It’s 7:30 p.m., an odd time for a phone call from my daughter in her second year
of Sherut Leumi at a youth village in Afula. Usually the young lass calls much
later, past the bewitching hour when she helps the 12 kids nominally under her
charge do homework and get ready for bed.
“Abba,” she says hurriedly,
“name me some languages” “Huh,” I huh.
“Languages, you know what people
“OK, you got your English, French, Spanish, Russian,”
I start, sounding like an add for the Rosetta Stone.
“I know those,
Tell me some I don’t know” “Urdi,” I say, mangling pronunciation of
the word Urdu, the second most prevalent language in Pakistan. Then I run to The
World Almanac, look up “world languages” and dazzle her with a list of exotic
tongues from Nyanga in Mali (“Abba, how do you spell Nyanga in Hebrew?”), to
Tagalog in the Philippines, to Tajiki in Tajikistan.
And then I laugh.
This whole episode struck me as a perfect example of what I call the “homework
dilemma.” There was my sweet daughter obviously helping one of her elementary
school charges do a school project, when she hit a brick wall.
teacher asked the kid to list some languages, but the kid couldn’t come up with
anything beyond Hebrew, English, Arabic, Amharic and Russian. The kid asked my
daughter, but – other than throwing in some romance languages – she didn’t have
a clue. The daughter asked me, but I also couldn’t recall from memory anything
more exotic and had to turn to the trusty almanac. Essentially I turned to the
almanac to do homework for some kid I’ve never met.
I don’t know what the
kid learned from this whole exercise, but I now know that Tagalog is spoken by
24 million people around the world, that more folk actually speak Spanish than
English as a first language and that some 845 million people speak Mandarin
Chinese, making that the most widely spoken tongue on the planet.
beauties of education.
THIS RATHER odd homework chain is also not a
uniquely Israeli phenomenon.
On a recent trip back to the States I
planned to visit an old friend in West Virginia. In our e-mails he said he could
meet anytime except four to five in the afternoon, because then “we work on
Cal’s homework.” Cal, of course, being his third-grade son.
Cal be doing his own homework,” I write back.
“He does,” my friend
replied. “I just supervise.”
Yeh, right, I think, just like I
It’s a tough predicament, this homework thing. Teachers have a
tendency to give too much, beyond the true work capacity of any normal
elementary or junior high school kid.
My youngest boy, for instance, came
home one day last year in eighth grade with assignments to do 20 pages of math,
an equal amount of Hebrew grammar, summarize Rashi on part of the weekly Torah
portion, read over the halachot for Hanukka and do an English report on
Now there is no way your typical kid can handle all that. So
the kids turn to their folks, who decide to “supervise,” as my friend said. But
the average father, with other things on his plate besides finding out how lava
is formed, realizes he can look up “volcano” on Google faster than his son, and
“supervision” soon morphs into coproduction.
In short, the teachers
assign, and the parents do the work. I’ve learned more from my children’s eighth
grade assignments than I ever learned when I was actually in that
But this whole homework thing also highlights parental
inadequacies. Math homework I never attempt, sending the children to their
mother for that.
The Torah homework always depresses me, forcing me to
come face to face with the reality of how little I know. I mean, should I really
be stumped by a piece of Gemara the kids are learning in the seventh grade? As a
result, I dread homework time almost as much as my children – first because it
makes me feel dumb, and second because it makes me feel guilty.
guilt has me coming and going: I feel guilty for doing the homework with/for the
kids, knowing – because The Wife constantly reminds me – that this does not
exactly foster independence. But I feel equally guilty if I don’t do it –
especially if I don’t have the time. I mean, what kind of father doesn’t have
the time to do his kid’s English assignment? The absolute worst, however, is the
Hebrew language and grammar units.
When questions arise about this
material the children are advised to just go ask the neighbors. No way am I
equipped to help them acquire Hebrew language skills. In fact, I struggle
mightily just to write a note to the teacher asking permission for my son to
leave school early for a dentist appointment.
“Honey,” goes the cry, “do
you spell rofeh [doctor] with a heh or an aleph?” “I don’t know, look it up,”
comes the reply.
And so I do, spending five minutes writing a three line
note, looking half the words up in a dictionary, crumpling misspelled notes into
balls and starting from scratch – as if I were writing a novel.
the way, the “homework dilemma” doesn’t only apply to the kids’
Many years ago, The Wife had to write a thesis for her master’s
degree, and – even though pregnant at the time – managed to do so quite
Then, figuring I write for a living, she thought it wise to
give me the paper to read over and edit.
Which I did, editing out all the
academic gobbledygook and thesaurusdriven words, and giving tips on writing in a
more breezy fashion.
“Honey,” I said gently, “you want to write simply,
so people understand.
No need for words you don’t use in everyday
conversation. Just get your point across.”
She took my advice, and when
the paper came back we were both shocked. Many of my corrections were crossed
out by a red marker, with one accompanied by an exclamation, “Don’t do this
again!” And at the end of the paper came the following comments: “Make use of a
thesaurus,” and “Isn’t your husband a writer? Maybe consult him.”