My 13-year-old son is pressing me to get him a new three-ring binder. I see this as a positive sign that he cares about his schoolwork, that he no longer sees sloppiness as something either uncontrollable or as a virtue—his own eccentric quirk. His cracking binder is stuffed full of every single paper, every worksheet, every test of the first half of his 7th grade year at a New York City public school.
The need for his new binder is also testament to the demise of the textbook. In social studies, in science, in Spanish, for reasons both financial and ideological, the school he attends hands out Xeroxed worksheets, Xeroxed pages of textbooks and websites, and somehow my son’s 7th grade brain, three-quarters of which is taken up with inchoate longings and Gary Larson cartoons, is meant to organize the scattered pages of information into a coherent whole.
I’m afraid to ask my son what he understands about Boyle’s Law, the Civil War draft riots or the conjugation of certain Spanish irregular verbs. Without the plodding linearity of the textbook to organize his thoughts on these topics, I wonder how he copes with the accretion of information from all these loose-leaf pages. It is only in math that he has a textbook, one that weighs about 50 pounds, and only in that topic, perhaps fittingly, that we see a progression from point A to point B. When he came home with a math textbook in the first week of 6th grade, he was ecstatic. He told us, not once but thrice, that if he got so much as a pencil scratch on its pages we would have to pay the school $50. It was then I realized, sadly, that he’d never had a textbook in all the years of grade school.
I fondly remember some of the textbooks I had while attending school in Northern Virginia in the 1960s. Most of all, I loved my 4th grade Virginia history textbook with its delicate painting of Gunston Hall in shades of pale pink, yellow and Wedgwood blue. In its creamy pages, I read the story of the Lost Colony and saw an illustration of the colonists looking at the mysterious word, “Croatan,” carved in the tree. My 4th grade English grammar textbook was filled with sentences parsed in patterns that looked like flight plans or football plays. And there were science textbooks with diagrams of electrical circuits and wind currents and experiments in shaded boxes. Yet, for all the textbooks I toted home, along with my groovy denim covered three-ring binder with its jean pocket on the cover, it’s hard to remember what I learned, especially in 7th grade. Somehow, one almost feels like at a certain point, after you’ve gotten the basics down, school is beside the point.
The point is that my son, by asking, well, actually, begging, for a new three-ring binder—and also by refusing to weed out ANY papers from his old stuffed one—is taking ownership of his education. I can imagine how he will painstakingly transfer each page into the new binder. For the pages in which the holes are ripped, my son might stick on a tiny white donut-shaped “reinforcement,” a touching remnant from my childhood, along with the satisfying manila dividers with their clear-colored cellophane tabs.
Yet, as my son goes about his ritual of transplanting papers into a new three-ring binder, I need to use mental “dividers” and separate my own nostalgia from the reality of my children’s school life, a life that is almost totally hidden from me. I must come to terms with the fact that just as my son’s and my 9-year-old daughter’s childhoods are theirs, with their play dates and schedules rather than my 1960s devil-may-care existence, so is their schooling, with its reliance on hyperlinks and idea webs rather than encyclopedias and sentence diagrams.
I know now it is a violation to do what I used to when my son was in 6th grade: take the loose papers he had left on the floor or dining room table and put them into his binder with a satisfying snap of the metal rings.
“Mom, where’s my math test???” “It goes in the pocket,” he would complain. Or, “The Spanish worksheet goes in my folder since we’re still doing it.”
Butt out, Mom.
My 4th grader daughter means this, too, when I try to clean out her red vinyl homework folder.
“Why do you have math worksheets from a week ago in here?” “Why do you have this ELA test reading about a ham radio? You already HAD the test?” I ask her, on my way to the recycling stack.
“Nooooo,” she protests. Somehow, in all the numbing boredom of the ELA test prep, which she complained bitterly about for weeks, she has cottoned on to the excitement of owning a Ham radio—two words I hadn’t heard joined together since my own childhood.
“We have to keep this,” she says, and snatches the paper from my hand.
“Mom, can we get a ham radio? Can we? Can we?” my daughter asks me this as we are out the door on the way to school, her heavy backpack filled with library books, lunch, water bottle, folders and composition books.
Like the word “Croatan” carved on a tree, the one true thing etched in my brain from that entire Virginia history textbook, she has picked up a signal in the static of worksheets, test prep and workbooks. She doesn’t quite know what it means, but it’s lighting up a circuit in her brain. And that’s enough.
Nancy J. Brandwein is a freelance writer and editor who has had essays published in The New York Times, Brain, Child and West Side Spirit and Our Town, where she is a featured contributor for her weekly “Snack Attack” column.
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