I set the war room table for the arrival of a small temperamental tyrant — there are coveted colored pencils, various papers, favorite nourishing snacks. This dictator is actually a decent kid. He says please and thank you. Loves his grandparents. But homework agitates the tight ship of authoritarian lifestyle. After school time used to be reading and then snack and then outside playtime and dinner. For the last 6 months, homework has been slid into this equation. It’s an insurgent.
I pick the backpack up from where it lies on the floor. “Let’s see what you got today.”
He sees the war table. “Can we read?”
Cunning bastard. He knows I value reading. “Not today buddy.” There are insurgents in the Capitol. “Come sit.”
There is a heavy sigh and I lose my sympathy. Would I sigh if my boss set out donuts and Starbucks and let me do the report in colored pencil? I PTSD back to the team building weekend — there were donuts. Coffee. Colorful erase board markers. I shudder remembering the matching t-shirts.
“I know this sucks. Life sucks. We all muscle through and then we can relax and have fun.”
“Why? That’s dumb.”
Don’t fall for it. He’s not Camus.
My husband falls for the existential line of questioning and after an hour the colored pencils have only been used to make a flowchart of how best to obtain a sailboat and live life at sea. But I hate fish.
“That doesn’t matter right now. What matters is,” I pick out today’s homework sheet from the tattered binder, “That you rewrite this list of Ohio Facts.”
I pinch my lips tightly together and relax my eye muscles so they can’t make em roll. That’s right. What matters here — on earth, right now — is not that you read a book you enjoy. It’s that you memorize Ohio Facts because, otherwise, how will you find purpose in life? You must know which 8 Presidents were from Ohio and learn why their facial hair has come back into fashion.
The guttural noise he makes signals temporary defeat. I have him now. I pull out the chair, tuck it in, open a snack.
Yeah, I open it for him. Listen, before you tell me I’m part of the problem, do you know what it’s like to have a confrontation with a 10-year-old boy? It’s like fighting a terrified feral kitten. It scratches and hides and then pathetically meows and if you’re vaccinating it that’s one thing, but when you’re just trying to get your kitten to write some Ohio Facts, each one in a different color. . . “Wait what seriously?”
“Nothing. Here. Start with red.” The color of rage and Ms. Marchette’s blood. Breathe. Insurgents.
He writes the first one. He starts the second. In red.
“Stop. Erase a bit. New color.”
“What?!? No. I wrote the name already.”
Right. Who cares. I begin to chuckle. Oh, now. I know who cares. I once naively let this sort of mistake head back into school. ‘So what?’ I’d said. ‘Wrong color. Big deal.’ And then it came back to be redone.
I hand my tyrant kitten the purple pencil and remember magical days when Harold and his Purple crayon used to dance across our television and imaginations. It was a time when I believed a child’s deep inner life was all important. That and giving him unconditional love. Ah, happy days.
He remembers to write about William McKinley in green. I use my phone to pull up a picture. William McKinley is snarling in every photo and portrait, “Look at this dude. He’s mad you have to write facts.”
The overlord smiles and gets the yellow fact written. Yellow on white is unreadable, so I check the paper. It says nothing about yellow restrictions or readability and we have 6 facts to go. Then it happens. He goes boneless and slides down the chair, picks up green to go with the yellow pencil and begins tapping a drum beat on the edge of the kitchen table.
“Come on buddy. Sit up.” I wonder if he needs some alone time to focus and to stop living into the role of tyranny. “I’ll be in the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher, if you need me.”
Emptying the dishwasher, see, because life is always going to be stupid. Humans invented paper plates. We could eat out of the crock pot the meal was cooked in, but NO. I have microwave safe plates from Kohls that turn to molten lava in the microwave, and we use them day in and day out because life is Ohio-facts stupid.
I only empty half the dishwasher before I pull out my phone and start looking for local homeschool groups. By the time I am reminded that they are all mildly insane anti-vaxxers and Jesus freaks, a good 10 minutes has passed. I finish the dish job and peek around the corner. There is only one new color on the page.
“Dude. What have you been doing?”
“I don’t know.” He’s meowing pathetically. “Can you sit with me?”
I don’t need cat scratch fever. “Okay. But get this done. It’s just a list. You really don’t need me here.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Oh shit. My autocrat has glossy eyes. “Don’t be sorry.” I gently lift his curls. “Just get a new color and write about William Howard Taft. Here. Use black.” The color of Ms. Marchette’s soul.
I check the phone and my suspicions are correct. Dad comes home at any moment. He is my despot’s ally, a third party agitator to my war room scenario. He’s all, “What’s with the colors and cursive? Why isn’t he typing this up? Where did Ms. Marchette receive her degree?”
“You’ve got 4 more to go.” Meant to be said encouragingly. Evidently not.
“Oh look!” At the fucking bunny. “Annie Oakley is from Ohio.”
“Who’s Annie Oakley?”
“That is a great question for you to ask Ms. Marchette tomorrow.”
I get a blank piece of paper to slide under the line he’s writing. Three Left. Two Left. One Left. I sit back and exhale. I hear the garage door go up.
“Can I read now?”
“Ye . . . Wait one sec.”
I don’t know why I looked. I shouldn’t have looked on the back. Times tables. There’s a quiz on 7s tomorrow.
He’s thinking, the husband comes in. “Dad, what’s 7X4?”
I glare at my instigator. “Don’t help. How about 7×7?”
“I don’t know 7s that well.”
“Well, tomorrow is the 7s quiz. You need to practice.”
Husband: “Isn’t this what calculators are for?”
I begin to google scientific studies on the importance of learning math facts, the results come up, few and far between, but my fingers are doing something else. I watch my subconscious open a new tab and type “45 ft. sailboats, ocean worthy.” And then another, “Docking fees, Key West.”
Husband asks, “We going out for dinner?”
“Can you thaw the salmon?”
Husband says, “Sweet! I love salmon.”
But the kitty tyrant whines, “I hate fish,” without irony.
“Then you better learn the answer to 7×6.”