Back when my son was in kindergarten, he’d come home every so often with an assignment to put together a poster presentation on a country in whatever part of the world his class was studying at the moment. And naturally, given that my then-four-year-old thought “baby sounds” not “search engine” when he heard the word Google, his homework assignments became my homework assignments. That year, I learned an awful lot about Japan, Egypt, Chile and Spain. (Did you know Spain produces 44 percent of the world’s olives??? Fascinating, right?)
Still, it wasn’t like my kid had been asked to do a Power Point presentation on Spain’s debt crisis. Poster presentations are fairly easy, drawing on those essential kindergarten skills: cutting, pasting, scrawling with crayon. So even though I was some forty years removed from kindergarten, I had some inkling of what the end product should look like.
With our very first poster project, we spent the day Googling pictures of Spain’s geography, architecture, food and culture. Or rather, we spent twenty-four hours in ten-minute increments over many, many days. Because that is the average attention span of a kindergartener who is not playing Clash of Clans on your iPad. Because if the project were to play Clash of Clans on the iPad, he’d have the whole damn thing knocked out in five minutes. But since teachers do not send kids home with instructions to play Clash of Clans on the iPad and then report back, it will take approximately three weeks to do a poster project that would take the average adult about twenty minutes to assemble. And that’s if there’s a paper jam … and you need to run to Staples for more ink cartridges … and you get a flat tire en route.
Being that the kid was (hello??) four and had never put together a poster presentation before, and because I have a black belt in perfectionism, the trick in pulling together this poster project would be to gently guide my child in the process of cutting out the images and gently make suggestions about how they might be artfully arranged on the posterboard … without shoving him out of the way and slapping the whole thing together myself.
I wanted him to do it by himself. And I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be the best damn poster presentation on Spain the kindergarten teacher had ever seen. I wanted him to do a GOOD project BY HIMSELF. (You’re probably beginning to see the sinkhole threatening to open up under this situation.)
“HE needs to do it! Let HIM do it!” I scolded my husband when the poor man attempted to position some of the images on the poster himself. My husband then slunk off to clean the pool filter, something he knew he would not get yelled at for doing, because I have no idea how to clean the pool filter and would never think of cleaning the pool filter anyway.
But then it was me hovering, micromanaging the project, basically doing exactly what I’d just chided my husband for doing. Yes, I wanted my kid to do it by himself. I just wanted him to do it by himself MY WAY. (Did somebody say … sinkhole?)
“Here, Sweet Pea, let me show you …” I started, trying to be helpful … and move the damn project forward.
But by this time, my son had reached the end of his four-year-old attention span. I couldn’t blame him. I was so tired of sitting and watching him cut out the images to paste on the poster board — because a four-year-old will only cut out images if you remain sitting right next to him at all times — that by the time we reached the actual arranging and pasting stage of the project, I would have willingly spent the rest of the day watching episodes of Thomas The Tank Engine (the most inane children’s show this side of Barney) if we could just, for the love of Pete, wrap this up already. But while I couldn’t budge him forward, I also couldn’t walk away either. The kid clearly didn’t want to work on the project anymore … he still refused any and all entreaties to give it a fucking rest.
But every attempt to demonstrate how he might organize the material was met with resistance. There really is no stubbornness like four-year-old stubbornness. He was young enough to outlast me … and old enough to know he was driving me bat-shit crazy doing it. He pouted that he didn’t know what to do … then insisted that he didn’t want my suggestions either. In an act of supreme frustration he swept all the photos that had been laid out on the poster into a pile on the floor.
I thought back to the teacher telling me this would be a fun project … and wondered what she’d been growing in her garden and smoking.
There was no fun. What there was was prodding. There was cajoling. There was bargaining. There was angst. And anger. There were tears. There was yelling. “JUST GLUE THE PICTURES ON THE EFFING BOARD!!” It is possible that scissors were thrown. (Safety scissors … more like dropped … with force. Still, it was definitely not my proudest moment.)
But eventually, every picture was stuck on the poster board in some manner, and there was crayon scrawl beneath, identifying what each photo was. It was … a mess. It looked exactly like a four-year-old did it: crooked pictures; jagged cutouts; illegible crayon scribbles.
Walking into school the next morning, I caught another mom carrying her kid’s poster into the classroom. It was a poster about Holland. And it was beautiful. I stopped her just so I could admire it. There were photos from a family trip arranged, just … so. A candy wrapper from a bar of Dutch chocolate. Postcards of windmills. Pictures of tulips. It was a work of art.
For a moment, I had an ugly flash of poster envy. Now why didn’t my kid’s poster look like THAT?!? This was gorgeous. So tidy. So perfect. So … oh! I really can be a little slow on the uptake, especially before I’ve finished my first gallon of coffee. And then I realized: It was so perfect, it was highly unlikely that her kid had had any part in its assembly. Maybe he’d had some buy-in on the concept. Maybe he’d chosen the country. But Mom had done the heavy lifting and curating and pasting. And it showed.
I looked at my kid’s poster again. It looked exactly like a four-year-old had done it. And it made me proud.