults, I spend long hours do­ing work that does not re­quire an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing in the world. I typ­i­cally de­vote my free time to gos­sip­ing about my friends, none of whom are fa­mous enough to be fea­tured in a game- show ques­tion. If not for my daugh­ter’s home­work, I might have forgotten vast stores of in­for­ma­tion in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to the value of pi.

In­stead, I am a Re­nais­sance Mommy. I can en­joy many quiet mo­ments feel­ing su­pe­rior to my tele­vised fel­low grown- ups as they strug­gle over test items about tri­an­gles and trape­zoids, po­lar bears and pen­guins. ( No, po­lar bears do not feed on pen­guins. They in­habit op­po­site ends of the Earth, you mort­gage- ob­sessed fool!)

And con­sider the ex­hil­a­rat­ing adren­a­line rush as the nightly dead­line ap­proaches. It’s T- mi­nus 60 min­utes — that is, 8 p. m., just one hour be­fore “ Amer­i­can Idol” — and my girl still has to do a dou­ble- sided math work­sheet and read two more chap­ters in one of those nov­els they keep as­sign­ing about bad things that have hap­pened in his­tory. In ad­di­tion, she must digest a so­cial stud­ies hand­out about an­cient Egyp­tian re­li­gion so that she can write an ar­ti­cle for a hy­po­thet­i­cal an­cient Egyp­tian news­pa­per about the ac­tiv­i­ties of the an­cient Egyp­tian gods.

Of course, in an ideal world she would brush her teeth and change into her pa­ja­mas as well, but I know that she can shave cru­cial min­utes off her time if she com­pletes those tasks dur­ing the lengthy “ Idol” com­mer­cial breaks. I have also coun­seled her to do the an­cient- Egyp­tian- news­pa­per- ar­ti­cle thing in the morn­ing.

At 8: 35 we are head­ing into the home stretch. She has given me her math work- sheet to check and is speed- read­ing her book. The char­ac­ters are lan­guish­ing in the mid­dle of the Pa­cific Ocean. Maybe they will drown and maybe they won’t.

Mean­while, I zip through the math, find­ing very few mis­takes. I am re­flect­ing that this is al­most too easy when I turn the work­sheet over and my blood runs cold. She has failed to com­plete the sec­ond side! And now it’s — I glance at the kitchen clock — 8: 46! I shift into high gear.

Such was the sce­nario that un­folded last month, with thrills and chills that only she and I and per­haps her fu­ture psy­chi­a­trist will ever fully ap­pre­ci­ate. I can re­port, how­ever, that not only did my daugh­ter get all her home­work done but she wit­nessed “ Amer­i­can Idol” in its en­tirety, in­clud­ing the usual fail­ure to vote off the lis­some San­jaya.

Yes, we cheated. I kind of — well, I ba­si­cally dic­tated the an­cient Egyp­tian news­pa­per ar­ti­cle to her over break­fast. (“ No, it’s Ra — just R- a, no h! He’s a sun god, not a sta­dium cheer! And eat your waf­fle. Please!”) But hey, she’s a kid, and her brain is grow­ing all the time. I’m an adult, and my brain, like ev­ery­thing else about me, is hurtling to­ward at­ro­phy. Who needs the men­tal ex­er­cise more? Beth Horn­ing is a free­lance writer in Mas­sachusetts.

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