(Another) First Time For Anything

When you have kids, life immediately opens up into a slate of milestones. Because these are our kids we are talking about, every milestone takes on an incredible amount of meaning.

And there are almost too many to keep track of:

–First word
–First steps
–First day of school
–First lost tooth
–First knockdown, dragged out brawl between siblings over some kind of Happy Meal toy that they haven’t even thought about in six months, and which suddenly becomes the center of their universes, and the subject of a UFC-style cage match in the middle of your living room floor.

Yeah, there are some first things that you would really rather forget.

One of the firsts that was huge for me as a kid was first homework. Maybe I saw the kids in the Brady Bunch doing their homework and the thought that seemed cool. As such, I can remember asking my teachers for homework at a very early age. Like in kindergarten. I am sure that Mrs. McNamara thought I was insane for asking for homework when all everyone else wanted was some orange juice and a nap.

My homework dreams, if you will, finally came true in the fourth grade when multiplication tables came into the curriculum. But, that was when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and busy giving away the Panama Canal. Times have really changed since then. My kids started getting homework in kindergarten. My second grader, Maddo, brings home these “common core” math homework pages that leave me as stumped as the SAT did back in high school.

And along with homework, there eventually comes The Project.

This is something that is more than just a page of addition and subtraction equations. It’s more than writing down the names of the books your parents read to you at night and adding a sentence describing what the story was about. (In our case, this is more like us waiting until Sunday night to fill everything in before it’s due Monday morning.) This is something that the kid actually has to put some time into. It may involve long-form writing and creating some kind of “thing” to go on display. And it may also involve parents getting so frustrated at their kid’s whining and procrastination that they just say, “To hell with it!” and do the project themselves just so their kid doesn’t end up turning in a blank page.

In our case, this first project was about our family.

Officially, the teacher called it the “Family Heritage Project.” And on the surface, it was pretty basic: Maddo had to do something about her family. The options were numerous. We could do a family tree. Or a diorama. Or write a report. Interview a family member. Write up a family recipe. Talk about traditions. As long as it had something to do with our bloodline, and we turned it in on time, we would be good.

But, as with anything involving kids goes, nothing is ever as basic as it should be.

For starters, there was the matter of time. The are a few universal laws when it comes to kids and one of them is there is never enough time for anything involving your kids. Try to do something that should take half an hour, like folding that mountain of laundry that’s been in a pile for three days, and your kids will find a way–usually by asking you 27 times for snacks and something to drink–to make the folding experience last longer than a viewing of “Apocalypse Now Redux”.

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What Maddo’s project looked like for the first few weeks after she got the assignment. As you can see, we made a lot of progress.

And then, the day is done, And then the next, and the next and the next. And then those three weeks you thought you had to leisurely help your kid put her project together have turned into the night before the thing is due. Swearing reaches a sound-breaking level and you suddenly are looking under the sofa in a frantic search for a glue stick. Your image of a three-dimensional model depicting your great-great-grandparents apocryphal arrival at Ellis Island, complete with the Statue of Liberty, has turned into a set of six stick figures that look like anyone’s family but yours. You send the kid off the school the next day and brace yourself for the call from teacher in which she gently reminds you that, “Not everyone goes to college, you know?”

One of the suggestions the teacher made was to do a family tree with a report about who was whom along all the branches of our near and extended clan of craziness. Sounded easy enough.

And it was, once we finally got started. One big 2×3-foot sheet of white backing paper was the start. And that’s how it remained for a couple of weeks as we dealt with all the usual kid-related events that take up all your free time. It’s amazing how much of your weekend evaporates when you’re running around to soccer games and taking your six-year-old to five birthday parties over three weeks.

After we waded our way through the month of October, we finally pulled the thing together. My wife grabbed the scissors and cut out a tree and a bunch of leaves upon which we put the name of relatives going back four generations. We have quite the genetic and cultural mix in our family: I did one of those DNA tests from Ancestry and found out I’m about as white as one can get, with 83% of my background coming from Great Britain. No wonder I was a fan of Margaret Thatcher and love Bombay Sapphire and Tonics so much. Pretty much everything else inside of me is from Scandinavia and Western Europe. I’m like a loaf of Wonder Bread minus the crust.

My wife is another pot of stew entirely. She was adopted by a couple whose roots were in Wales (her father) and Japan (her mother). Both of her parents, and in the case of her mom, her grandparents, were born here in the States. But they were both barely 20 years removed for the Old Country generation. Years later, after her folks had died, my wife located her birth parents, who had never married. Her birth mom’s family was all from Switzerland, while her birth dad came from Hawaii. And according to him, he had Irish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Polynesian and about 75 other things in his DNA.

What this did for my wife was that, when she did an Ancestry test, the pie graph that showed her ethnicity nearly ran out of colors. I think the biggest piece of anything for her was Western Europe, and that was at just 23%. What can I say? Her people really got around.

So, armed with all this information, we proceeded to help Maddo put her family tree together. We put names of all of us, and her grandparents, great-grandparents, some aunts, uncles and cousins upon the green leaves and glued them to the tree’s branches. Across the top of the display, we wrote “MY FAMILY” and included a few examples of our roots. We had a photo of me, my wife, my mom, my grandmother and Maddo when she was nine months old from a visit to North Carolina so Maddo could meet her only living great-grandparent. Maddo drew pictures of the flags of Wales and Hawaii. We added an image of our family crest to complete the display.

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And…The Final Product. Done and done.

We couldn’t fit every little bit from every part of Maddo’s family lineage on there. But, our showing was respectable. And anyway, there are always parts of your family story you want to leave out, right? No one needs something like a copy of that one ne’er-do-well uncle’s dishonorable discharge from the army.

Amazingly, we got it all together and in on time. Maddo presented it to her class in her own inimitable way (By that, I mean she acted like a sugar-loaded kid and was goofier than a circus clown), and she got all the credit she could possibly get. Another first was done.

But it won’t be the last: The teacher has already assigned a new project. It’s on explorers. I pushed for Buzz Aldrin, but Maddo had her own idea. And now, we can’t wait to see what Maddo does with her take on Sacagawea.

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