I had my weekly Tuesday afternoon phone call with my sister yesterday. Since we're now on different coasts and time zones, a weekly phone appointment seems like the best way for us to keep in touch.
My two nephews are still in school, and part of our conversation usually revolves around that. I'm always reminded of how different my life is now that Molly is a freshman in college and the Los Angeles Unified School System is a mere memory. I can relate to everything my sister's going through. I can commiserate, I can try to give advice, but I'm secretly thrilled to have it all behind me. Yesterday we touched on one of the more onerous aspects of the school years: the dreaded Group Project. Even just typing it out sends chills up and down my spine. If you're part of an earlier generation, or your kids went to private school, you might not relate. I'm convinced that the Group Project is a clever scheme cooked up by teachers to foist off some of their work onto unsuspecting parents. I can imagine the teachers lifting their coffee mugs in the lounge and cackling smugly on assignment day. This ingenious ruse relies on the commonly acknowledged fact that a child's success in school depends on parental support and involvement. It goes like this: the teacher divides the class into groups, each group is responsible for producing a Project, and, here's the kicker, that Project will be done entirely outside of class.
If the horror of all this isn't quite clear to you, let me lay out some of the parameters of the Group Project:
1. Outside of class is code for your dining room.
2. Teachers select the groups randomly. Random means one responsible student to every five to seven slackers. Therefore, every group will include only one responsible student. Undoubtedly that will be yours.
3. A Project can be anything. It can range from the relatively simple to the horrifyingly complex. Be prepared for everything from a model of a Native American longhouse, to a working suspension bridge made entirely of popsicle sticks, to a 3D multi-media rendering of a human pancreas. Be afraid.
4. No matter how prepared you think you are, you will not have the stuff around the house that the group needs. The first few stores you visit will not have glitter glue sticks, green styrofoam, or 3 foot metal rods either.
5. The quality and amount of food you provide to the group will be in inverse proportion to the amount of work that gets done. You may start out with homemade cupcakes, but by the third week you will have them on starvation rations just to get things moving along.
6. There will be an element of the lowest common denominator in every Group Project. Things will be pasted crookedly, words misspelled, and random objects will protrude inexplicably from its surface. Get used to it unless you want to spend lots of quality time together, just you and the project.
7. The assignment sheet almost never shows up until the final hours before the Due Date, when it's dredged up from the bottom of somebody's backpack. This will always result in the discovery that everything has been done wrong.
8. Projects never dry; they remain sticky, tacky and wobbly until the bitter end. Every time a Project is shifted, touched, or 'fixed', it will get progressively worse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is at work here---things fall apart. Try not to get too attached, especially if you are a type-A.
9. Once in a while the unthinkable happens and a teacher assigns a coed group. This is pure evil: they know all too well that from kindergarten on the sexes don't work well together. Once the hormones kick in it's complete chaos. Cupcakes will be thrown, woodwork dinged, dogs terrorized, and no, absolutely none, nil, nada, work will get done on the Project. Ever.
10. There will always be one forlorn child left in your living room still waiting to be picked up as you try to get dinner on the table. The errant parent will honk rudely when they finally arrive, hours after the arranged time.
11. Due Day will come, but a Group Project will never fit on the bus. It will have to be driven to school. Your child will stagger into school with a tenuous grip on the project while you watch with a little bit of pride and a whole lot of relief.
12. About a month later, as you and your dining room are recuperating nicely, your child will get off the bus with a thoroughly mangled version of the Project. No one else's child will ever volunteer to take it home. The returned Project will not fit in your child's room and your child will make you feel like scum for even suggesting it go out to the curb. You will have to store it in the corner of the dining room. It's then that you'll notice the large check mark and happy face written in red sharpie across the back. That's it---no grade, no comment. And you'll swear that there's more than a hint of a smirk on that happy face.
I was understandably a little alarmed when, in the spring of senior year one of Molly’s teachers assigned the mother of all Group Projects--- the biggest, most challenging, hugest behemoth of a Project ever, at a time when the kids are already into college, they have spring fever, and no motivation whatsoever to do any schoolwork at all, much less work outside the classroom! I steeled myself for the worst as her group arrived at our house for their first meeting. I watched in amazement as they took their shoes off at the door, headed straight out to the back porch, and got to work. When they needed supplies one of the girls drove out to get them before I could find my wallet and keys. She not only brought back the supplies, but Subway sandwiches as well. I sat in the empty dining room in bewilderment, snacking on my cupcakes and listening to the happy chatter coming from the porch. As it started to get dark, I noticed one of the girls was carefully packing up the Project in custom made cartons that she had made from cut down cardboard boxes and duct tape. She was going to take the Project home with her for the night! The next week the group met at another girl's house and they all slept there so they could continue working into the night. One girl brought along a beautiful cake, another a freshly baked loaf of bread. I never did get to see that finished Project since the girls drove it to school themselves. In fact I felt a little bit cheated. It's amazing what a Group Project can teach kids.