JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Last night, I stayed up very late (or early) because Youngest was doing A Project. Those of you who aren't parents may not recognize the unholy terror that rises in the breast when you hear those words. Those who are may be having PTSD-like flashbacks to pouring baking soda into a funnel.
We all remember doing A Project as a kid. The sugar-cube igloo, the papier-mâché volcano, the poster illustrating the life cycle of a butterfly, complete with a real cocoon found on a bush. First off, let's posit this: no Project ever taught you anything you couldn't learn from reading a paragraph in an encyclopedia (1). I learned more about volcanoes from watching Tommy Lee Jones tracking lava flow down La Cienega Boulevard than I ever did from making a clay model of Mount Vesuvius (2). I know about Iroquois family structure because I read a book about it, not because I made a model of a long house.(3)
Reminiscing about the Projects of your youth, you will see a shadowy figure in the background. Look closer. Is it coming into focus? Yes, it's your mother or father (4). It was, in fact, your mother who tore 500 strips of newspaper and dunked them in runny wheat paste until her fingers turned gray that enabled you to get an A on that dinosaur model. It was your father who found that moth cocoon in the back yard and told you it belonged to a butterfly. It was MY mother who sat up until 2am cutting out pictures of flowers from magazines (5) for a poster whose content and purpose I can't recall. Pistils and stamen, maybe? The parts of which, by the way, I still can't identify. One of my kids asked me one time in the garden and I said, "All that with the pollen is the flower's naughty bits."
Yes, much of the real work of The Project is done by good old Mom or Dad. I'm not talking about helicopter parents who design posters that look as if they should be hanging in the MOMA. Even those of us who believe our kids ought to be the moving force behind The Project still wind up as unheralded laborers. It's like admiring, say, Vita Sackville-West's garden. The creative design is hers, sure, but there still wouldn't be anything to look at without some poor old sod digging in 500 pounds of manure by hand. You, the parent, are the poor old sod in this case (6).
Why is this? Mostly, its due to the Universal Law of School Projects, which states a child will tell its parents about a project no more than 24 hours before it is due (7). The Universal Law also states there will be at least one ingredient to the project that will require a trip to Michael's or Jo-Ann's (8), or, if your child is older, a dash to Staples to replace your color ink cartridges (9). Because your kid will have to do five hours of work between the time he told you about The Project and bedtime - not to mention his other homework for the next day - you inevitably wind up doing the scut work while he does his math sheets.
How has this worked out in my own life as a parent? Well, there was the time Youngest came up with a magnificently creative Project on Oskar Schindler, featuring a life-sized cut out of Schindler with the name of every person he saved from the Holocaust written inside the outline of his body. Schindler was truly worthy of being recognized as Righteous Among Nations, because he saved hundreds and hundreds of people, and The Smithie (bless her heart) and I wrote down every one of their names. By hand.
Or there was the time The Sailor had to collect ten different leaves for a leaf and seed board (10). Unfortunately, it was autumn, and Ross and I still worked in our office jobs, meaning we and the children got home well after the sun had already set. Guess who spent an hour casing the yard with a flashlight to find suitable specimens? (11) Or, for each of my three kids, the traditional State O' Maine trifold board presentation, featuring lobsters, blueberries, fish, pine trees and chickadees. (12) Or the Smithie's dioramas - I had a entire room in my barn dedicated to saving cardboard boxes for dioramas. They always required small plastic figurines (13), paint (14) and some three-dimensional sky element like cotton ball clouds or glow in the dark stars (15). Then I had to save them as precious mementos for about a decade until the Smithie forgot about them and I could throw them out.
I admit, I was surprised when Youngest told me she had a Project (16). My exact words were, "For God's sake, you're a junior in high school taking AP classes! Why are you wasting your time making a poster?" It's a very nice one, however, with thirty French sentences about Rwanda neatly written in the colors of the national flag along an outline of the country (17). It was good to know I could step up my Project game when necessary - and all I had to do was help with a couple verbs and give my opinion on the graphic design. This had better be the last one, however (18).
How about you, dear readers? Tell us about the posters, papier-mâché and potting clay of your Projects past and present!
(1) For younger readers, an encyclopedia was like Wikipedia, but set down on paper. It also served as a decorative accent on your parents' teak Danish modern bookcase.
(2) Also awesome? The 1959 Last Days of Pompeii. History AND vulcanology in one! You really can't beat Steve Reeves in a skimpy toga.
(3) It was a bitchin' model, though. I used real bark and moss and had a little plastic deer standing right outside. Which, when I think about it, was not a safe place for the deer. Oh, well.
(4) If the Shadowy Figure is not your mother or father, you may be a character in a dark psychological thriller.
(5) In the olden days, children, we had no printers at home, and our parents had to stockpile magazines as a sort of graphic image library. You were allowed to cut up any magazine except National Geographic, which was a Serious Reference that you kept on the bookcase, cf. note (1)
(6) And in so many others.
(7) In many cases, the notification of The Project happens at 8pm, right after you ask your child if his homework is all done. "Oh," he will say. "I forgot. I have to make a poster labeling all the parts of a starfish. Can you get me some colored pencils and a poster board?"
(8) It doesn't matter how much craft material you have stored in a closet. If you have crepe paper, your child will need ribbons. If you have buttons, she will need tiny mirrors. If you have little plastic animals, she will need little felt animals.
(9) Because he needs 20 color pictures representing the cultural life of Senegal. Which you will wind up finding, downloading, cropping, printing and trimming. I think the magazine thing was easier.
(10) Trip to Michael's for rigid foam board.
(12) I wanted to include double-wides and meth teeth, but Ross wouldn't let me.
(15) CVS or Michael's depending on if it was a daytime or nighttime scene.
(16) When I dropped her off at the high school yesterday, The Project was due today.
(17) Poster board and markers from Wal-Mart. I was in the area.
(18) Because at the start of the school year I threw out all the other materials I had been saving. She's a junior! Taking AP classes!