The $64,000 Question…and Then Some

We’re barely into the new school year and already I’ve failed spectacularly. It seems I’m a poor tool when it comes to providing the proper balance of parental guidance and just enough of the laissez-faire approach to encourage independent thinking—followed shortly thereafter by independent action.

It all became so painfully clear last week as I attempted to help Thing One and Thing Two tackle a multifaceted fifth grade math project—one that would likely involve and/or require a fair amount of fact-gathering, a smattering of organizational skill and, quite possibly, some flexible wire and a shoebox. And although I found the aforementioned assignment wholly intriguing (not to mention, decidedly fun), a tiny voice inside me screamed because I know myself all too well.

After decades at the helm (overseeing a plethora of term papers and some of the most endearing dioramas on the planet), I recognize how completely unhinged I become when commissioned as the Grand Taskmaster of individuals who are patently unaffected and/or oblivious to the sense of urgency I feel and the palpable wave of panic that consumes me upon learning that THIS hideously large nugget of whateverness has to be done by THAT rapidly approaching due date. Or at least such directives seem like entirely unmanageable edicts.

In truth, the volume of work (and corresponding time frame for completion) is perfectly reasonable—or so my rational-minded husband assures me. However my brood’s collective indifference, evidenced by their vacant stares and an unconcerned blink now and again, fairly exasperates me. And no amount of flailing my arms, shrieking like a banshee or pointing animatedly at the calendar upon our refrigerator makes any difference.

Predictably, the abovementioned math assignment was met with a similar sort of blitheness. “It’s no biggie, Mom. We have it all under control.” If nothing else, it felt familiar. However, the assignment at hand was far more complex than it appeared at first blush. In addition to several exercises that would cleverly test one’s mastery of place value, it posed a unique question: “If you had one million dollars to spend, what would you buy?” encouraging students to explore the possibility (ostensibly, the good fortune) of having an obscene quantity of cash to expend and/or fritter away.

To be fair, it was optional. Students could elect to address it if they felt so inclined. Or not. Naturally, my heathens jumped at the chance to compile a grand and glorious list of that which they’d snatch from store shelves immediately or sooner, no holds barred. “It’ll be a piece of cake, Mom. And FUN! Seriously, you worry too much.” So as I helped them choose which activities they’d prefer to complete, I echoed their enthusiasm and dove headlong into the endeavor, silencing the little voice that invited apprehension and doubt.

But as we began to explore (and painstakingly list) the items of their affection, we soon learned that a million dollars is a ridiculous—almost surreal—sum of money. Granted, we could have simply “bought” a baseball team, a van Gogh masterpiece or a tropical island. But thankfully, and in the true spirit of educational merit, my charges didn’t think of that. Instead, they chose immaculate houses, luxurious cars and outrageously expensive whateverness with which to equip their dream homes. Their lists grew and grew, filling each page to its very borders, capturing the fanciful essence of “what if” indescribably well.

Curiously, and perhaps refreshingly, they began to question not only the incalculable nature of such a sum, but also the frivolity of their desires. The word charity was discussed at length, as was the practicality of adopting eleventy-seven pets from the SPCA. There was even talk of scrapping the whole thing (Oy!) and starting over with a more altruistic mindset.

In the end, the assignment breached the bounds of difficulty, perhaps by design; but it made us all a little wiser in the process—leaving me with the hope that I might not have failed as spectacularly as I once thought.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (probably wrestling with someone’s 5th grade math). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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