MY PARENTS rarely, if ever, sat around the dining-room table doing homework with us. Homework was our responsibility, getting good grades was our duty, and teachers were the ultimate authority.
The hands-off approach, I suppose, had to do with the fact that my parents didn't speak English. They couldn't very well dictate spelling words to us, as I religiously do with my children. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, we all went on to college and professions.
Yet today I find myself spending incredible chunks of time on my children's homework. Much of it is devoted to the dreaded long-term assignment that goes by different names: project, term paper, research essay.
Term papers take over
When your child comes home with such an assignment, Ibid will become your middle name, the library your second home, and you will question the merit of his or her early education. ("Don't you know how to spell?") If before the assignment you had any free time to, say, call your favorite great aunt in the early evening, you will not be able to do that -- or anything else -- for several days. That's because the entire household will be in turmoil over the subject "The Important Battles of World War II," and every inch of counter space will be filled with books.
That's right, books. They're essential. Sure, the Internet is wonderful and CD-ROM encyclopedias are convenient, but there is no replacing books -- their heft, portability and reliability. And best of all, you can flip the pages at your own speed, instead of waiting interminably for some hourglass to vaporize on the computer screen. And books are available, free, in the local public library. If you get there first.
See, once you've purchased index cards and changed every dollar you possess for coins to use in the copying machine, you will discover that at least seven of your child's classmates have chosen the same topic. And their mothers, so much more organized than you, ferried them to the library yesterday. The shelves are bare.
At this point you punt. You persuade your kid to change topics, to something preferably so obscure that no other student has thought about it, but still not so obscure as to have escaped the notice of some author and publisher. Or you rush to the bookstore and invest a small fortune on books your child will never open again.
As every school project veteran knows, all term-paper and project assignments come with different due dates -- one for the outline, one for the research, one for the rough draft, and so on. That's because teachers, many of whom are parents, know that children think of waiting to the last minute as an inalienable right. Disregard any whining. Stick to the dates.
My kids try to meet the deadlines, but each is marked with a flurry of activity over the 24 hours preceding it. Research books that served as furniture decoration the week before are suddenly opened, copied and footnoted. The outline is polished into the wee hours of the morning, and a draft is scribbled with a fever born of pure adrenalin.
Eventually, comes the onerous task of typing. These days, everybody is expected to hand in a perfect manuscript with exact 1 1/4 -inch margins all around. This includes second-graders.
I initially resist, but guess who does the typing. Guess who unfreezes the wayward computer. Guess who runs out for a toner cartridge for the printer at five minutes till 9 p.m.
Guess who doesn't ever get any credit. I'd settle for a footnote.
Ana Veciana-Suarez is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Pub Date: 12/02/98