By Mark Alpert
I have a son in ninth grade and a daughter in seventh, and the bane of their existence is homework. Their teachers assign way too much of it, four or five hours every night. And because the kids don’t come home from track practice till five or six in the evening, very often they’re still working at midnight, solving algebra problems or reading about the Roman Empire. They get far more homework than I ever got during my school days. Back in the halcyon Seventies I used to tear through my assignments in an hour or so and spend the rest of the evening reading my X-Men comics, listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartmanon TV.
I blame globalization. The world economy has grown more competitive since the days of disco, and the striving meritocrats of America are desperate to save a slice of the shrinking money-pie for their children. In response, the schools in the wealthier districts have accelerated their curricula, trying to prepare their students to compete with the fiercely disciplined kids in East Asia. If the top achievers in Beijing and Seoul are working their butts off, then our kids should be doing the same, right?
Wrong. I’d rather see America forfeit this global rat race than continue to make our children miserable. Seriously, it’s not worth it.
The worst part is seeing the pernicious psychological effects that excessive homework has on my kids. The nightly burden is so great, it makes them depressed. They sense the unfairness of it, the futility. And they add to their misery by putting it off as long as they can. There’s too much homework to finish it quickly, so instead they delay starting it. It’s like a huge black mountain darkening all the hours ahead, and the last thing they want to do is begin the long, hard climb. So they go on Facebook or YouTube, or text their friends, or watch another Simpsons episode on TV. But all the while, the homework is still waiting for them, a looming threat.
I can imagine their feelings because I’ve felt them myself. Writing novels is more fun than doing homework — otherwise, why write them? — but sometimes I get confused about the direction of a work-in-progress and I start to wonder if the whole thing is a lost cause. At those moments I see the black mountain looming in front of me, and the last thing I want to do is climb it. So instead of writing the next sentence of the manuscript, I check my e-mail or the New York Times website. Or I go into the living room where the kids are watching the Simpsons episode and watch it with them. (It’s such a consistently entertaining show.) We procrastinate together, as a family.
I’m in that predicament right now, unfortunately. But I know that sooner or later I’ll sling my backpack over my shoulder and rediscover the path that goes up the mountain. With any luck, it’ll happen sometime this week. In the meantime, I’ll keep busy by nagging the kids about their homework.