A couple of weeks ago, Zoe got a letter in the mail notifying her that she had been nominated for an academic award for eighth grade, her final year of middle school. She got all excited, called all of her friends and her dad, told me to note it on our all-mighty calendar, contemplated what to wear and immediately tossed the letter aside on our kitchen island because in Zoe’s world, everything magically grows a pair of legs and walks itself to wherever it’s supposed to be. I didn’t want to kill her moment so I said nothing about the island looking like a landfill. Instead, I congratulated her, got all teary eyed and took a moment to fully process the fact that Zoe was finished with middle school and we had both lived to tell about it. There were more than a couple of moments when that very thing was doubtful at best, when it was a crap shoot as to whether Zoe would kill me by stabbing a #2 pencil through my eye or I would kill her simply by nagging her to death. All things considered, I considered myself to be better armed. There were years and years of this struggle, this mental onslaught known as HOMEWORK HELL.
Zoe and I have always butted heads but never more so than over the issue homework. Well, except for chores. And responsibility. And allowances. And cell phone usage. And basic respect. And … nevermind. Suffice it to say that if I had a dollar for every minute we fought over homework through the years, I’d be driving my newly liposuctioned self, complete with perfect boob job, Jimmy Choo shoes and Coach purse, all over town in my 2009 Lamborghini Gallardo. Yes, I could have my chauffeur drive me around but I just sent him on holiday because not only am I filthy rich, I’m nice to boot.
Ever since she was in my womb and refused to come out when she was supposed to, Zoe has been pigheaded stubborn. Ever since the dawn of time, I have been a control freak. These two personality traits do not mesh well on the best of days, but when situated on opposing sides of a kitchen table with only a piece of homework separating them, they bode nothing but a bloody carnage ahead.
The topic of homework has always been a tumultuous one between Zoe and me and I always approached it with trepidation. Would she jump in enthusiastically and have fun with it or would I have to drag her by her scalp and tie her to the table and staple her eyelids open and her mouth shut?
I tried to make the entire process as painless as possible the minute she got home from school. The routine was always the same. She’d come in and I’d empty out her book bag and review the items in her take-home folder at the kitchen table, anxious to find out all about her world away from home. She would get herself a snack and join me and I would commence the tedious and arduous process of eliciting the smallest shred of information from her about her day without resorting to needles full of truth serum.
Me: How was school today?
Shrug shoulders, no response.
Me: Did you learn anything today?
Me: Oh. Well then, what did you do today?
Me: Nothing? Really?
Me: You just sat all day? Doing nothing?
Me: I see. Well, who did you play with today?
Zoe: I can’t remember.
Me: You can’t remember? Is that a boy or a girl?
Rolls eyes, ignores me.
Me: Ok then, did you read a story?
Me: Did you do a craft?
Me: How was lunch?
Shrug shoulders, no response.
Me: You did eat, right?
Zoe: I don’t know.
Me: What do you mean, you don’t know? Either you did or you didn’t. Which one was it?
Me: No? You didn’t eat? Why not?
Zoe: I don’t remember.
Me: So, let me get this straight. You did nothing today, you learned nothing, you played with nobody who may or may not be a boy or a girl, you didn’t read anything, you didn’t create anything and you didn’t eat anything. Do I have that right?
Zoe: What are we having for dinner?
It didn’t matter what questions I asked, I always got the same answers. Nothing, nobody, I don’t know, I don’t remember, no, no, no, no, NO ALREADY SO STOP TALKING. Any dreams I had of sitting in our immaculate kitchen with a plate full of warm, home baked chocolate chip cookies and a glass of cold milk, having an animated discussion with my first born about her hours away from me were blown to hell as soon as the first question passed my lips. Not that my kitchen was ever immaculate and the last time I baked a cookie that didn’t burn was never. And milk makes my intestines rot. But you get the idea.
It got to the point that I had to contact her teachers to ensure that Zoe was actually present in class and confirm that she was alert and breathing because judging from her answers, I was suspicious that maybe she got to school, hung up her coat and book bag and proceeded to immediately collapse in a catatonic heap on the carpet and remain there, unresponsive, for the entire day. Every day. And didn’t the other children find it annoying to have to constantly hop over her carcass during recess?
Every time I slipped a note into her folder to ask the teacher if Zoe was doing OK in class, I held my breath, wondering whether I would get a flourescent pink sheet returned to me, advising me that while they really liked Zoe, maybe it would be prudent if we sent her to a school for kids who preferred to play coma all day long. But every time I asked, I was assured that Zoe was an active participant in class, a very intelligent little girl with a nice group of friends who did, in fact, eat lunch and was not starving by any means. I was also repeatedly told that she listened to instructions very carefully and that she politely asked pertinent questions and was receptive to constructive criticism.
I couldn’t have been more shocked than if Nate did NOT have a lobotomy yet still dropped the TV remote in my lap and told me to watch whatever I wanted.
Were we talking about the same Zoe? About so high with brown eyes and short hair and bossy?
The same child that foamed at the mouth if I questioned one of her math problems? The one that would yell at me because I dared to wait longer than two seconds before responding to one of her demands? The one that would roll her eyes and shout that I was doing it ALL WRONG when I drew a graph to show her how to problem solve because DRAWINGS ARE STUPID, JUST HELP ME ANSWER THE QUESTION ALREADY.
The same child who would ask me to check her homework only to become agitated to the point of spontaneous combustion if I pointed out a mistake or made her do it over because I couldn’t tell in what language it was written?
The girl that would get frustrated and scream and turn all shades of red because I made her work out a problem instead of just giving her the answer LIKE ALL GOOD MOMS ARE SUPPOSED TO DO. The same little girl that would explode in a fit of rage because I wasn’t omniscient and needed to actually read a paragraph to help her with a comprehension question?
Our battles over homework escalated over the years to the point where I felt it necessary for my own mental health to discuss the situation with her fifth grade teacher. As soon as she got on the phone, I wasted no time in breaking down in tears and telling her what all had been going on and how I was one step away from a commitment hearing and that if something didn’t change soon, my head was going to explode off my body and ricochet around the room and possibly hurt someone and how was I going to review Zoe’s homework without a head and then Zoe would never learn what she was supposed to learn and what kind of mother would I be, going around headless while my child slowly became dumber than dirt?
After I stopped whining and complaining, her teacher gave me the best piece of advice that I have ever received from a teacher, aside from how to say “Get your scummy hands off me, maggot” in French. And that was … back off, leave Zoe alone and don’t help her with homework.
So I said, excuse me? Isn’t that against the law? Or one of the deadly sins or something?
And she said, give her space, let her fend for herself, let her sink or swim on her own.
And I said, have you lost your ever loving mind?
Because this teacher obviously did not know who she was dealing with. And by “who”, I mean me. I had spent close to forty years at that point honing my skills as the BE ALL AND END ALL of control freaks and it is against our code to allow an incorrect answer or a messy essay to become “official” by crossing the perimeter of a teacher’s desk. How could I go against every natural instinct I had and allow homework that I knew to be entirely wrong or blatantly sloppy or, worse yet, not even reviewed by me, to be placed in an “IN” box? It might result in a bad grade and then the heavens might open up and rain down giant pus-filled tarantulas to crawl all over me and explode in my face. Why not just strap me to a chalk board and run your nails up and down it with surround sound for a week while dropping rabid cockroaches down my throat? Because I think I might be able to handle those two scenarios better than simply standing by and watching my daughter hand in something that was wrong, messy or unseen by me. I know my limits.
And she just looked at me as she would any lunatic who had clearly smoked too much crack that afternoon and she tried in the nicest way possible to tell me to get over myself. Because HELLO, a bad grade would not be the end of life as I knew it. I would survive it and more importantly, Zoe would survive it and she’d learn from it and life would go on.
And I said NO NO NO and she said YES YES YES. And I said OH MY GOD, I CAN’T DO THIS, IT WILL KILL ME. And she said GET A GRIP ON REALITY YOU CRAZY IDIOT, THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.
And after several minutes of self absorption, it dawned on me that perhaps she was right. Not the crazy idiot part but the part about it not being about me. Maybe it was all about Zoe and her ability and capacity to learn and letting her deal with the consequences of her actions. I’m all about consequences but maybe it was time to step aside and let someone else dish them out and take the heat for awhile. I was getting tired of the heat and I needed a break. So why not let someone else be called THE WORST MOM ON EARTH? Why not share the the joy?
So I backed off and kept my mouth shut when Zoe did her homework and only helped her if she asked politely and immediately left her on her own at the first sign of a tantrum. And when I noticed her handwriting looking as if she had a seizure behind my back, I just gagged myself with a dirty towel and locked myself in the garage and screamed within the privacy of the trunk of my car. I left Zoe alone, even if it meant that she wrote a full paragraph about the “how” when it was supposed to be about the “why” and just slapped some cortizone cream on the hives that broke out all over my body. And when she wrote incomplete or run-on sentences or dangled participles all over the damn place, I slammed my face into a sink full of ice water and tried not to let my eyes bleed. (And yes, I know I’m guilty of these very things in this blog but I’m considered middle-aged and have earned the right to run on and on and on and dangle whatever I want wherever I want so let’s agree to not even go there, okay?)
I will forever be grateful for that teacher. Because the same little girl that would have gladly given me an appendectomy with her compass stumbled a few times but ultimately wound up with straight A’s in fifth grade, as well as sixth, seventh and eighth. She made High Honor Roll with Distinction every single semester in her three years of middle school.
And on awards night, she earned three honors for Academic Diligence and Excellence in English, Science and Math. In the meantime, she earned her Girl Scout Silver Award. She presently has three credits towards high school and is signed up for enriched and advanced courses in ninth grade. And to top it all off, she’s still talking to me.
It took me awhile but I learned to let go and watch my child fall and pick herself up and go on. I watched her make mistakes and learn from them. And I learned a lot about her ability to learn and my capacity to hang on.
Congratulations, Zoe! I am so proud of you I could just burst. I knew you could do it. I just didn’t know if I could. And even though you depend entirely too much on spell check and have not yet started the two summer assignments due the first day of high school, I’m going to shut my mouth and not say a word.
Nope, not one word. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
If you need me, I’ll be in the trunk rolling around in some extra strength cortizone cream.