Homework Wars

by Kersley Fitzgerald

My son, JT, is flunking history.

It's ironic, actually. He's learning about the Civil War — which happens to be my husband's favorite part of his most favorite subject. But JT's afraid of essay projects, so he just tends to ignore them.

We were talking about it again at lunch today, when my husband came to eat with me and a couple coworkers. In high school, we learned, our GPAs ranged from 3.4 to 4.0+, to include my 3.97 (One B! One!)

A coworker asked me if I got stressed over JT's grades since I'd been such an over-achiever.


Because I just don't get it. How can you not know a noun from a verb? How can you give me 6 x 8 in your head one minute and not know what 1 + 2 is the next? To help him learn about essays, I once had him write a paragraph on a Gilligan's Island episode. I suggested the main point of his paragraph might be that the show illustrated what happens when money comes between friends — a theme that completely went over his head.

"But Gilligan didn't tell me that, mom. You did!"

I do get stressed. And I do get anxious. And I hate it that some days the only thing that switches grunting and groaning and crying into happy "Let's do this!" is me losing my head and yelling. What's up with that?

So I email his principal and say, "Theoretically speaking, what would happen if a seventh-grade student flunked history?" And she talks me down and reassures me that he will click, and I remember once again why I can't homeschool and we're both much better in her capable hands.

Here are some thoughts that I've worked through over the last few years of homework wars.

• Think about where your child is developmentally. JT is a boy and is one of the youngest in his class. I can't compare him to my office-mate's daughter who breezes through the same classes. It's not fair to him. I need to acknowledge where he is and then work to get him a little further along.

• Remember the long game. When we switched to this school last fall and realized how hard it would be, I made a plan: seventh and eighth grade were for figuring this thing out. I consciously didn't expect all B's and above until ninth. Now I'm not even sure about ninth, but when I remind myself these are training years, I get a lot less anxious.

• My office-mate with the genius daughter also has a not-genius older son. His strategy is brilliant: ace what you're good at and do what you can with the rest. For JT, he is capable of acing his spelling tests. And we will drag him kicking and screaming through his essays. That will go a long way in making up for the bigger tests where he doesn't do so well. Good grief, last night we had a major celebration for a 78 in a science mid-term.

• As far as nitty-gritty-will-you-please-sit-down-and-stop-kicking-the-dog-and-don't-eat-raisins-off-the-floor! homework time, I've found there are a few things that are helpful:

   - Food first. It took me too long to get this one because I was always a walk-in-the-door-get-my-books-out girl. Food and a half-hour show. Blood-sugar and routine.

   - If he gets frustrated and bangs his head or pulls his hair, I have to kiss it because "My poor baby got hurt!" The mix of embarrassment and positive attention snaps him out of it.

   - If he says, "I'm stupid," or some other derivative, I get to lick his face. He hates that, but he giggles enough to get a better attitude back.

   - If it's really bad and he's glazing over, I have him take a break and practice trumpet or take a bath. Works wonders.

   - Every sigh means ten push-ups. My friend with the fourth-grader has him do squat-thrusts. I can't stand loud, sudden noises, so when he pounds the counter or slams a book, I'll often use this one.

   - If he's really whining, sometimes I'll challenge him to whine more, jump up and down, growl, and yell. Get that negative energy out.

   - Remind him that we are here to help him pass his classes. We are not bad ogres who want him to suffer. Also remind him that the next step in the sequence of events is me completely losing it. Lately that's actually been working.

   - Remind him that he is in charge of his attitude. He doesn't have to be a slave to his feelings; he can choose to have a good attitude, and we've seen him do it.

Of course, the most obvious step isn't on there — prayer. Because it's easy to separate "real life" from the spiritual, and I'm a pickle-head and forget. We really should be starting with that. Sounds a little silly ("Father God, please help JT understand the difference between fungi and bacteria and remember what lichen is …"), but God doesn't mind silly. It's part of our lives, so it's important to Him.

Bear in mind that neither my husband nor I have this down by any stretch of the imagination. After a long day of work, it is a struggle to face a 65-pound 12-year-old and his oral presentation of the Battle of Gettysburg. It's dizzying to know he's second-chair and has a 110% in band, and killed it as the White Rabbit in his school's performance of Alice in Wonderland but can't remember to turn in an English assignment he did in class!

That leads me to my last reminder: he is an amazing kid with incredible skills I can only dream of. As I told my coworker, "I got all A's, but he can talk to store clerks." He doesn't know a stranger. He can make anyone feel at ease. When he started this new school in seventh grade, we knew he'd have no problem fitting in and making friends. There are so many things I don't have to teach him — and they happen to be the things I couldn't if I tried. He is not like me academically. But that's okay. I can teach him how the nervous system works; he can teach me how to love others. It's a fair trade.

Kersley Fitzgerald is a former Air Force officer, former Air Force wife, and current editor of Got Questions’ blog site, Blogos.org. She and her husband adopted JT from Thailand when he was 18 months old. He has spent the ensuing years teaching her more about God than any theology course could.

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