My sister, Cyndi, recently accepted the Director of Admissions position for a private college and is simultaneously completing her Master’s degree in Communications. Her current professional and academic accomplishments stand in stark contrast to her early academic years. If not for her basketball career requiring a certain grade point average and both of my parents hounding her, her academic outcome was otherwise dubiously uncertain. This situation led to my father becoming the homework enforcer with Cyndi. Dad was well suited to the task being both exceptionally patient and exceedingly obsessive.
When Cyndi began learning multiplication tables, we lived in a late 1970’s one-level ranch. The family room fireplace was built from roughly chiseled stone, complete with the chic brass fireplace insert with darkly tinted panes and accordion folding doors, and a seating bench made from identical bumpy rough stone. Cyndi stumbled in the 8 and 9’s tables. Our parents became exasperated as their frustration multiplied while Cyndi clearly couldn’t multiply. Dad took to the task like a duck on a june bug. After assigning Cyndi to memorize the 8s and 9s –“or else” –and the “or else” was left ominously vague and undefined (perhaps a sign that even Dad’s patience had its limits)…Dad called her into the family room for a quiz.
Cyndi sat on the parquet wood floor and leaned her back against the front face of the stone hearth bench, directly across the room from Dad on the sectional sofa. She placed her feet flat on the floor and drew her knees up toward her chin. When Dad posed a mathematical problem, say “what is 8 times 9?”, she dropped her head ponderously, massaged her forehead with her thumb and forefinger, bit her lip, and slowly struggled to hesitantly answer “72.” Good! “Now what is 9 times 6?” Again, she looked down in deep concentration.
My mother, always the suspicious one, walked toward Cyndi whereupon Cyndi slightly shifted and seemed to shuffle her hands. “Jo!”, my mother shrieked, “she’s cheating! She has a cheat sheet in her hands!” Busted. The dutiful learning was a ruse, a clumsy act. Cyndi had scribbled a tiny chart on an itty bitty scrap of paper which she concealed between her cupped palms in between her raised knees. Swiftly, Cyndi received the promised “or else”.
Fast forward decades later to my own boys’ third grade year. Samuel demonstrated a strong resistance to spelling homework. His first graded spelling test that lurked in the dark depths of his backpack was so abysmal that I experienced heart palpitations when I found it. He was lucky that he was not home, and that Joel ran interference knowing how I would take that.
After another week or two of poor spelling tests, we called in The Enforcer. The Godfather of Homework: Grandaddy. Grandaddy became Samuel’s worst nightmare. Grandaddy took personal pride in either calling Samuel every night to review spelling words, or just popping in for a chat at the kitchen table where homework is completed. If Grandaddy and Samuel went fishing, they reviewed that week’s words. Samuel, begrudgingly amused at first, figured out this wasn’t a game. Grandaddy really did call or see him every single Monday through Thursday until the Friday tests became routinely excellent. Sarah Grace watched this process quietly as she sat at the opposite end of the table. She absorbed Grandaddy’s dedicated compulsion.
But, once the homework mafia is in your life, it isn’t that easy to ask it to leave. Sarah Grace, unfortunately, started her third grade spelling career in a similar manner. During a family picnic, we told Grandaddy, in Sarah Grace’s presence, that we might need his help again. Sarah Grace’s cornflower blue eyes widened. We later learned that she attempted to convince her teacher not to send home a pre-test with an equally poor showing as Samuel’s, and she told her teacher “she had seen what had happened to Samuel last year and she did not want that to happen to her”.
We joked privately with Grandaddy, “Yes, Sarah Grace, this is your last chance to improve. Or else, you might find a severed stuffed animal horse head in your bed.”