My 13-year-old son, Christian, is typical of many middle school boys. He does his homework every afternoon at the kitchen table, calling out for assistance as needed from mom, dad or older brother. But something mysterious happens the following morning. As likely as not, the homework doesn’t get turned in.
The worksheets – always worksheets – that manage to get turned in and graded are returned home on Friday and saved in a big box at the foot of my bed. A big box. I decided to weigh the stack of worksheets. That act brought to mind the following piece I wrote for an unpublished series of essays.
My wife is a deeply sentimental woman. This trait manifests itself in various ways. She works hard to maintain an inordinately large network of close friends scattered near and far along the West Coast. Her office in a large Bay Area hospital is a shrine to our family. It includes scores of photos and artwork, a digital slide show of our children, and knickknacks collected from the many vacations we’ve taken. At home, my wife is a saver, not a collector. She saves things that have emotional significance to her. That very broad category would include our kids’ schoolwork.
My wife is not a neat person. She truly intends to organize the things she saves, but they invariably end in piles. These piles accumulate in various spots in our large home and stay there until my German-Scottish-Irish ancestry can take it no more. I leap into action, gather piles into larger piles, shove them into boxes, label the boxes and then transport them to our storage locker where they can rest undisturbed, out of my sight.
I went into one of my periodic organizational frenzies in the early fall of 2005. It was a stressful time for me. I was worried about the educational consulting business I was starting. I was worried about the finances of my 84-year-old mother as we burned through her assets in an attempt to qualify for Medi-Cal. I was worried about losing interest in my second and final year of course work for a PhD in education. Most importantly, I was worried about my 6-year-old son, Timothy, who was starting first grade in a school district beset by financial, performance and pedagogical difficulties. The California Department of Education had in fact taken it over the year before. Improvement seemed decades away. Solvency was a pipe dream.
On an unseasonably warm morning I came across a pile of completed worksheets on my wife’s bedroom dresser. It was my son’s homework from first grade. My wife had told me that she wanted to save all of my son’s work, but I didn’t believe her until that moment. I went downstairs and found another pile on the seldom-used dining room table. I looked around the kitchen and found a huge pile of work atop the refrigerator. I put them together. The stack was nine inches high. I carried it to the bathroom and put it on the scale. It weighed 6 pounds.
My son had just completed the 200th day of his education in an American public school. We celebrated his 100th day by giving him 100 pennies and 100 books. I celebrated his 200th day by thumbing through 6 pounds of worksheets.
There are 800 students in my son’s K-5 school, which, according to test scores, retention rates, suspensions and the usual lifeless data by which we judge schools, is the best in our district. Each of these kids will spend more than a 1,000 days in the elementary grades before moving on to middle school. If they produce 3 pounds of worksheets per 100 days, the school will be responsible for the creation 12 tons of worksheets. That’s one school. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 4.8 million kids in California elementary schools.
We’re going to need more trees.
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