My Homework Travails

Creative excuses from an 11 year old not named Bart

By Julia Sylva
Published on LatinoLA: January 13, 2004

My Homework Travails

Helping my eleven-year-old son with his homework was one of the most exasperating experiences in my life. Not only did he challenge me at every step of the way by concocting irrational stories and feigning illness and pain, he also forgot to bring home the book that he was writing a book report about (which required specific page references).

If you are wondering what my son?s name is . . . it is not Bart. Keep wondering.

My homework travails began when my son came home with his ?progress? report, which indicated a ?D? in literature arts. As a concerned parent, I immediately called the school and set up an appointment with his English teacher. I discovered that the teacher was most sincere about teaching my son the art of literature arts.

The teacher told me that the reason why my son was getting a failing grade is because he never turns in his homework. This was a great shock to me because, prior to this ?progress? report, every evening I would ask my son if he had completed his homework. His answer was always a decisive, non-evasive, and determined ?Yes.? I had no reason to doubt him?

Since that eventful meeting with my son?s teacher, we have implemented a change of strategy regarding homework. I am now the homework monitor. This strategy was actually recommended by the teacher. I get to inspect my son?s homework and his notebook organization every day.

And then I remembered my husband?s desk and I realized how much my son was like my him. Surprisingly, my husband is always able to find the right document within a reasonable amount of time. (No, my husband?s name is not Homer).

My first assignment as the homework monitor was to oversee my son?s book report about a book he had read in class. He was to draft three pre-drafts and one final version of the report; all drafts were to be turned in with the final. My job was to review the drafts and provide editorial comments?in red ink.

Unbelievably, my son?s first draft was completely and unequivocally illegible. Now, I know that he is capable of writing a neat sentence, but not when he has to complete an hour writing project in five minutes; or, more precisely, a three-week writing assignment in one day. (Needless to say, my son is the epitome of procrastination.)

Upon review of my son?s first draft of the book report, I respectfully requested that he redraft it so that I could decipher the words and the letters. He insisted that it was not possible to redraft the first draft because the assignment required that he draft only three drafts and a final; he could not get away with writing four drafts and a final--his teacher would get upset. Besides, his first draft was legible to him. After I assured him that I would take the responsibility if his teacher got upset for redrafting a first draft, he conceded.

My son sat at the table redrafting the report, still whining and whimpering that it was a ?waste? of his ?time? to redraft the first draft. After his tirade, he focused on the task at hand. We finally had a legible first draft. Now the real work began.

As I read my son?s first legible draft, I could not understand what he was writing about. The written material had no substance, no meaning, no beginning, no end, and much repetition.

Each time I asked him what he meant by this or that sentence, he would reply: ?Mom, you could never understand the book, it had a very complicated plot.?

My eyes widened, then my brows furrowed.

I said, "Well, dear, that is the whole purpose of this exercise, for you to tell me about the book without my having to read it." (No, my name is not Marge.)

The second draft was produced with more of my son?s objections, challenges, and frustrations, but he was a little more settled and focused. He was now able to articulate the theme, the plot, and the characters in the book. And I was able to understand the report more clearly. This is progress.

The third draft was even more of an improvement. He was finally getting into the groove of the assignment; he opened up about the genre, setting, and meaning of the book. But, in my new role, I was relentless. I inquired specifically for more details about the book. Each time, he told me something new and interesting, and became noticeably excited about discussing the characters in the book. He actually appeared to be enjoying the task at hand, but he would never admit it to me.

When he would remember something interesting and intriguing about the book, I encouraged him to add it to the report. He quickly responded: ?Darn, I should not have told you about that part of the book", ?Now I have to write about it?, ?It really is not that important? or ?I don?t think the teacher wants us to get into this or that detail.? After extensive negotiation, he ultimately added the new material to the book report. This report began to take on some creativity, form, and substance. Hmmm, we may have some hidden talent here.

After my son finished the fourth draft, which was really his third legible draft, he was ready to produce the final report, which had to be typewritten. He begged and cajoled me to type the report for him. He even offered to forego his allowance for the week as a form of compensation for me. I was not persuaded; I gently responded: ?No.?

He was left alone, at the computer, for his long and lonely journey -- typing his book report.

Initially, he pecked at each key with his forefinger and got frustrated after one sentence. He got up, got an ice cream from our freezer, ate his ice cream, and went back to the computer. He was able to finish typing three more sentences (whew! -- one whole paragraph!). After this painstaking accomplishment, he was ready to quit; he called it a day. He complained that he could not type anymore; his fingers were ?sore? and ?ached from so much typing?. (Poor baby, he developed carpel tunnel syndrome after just fifteen minutes of typing.)

But after I sternly told him that he was not going anywhere until he finished his report, he was able to miraculously overcome his newly acquired ailment and complete a well-written, thoughtful, three-page typewritten report.

I know the final product is something I was proud of, the teacher was proud of, and, more importantly, my son was proud of. Mazel Tov!

My homework travails were an experience I would not trade for anything. It gave me an opportunity to spend quality time with my son on a topic I love?writing. I was able to teach him how he could enjoy writing too. I believe he was able to grow as a human being and discover that literature arts was not all that bad, it was actually ?kind of cool.?

Since our first experience at writing reports together, my son?s skills have improved tremendously. He has gotten better at writing and his grades have improved. He is able to take the initiative to write a first draft creatively and legibly, with form and substance.

I have become so optimistic that I am seriously considering suggesting to my son that he publish his own book. Of course, if he were to write a book about creative excuses for homework (?the dog ate my homework? is pass?), I reserve the right to exercise my parental right of censorship. That is, unless he wants to pursue a career as a standup comedian.

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved

About Julia Sylva:
Julia Sylva is an attorney in private practice in Los Angeles and a working mom. She may be reached at julia@juliasylva.com

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