HOMEWORK HELPER, A MOTHER’S DAY STORY

Our son, Sam, is an excellent student. He’s now in a PhD program at an illustrious university. However, when he was young, his intellectual ability rarely extended to artistic creation. Although we happily hang a Halloween-themed painting by him in our garage gallery, there are more bad memories than good from the era when he produced “projects” for school. By the time he was in fifth or sixth grade, we couldn’t stand to see him suffer. My wife, Katie, and I abandoned the traditional viewpoint that a student is responsible for all his own work; Sam received as much parental or sibling assistance as necessary to survive what we concluded was a silly, system-wide preoccupation with paper, scissors and glue.

Katie, an educator, and a person without a scintilla of chicanery in her arsenal, initially struggled with the decision to relieve Sam’s burden.

“Isn’t this cheating?” she asked. “Will it ruin his sense of responsibility?”

“I don’t think he’ll be ruined,” I said. “He still does all his other work. He’s learning disabled in arts and crafts. Wouldn’t it be wrong to deny him assistance?”

“So you don’t have a problem with this?” she asked, seeking confirmation, as she colored in the background in a workbook Sam had to illustrate.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

After all, in truth, I’d once received a little parental assistance myself.

*****

When I took mid-level (not for the brainiacs) biology in ninth grade at Friends’ Academy, the teacher was legendary; he’d single-handedly comprised the biology department for over thirty years. Mr. Farrington, white-haired and elfin, was a stern and serious academician. Accordingly, besides biology teacher, his position was Dean of Students. In that capacity, he handled matters of discipline and played a large role in determining where students applied to college. No, Mr. Farrington was not a man to mess with.

I’m not proud to admit that, in my teenage years, I resisted knowledge in subjects outside my core interests of English, history and music. I still apply some degree of willful ignorance, like a Republican presidential candidate, to a wealth of subjects. Biology, along with anything mathematical, was way out in my mental periphery.

Under Mr. Farrington’s steely gaze, the dissection of worms and frogs alarmed me without interesting me. And genetics? Forget it. He shook his head with incomprehension when my undistinguished classmates or I failed to “get it.” His classroom and walls were festooned with posters and projects produced by his more elite students, the “Section One” people, whom he delightedly steered towards his Ivy League contacts.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Farrington lectured, my mind usually drifted to the baseball field. He caught me flat-footed and spluttering the several times he called on me. I hunkered down in the hopes of avoiding his notice. An impressive student of the sciences I was not.

*****

The culmination of the year, and a third of our grade, depended upon the creation of an individual herbarium by each student, a miniature replica of a wild scene of flora and fauna, set inside glass, usually fish-tank-sized. I stressed over the project for several weeks, unsure where to even begin. Though I rarely involved my parents in the details of my schoolwork, I must have expressed my fears effectively because all I remember, to my immense relief, is that my mother took on the project as though her life depended on it.

After several visits to the hardware and plant stores, and hours spent around the dining room table, during which I handed my mother pieces like a nurse assisting a doctor, she’d created a display worthy of a natural history museum. Having seen similar quality on Mr. Farrington’s shelf, it didn’t occur to me this might present a problem. Vaguely aware there might be moral implications surrounding this matter, I chose to ignore them. I felt that I was not a “bad” person and I knew my mother was not a “bad” person, and I was unconcerned about this becoming a habit. I delivered the herbarium with a sigh of relief and then forgot about it. A passing grade in biology was assured, I thought, and that had been my only concern.

*****

I was taken aback several days later when my mother told me she’d been called by Mr. Farrington’s office to accompany me to a meeting with Mr. Farrington. I hoped, somehow, that his intention was to congratulate me for a job well done, but I wasn’t so naïve as to not feel nervous.

“What will we say,” I asked her, “if Mr. Farrington asks who made the herbarium?”

“I’m not going to lie,” said my mother. “But I’ll tell him you played a large role.”

“I’m not sure handing you stuff qualifies as a ‘large role,’” I said.

“We’ll just have to see,” she said. “You might have to re-do the whole thing and accept the consequences.”

My dread rose as we arrived at Mr. Farrington’s office and saw a sour expression on his usually impassive face. “My” herbarium sat on his desk between us.

“Mrs. Sanders,” he began, addressing my mother as though I weren’t present. “I’m afraid your son has violated a vital aspect of the honor system at Friends’ Academy.”

I turned pale, but my mother remained cool, merely raising an eyebrow to allow Mr. Farrington to continue.

“It is clear to me that Stuart PURCHASED this herbarium from a store,” he said.

“He ABSOLUTELY did not PURCHASE it,” said my mother firmly. “I would never allow such a thing.”

Mr. Farrington turned his gaze to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s just that this herbarium is professional in quality, worthy of a top Section One student, and Stuart has not previously shown such abilities.”

“Perhaps he was inspired,” interjected my mother, never a fan of the caste system at the school.

I lowered my eyes to look at the floor. I feared my mother might have gone too far. I certainly didn’t want Mr. Farrington to expect “inspired” work from me on a regular basis. Mr. Farrington remained silent for a long moment. Perhaps, the actual explanation occurred to him –- he was a smart man — and he weighed how much of a confrontation he deemed worthwhile.

My heart beat hard in my chest as several seconds seemed to last several hours. Finally, he merely shook his head, thanked us for coming in, and congratulated me on my excellent work. He addressed my mother, in a neutral tone: “You should be very proud.”

*****

“Phew,” I whispered, when we’d closed the office door behind us and hustled down the hallway.

“There’s a lesson to be learned from this,” said my mother.

“To always do your own work?” I asked.

“To not do too good a job when you do your kids’ work,” she said.

“What kind of a lesson is that to give to your child?” I asked, amazed, but also amused.

“A practical lesson,” she said.

As a parent, I’ve heeded that lesson several times over the years, sparingly, when somewhat, arguably, possibly appropriate.

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