Sam's Summer Reading Assignment

Sam got a 95 on his summer project.

That’s a pretty big deal. Even better, it turned out to be a fun family project.

The rising 9th graders at Durham School of the Arts had to read a book, a biography or an autobiography, pick 25 quotes and comment on them. The comments could be about the importance of the passage, a literary technique the author used or how the passage related to the reader’s own life. Every five entries required a pause for a general summary.

I wouldn’t say we were dreading this project, but I was a bit apprehensive. Sam has had a complicated relationship with school, he’s not a big fan of homework and he doesn’t see the point of summer assignments. (Can’t say I disagree with him on that.) He’s struggled with learning disabilities, which make writing a challenge.  And like his dad, he struggles with procrastination.

I used to think procrastination was another word for lazy, probably because I heard the two words too close together too many times when I was putting off doing assignments. Not long ago, someone told me my procrastination was actually a form of perfectionism. I was surprised, if not shocked. I never thought of myself as a perfectionist. I thought perfectionists were neat and nitpicky and highly skilled. Someone like the late Doc Watson, who would halt a song if one of his players was just a hair off beat or out of tune.

Not necessarily, he explained. A perfectionist is somebody with a fear of failure. We (yes, I was soon convinced I was one of the tribe) are people who look right past any joy associated with finishing a project to everything that could go wrong. Long before we set pen to paper, we see a finished project that is full of typos, wrong-headed, disorganized, banal and just plain bad. No just get it done, do your best and let the chips fall where they may for us. We can see the tree for the forest, and we see each of those trees crashing down on our heads.

No wonder it’s hard to get started. Sam is a twice-exceptional kid – to go along with his learning differences he has a high IQ. This almost makes things worse. Some teachers see the quick wit and discount the learning issues. They decide he’s, yes, lazy. He’s also a sensitive kid. When’s he’s pushed, he pushes back.  We dealt with school refusal in earlier years, and it wasn’t fun.

But back to the summer assignment. Sam got off to a great start. With some help from his mom, he picked a good book. Questlove, the drummer for the Roots who’s now a late-night TV celebrity, has published an autobiography. The cover is cool, a take-off of a famous psychedelic portrait of Bob Dylan’s head, and the writing is clever and incisive. Questlove has a lot to say about being a large young black man with a large talent, and his love of music is infectious – in between chapters of straight autobiography he details an album that sums up each year of his life.

We applied a number of strategies. Sam read ahead for a while and Bebe went behind him to mark quotes. Later on, I read out loud and we discussed which passages he could do justice to. Mostly he wrote out his reactions and I helped with the capitalization and punctuation. Sometimes I took dictation and then he applied the delete key judiciously to any parental embellishments. I learned more about hip-hop, and Sam learned a bit about Stevie Wonder.

I wish I could say we didn’t finish it late at night on the day before school, but that was only because a glitch in the table format of the document kept swallowing a fifth of the comments. I had to recreate the missing quintet, with minimal help from a by-then grumpy almost ninth grader, who quite logically didn’t want to redo something he had already finished. By 11 we had a completed summer project. Fortunately, we printed it out, because when I saved it and emailed it to Bebe, the five passages were missing again.

I enjoyed the parts of the book I read, and I loved seeing Sam dig into it. Questlove was a talented kid who didn’t quite fit in at school. I think Sam could relate to that. Sure, we had to prod him a bit to get go going, but not that much. School has been a real mixed bag for him, but this project went fairly smoothly, and he was rewarded for his efforts with a fine grade. I was proud, but mostly I felt fortunate to be a part of it. Not the way I usually feel about homework.

One of the best parts of being a parent is that giddy feeling you get when, unexpectedly or not, things go right. Sometimes it’s a pretty big deal – the spring concert when the cellos hit every note or the funny play at the end of summer camp that your kid helped write. Sometimes it’s something as simple as sitting next to your kid on the couch, watching him come into his own.