our school project


For many parents of small children, child-rearing   offers a chance to relive one’s own childhood, and get it right this time. There’s no better place to begin than with the school project.
The school projects of my childhood were modest affairs, clumsily mixing arts and crafts with a soupcon of “research” (cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica, today’s equivalent of Google).  Pipe cleaners, the ubiqutous Popsicle stick, Lincoln Logs and Legos may have been involved. The hanging gardens at Nineveh made entirely from sugar cubes? A slab of cardboard festooned with dead leaves? I may have dressed up as a Pilgrim at one point.

There was no parental involvement in any of my school projects. But by the time my daughter got to school, parents stopped just short of hiring Whiting-Turner as consultants and became insanely competitive.

My daughter is grown and I had not, thankfully, been involved in a school project for many, many years. Then a neighbor’s 10-year-old son asked to interview me. He was in the fourth grade and his school project involved a report on one of the 50 states. He chose Maine and naturally wanted to speak with an authority on the Pine Tree State. Everyone from Maine is an authority on Maine. That’s where I came in.

So one winter Sunday I went next door and sat in his family’s kitchen. The line of interrogation was intense. The child had a list of prepared questions like a deposition and the vocabulary of a graduate student. I realized immediately that I was unprepared. But I loaned him a Maine Gazetteer, a map of the state that has a lot of interesting information in it, and wished him well. Then I made the fateful mistake of calling my brother, who lives on an island in Maine.

Brother was a brilliant student. Went to Dartmouth and Columbia. Worked for a Fortune 500 company. He was the smartest boy in the fourth grade and always will be.

I knew he would be just the man for a school project.

The next morning, Brother jumped in his car and drove to Augusta, the state capital. He’s a formidable individual and I am sure that the people he stopped in to see as he made his rounds of various state agencies picking up brochures and graphs and charts thought he was thinking about moving a business to Maine. Maybe even a big business? He was actually working on a fourth-grade school project. 

Brother immediately began referring to this as “our school project.” At times he seemed concerned that I was not holding up my end of things. I thought we should let the little boy do this stuff. Lord knows his questions were complex enough. He really didn’t need our help.

Brother had other ideas. He had never met the child. In fact, I am not entirely sure that my brother really likes children. But he loves a school project.

Winter turned into spring and we heard no more about our school project. But then, quite unexpectedly, I received a final copy. Brother and I were cited in the footnotes, authorities on Maine, no less! The kid did a swell job. He didn’t need us after all. (We were a little crestfallen over that.)

A few days after I got my copy, Brother called. His copy had arrived and he was reading it very closely. He was ecstatic!

We loved the title: “Magical Maine.” So true!

We loved the first sentence: “Maine is known for its beautiful scenery and lovely climates. You would be amazed at what you could find there.”

Also true!

Brother and I have read our copies many times, delighting in every word. Long after this child has forgotten our school project, we will remember.

Alas, I made the mistake of telling Brother that the boy we helped has a little brother who is going to be in the fourth grade this year. 

My brother is standing by, awaiting further instructions.

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