Down with Homework!

Homework-MignanelliHomework: bad idea or really bad idea?

That’s a trick question. Homework is an awful idea.

Not only have take-home assignments been proven useless (here’s where I’d cite the appropriate studies if I weren’t in Rolling Stone mode), they’re contributing to the breakdown of the family. At least of my family.

Get within a five-mile radius of our place on most weeknights and listen for an indignant howl. That’s the sound of our eighth-grader railing against his teachers and the American education system in general. (His weekend rants center more on The Man.)

“They’re not in there!” he’ll yell, flinging his history textbook on the couch and slamming his spiral closed. “None of the words are in the book! This is so stupid!” Crumpled alongside him, invariably, is a handout entitled “Terms You Absolutely, Positively WILL Find in the Book.”

My son has a wee bit of trouble focusing. But still. He makes a valid point. This is stupid.

Parents have a tacit understanding with the school system: You keep our kids out of our hair for eight hours a day, and we won’t ask any questions. Common Core? Sure, whatever. Standardized testing? As long as my children don’t come home early.

Reams of meaningless activities designed to “reinforce skills” that must be completed once we’ve all clocked out for the evening? J’accuse, Frederick County Public Schools. J’accuse!

Now, if you’re one of those lucky moms or dads with kids who love all things classroom-related so much that they actually play school, move along. There’s nothing to see here.

If, on the other hand, you birthed the Omen, you understand.

When 9 p.m. rolls around, the only place I want to be is on the couch with a book. In a perfect world, the kids would be in bed asleep. In my world, at least one of them is frantically Googling the noble gases while shrieking about the tyranny of middle school.

It’s usually a minute or two later that he mentions the foam board and stencils required to complete the assignment. (By this point, I’m keying “retroactive birth control” into Bing.)

Now, some experts still insist that homework plays a vital role—that it compels students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to tasks done outside of school; that it nudges them toward a deeper understanding of the material being taught and promotes self-reliance.

There’s a reason nobody invites experts to dinner.

There’s also a reason why the concept of homework is fundamentally flawed. Think about it. Do waiters practice reciting the day’s specials after they punch out? Do actuaries spend their free hours handicapping the neighbors’ chances of being eaten by Pomeranians? Methinks not.

So give kids a break. (And by “give kids a break,” I mean, “give parents a break.”) Abolish the worksheets. Just say no to mind-numbing, off-duty tasks.

And if you hear anything about that retroactive birth control? You know where to find me.

[Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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3 Fun Thanksgivukkah Rituals

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Need more proof the holiday gods loathe interfaith families like mine who celebrate everything? Thanksgiving and Hanukkah arrive together this year. (Yes, dutiful observers: Hanukkah technically arrives the night before Thanksgiving. Thanks for the reminder why nobody likes dutiful observers.)

Anyway, in honor of this only-in-a-shiksa’s-worst-nightmare scenario, I hope you’ll try some of my family’s favorite Thanksgivukkah rituals. The more of them you enjoy, the more likely we’ll be to bump into each other at therapy.

Happy Thanksgivukkah! And may the odds be ever in your favor!

  • Finding the Menorahs. Remember when you took down last year’s Christmas decorations, blithely chucking dreidels and blue table runners into any old red-and-green Rubbermaid box that would hold them? Well, the calendar may say “November,” but it’s time to dig through those boxes—yep, every one of them, right now—in search of your family’s Festival of Lights detritus. And be sure to get the kids involved. The thrill of crawling through the spider-webby, unfinished part of the basement knows no age!
  • Buying the Candles. You didn’t really wait until the last minute for this one, did you? Oh. Anyhow, the good news is there are still a few boxes of menorah candles to be had down at the Safeway. The bad news is they’re buried in the seasonal aisle amid the mini marshmallows, pumpkin puree, and jars of giblet gravy. (Giblet gravy? Seriously, people?) The place is bound to be a wee bit crowded, but it could be worse. It could be raining. I said, IT COULD BE RAINING.
  • Recounting the Miracle of Thanksgivukkah. According to legend, the Pilgrims had only enough bland, starchy food for one night. But the leftovers—from the candied sweet potatoes to those disgusting creamed onions nobody even likes—lasted for eight nights. So as you celebrate lo these long days, remind the little ones that their crippling stomach cramps and early signs of scurvy are all part of the fun. Next year at Plymouth Rock!

What’re your most dreaded, er, favorite holiday rituals? Tell me about them!

[Image courtesy of JewishBoston.com]

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12 Truths about Parenting

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My kids are now 22, 17, 12, and 6. I’ve been a mother since the Dawn of Man. And you know what I’ve learned? That as much as I alternately love and loathe parenthood (and occasionally fantasize about retroactive birth control), the only thing harder than waiting for your kids to grow up or trying to keep them little forever is realizing you have no control over the speed either way. In fact, when it comes to parenting:

  1. If you call in your beer order ahead of your arrival at Chuck E. Cheese? It goes too fast.
  2. If you spend every moment of every day eye-level with your toddler, immersed in his world of stackable cups, LEGOs, and all things sold separately? It goes too fast.
  3. If you rush your kid through each milestone and yearn for the day she’ll be able to feed/clothe/bathe herself? It goes too fast.
  4. If you savor every precious midnight tummy ache and search for under-the-bed monsters? It goes too fast.
  5. If it takes three margaritas for you to even consider breaking out the finger paint? It goes too fast.
  6. If you cuddle with your baby for hours under a blanket, tenting it over you to keep the world out? It goes too fast.
  7. If you handcraft origami pumpkins and marshmallow snowmen for your kindergartner’s classroom parties? It goes too fast.
  8. If you frantically race to the store at 7 a.m. for 20 juice boxes because you forgot it’s your turn to bring drinks to your kindergartner’s goddamned classroom party? It goes too fast.
  9. If you ignore your home’s general stickiness and instead enjoy long, lazy days filled with dress-up, coloring, and block towers? It goes too fast.
  10. If your secret desire is to spend just one more hour at the office? It goes too fast.
  11. If you wish your kids would never grow up? It goes too fast.
  12. If you wish your kids would just grow up already? It goes too fast.
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Death with Father

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A dream. The guests mill around noiselessly as I scan the room for my father. I’m peering through gauze. This must be a party, because Dad’s wearing a tuxedo. He’s only worn one a few times, and I’m tempted to go up and ask him when the canapés are being served. Now doesn’t seem the time for joking, though. Dad’s busy floating from person to person. He keeps glancing at his watch.

“If he hadn’t given me this sick sense of humor, I’m not sure I could handle this,” says my older sister, Rachael. She and I linger in front of Dad’s open casket; he’s handsome like Ned Beatty at last call.

We search for appropriate words, but all we manage is mimicking an old Bill Cosby routine, where a dead man has a tape recorder in his coffin. As friends file by, the tape plays, “Why, hello, Bob. How’s the wife and kids? You’re looking well. Don’t I look well?” We giggle quietly, not wanting to alarm the guests. If Dad weren’t indisposed, he’d be playing right along with us.

Down the hall in the mortuary’s lounge, my relatives chain-smoke. Puff, ash, mourn. Puff, ash, mourn. They could etch their initials in the dusky air. I don’t point out that Dad’s passion for cigarettes is precisely what earned him this sudden, permanent vacation in Flavor Country. No one would grasp the irony.

Dad finishes speaking with everyone and tells me he has to go. His face is expressionless. “Wait, I’ll go with you,” I offer. He looks at me. “You can’t, you’re too young. I have to go by myself.” I cajole him like I’m 16 again and want the car. “Come on, Dad. It’ll be okay.” He watches me for a moment and then leaves the party. I follow.

The viewing room is stuffed with people I’m told I know. “Come on, you remember Mr. Nameless Pinstripe Suit! He worked with your father at the old office.” Oh yeah, him. I was just 4 when Dad worked there, but I’m still embarrassed at my ignorance. My only shot at being the thoughtful daughter of the deceased father, and I’m totally blowing it.

“You’re so young to lose your father,” a heavyset woman says to console me. I’ll buy that. I’m 22 and already the mother of a toddler, but there’s nothing like burying Daddy to make you want to drag the Dr. Denton’s out of mothballs. Were we normal, my siblings and I would mourn openly, sopping up the flood of sympathy like grief-wracked sponges. Instead, we work the room.

“Dad always said he wanted to go to Hell,” I joke to his old receptionist, “because all his friends would be there.” She smiles at me nervously, not sure how to respond. As she shifts from foot to foot, I decide against regaling her with one of his best vasectomy jokes.

Dad’s driving fast, but I keep up in the car behind him. I’ve never met this dry road, but it knows me. It grips my tires as I navigate the turns. Dad, I think, where the hell are we going? No matter which direction we drive, the sun always lies behind us. It sinks as Dad continues without his headlights. It’s night.

“I’ll be one of the pallbearers,” I tell Uncle Doug at the burial site. I’ve never been one for symbolic gestures, but I feel obligated to carry Dad. How many times has he carried me?

In high school, I had to dissect a cat that looked a lot like my own. “It’s just cells, it’s not a cat,” I’d chant to myself with each cut. Now, clutching the casket’s brass rail, a cold weight shifts inside. “It’s just cells, it’s not a dad.” It doesn’t help.

We carry Dad up a small ridge and rest him on the Astroturf surrounding his new grave. He always preferred playing on natural grass, but this may not be the time to say so. A white-and-green striped awning canopies the audience. If I squint my eyes, this is a party. Maybe I’m deaf, because I can’t hear the comforting words oozing from the minister, three feet away.

Dad must think it’s a shame that all this prime golf course acreage is being squandered on dead people. Were it not for this previous engagement, he’d be teeing off right now. Five days ago, I teased him that golf’s not even a real sport. If I jam my tongue into the roof of my mouth any harder, I’ll choke.

Everyone gets up from ringside, and it’s done. Dad’s sister lights a Pall Mall 100 and smokes to better days. Now it’s time to say goodbye to Jed and all his kin. We head to our cars, pretending there won’t be an empty seat.

Dad reaches the top of a wide, sloping hill, and parks. He gets out and walks steadily to the edge of a freshly dug grave. I try to run to him, stop him, but my legs are marshmallows. The air smells of electrified earth. Dad glances back, “I told you I had to go alone.” I grab for his hand, convinced that I’m strong enough to keep him here. “Dad, please,” I say, my voice raspy and small, “you don’t understand. If you go, you’re never coming back.” He looks at me gently. “No, honey, you don’t understand. I’m already gone.”

 

*A version of this piece appeared in Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood by Cathy Alter.

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Of Books and Bugs

 

If I had a nickel for every time I thought, “Man, library visits would be so much better if they involved freakishly large insects,” I, well, wouldn’t have a nickel.

And yet.

There we were at a special program in the children’s section, sitting six-deep amid squirming preschoolers and watching “the Bug Guy” whip out the kinds of creatures that would surely  crawl all over you during a wicked bout of the DT’s.

“Look at this beautiful girl,” he said while reaching into a container and hoisting out a tarantula the size of a pork chop.

“Isn’t she pretty?”

(A word of caution: Anytime an insect or reptile person mentions a “beautiful” critter, prepare to be horrified.)

The audience collectively lurched backward as the huge spider slowly skittered across the Bug Guy’s forearm.

“Who wants to hold her?”

Silence.

“C’mon! Nobody?” he asked, sounding a little crestfallen.

I looked at my 5-year-old and noticed how scared she seemed. And that’s when I took the plunge.

“I’ll hold her,” I volunteered, hoping a random fire alarm or act of god might intervene.

See, it’s not that I had a burning desire to clutch a handful of hairy legs. It’s just that I didn’t want my daughter to grow up being afraid of spiders.

Even hideously large, disturbingly furry ones.

“She’s very gentle,” the Bug Guy insisted while placing the tarantula in my sweaty, outstretched palm. “She’s only bitten four people.”

How’s that?

Fortunately, she wasn’t feeling nippy at the moment, or particularly vigorous. After lying immobile in my hand for 30 seconds or so—long enough to make a point to my daughter, but not so long that I got the dry heaves—the tarantula was placed safely back in her box.

Confident that I’d set a great example, I sat down on the carpet with my daughter and prepared to enjoy the rest of the presentation purely as a spectator.

“And now,” said the Bug Guy, “let me show you this Madagascar hissing cockroach.”

Picking up what can only be described as a cross between a beetle and a “D” battery, he looked for volunteers to hold the insect.

“Won’t anyone step up?” he asked, exasperated.

Crap.

 

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