February 27th, 2012

Parents and homework

[NOTE: Every now and then I re-post a previous essay that you might have missed first time around. This is one of them (slightly edited).]

When I was a child, we were given a fair amount of homework. And although this was in what were then called “gifted” and/or “honors” classes, I wasn’t in some private school, nor even a public school in a ritzy suburb. I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school in a relatively blue collar area of New York, and from about fifth grade on I recall having between three and four hours of take-home assignments a night.

My parents, like most parents of the day, were remarkably unconcerned about this fact. Of course, they were part of a culture in which schools were generally considered to know best, when it took some great and mammoth offense for teachers’ or principals’ judgments to be questioned. I don’t even remember my parents having the habit of asking me whether I’d been assigned homework on any particular night, or whether I’d finished it, either. I suppose they figured they’d know soon enough that there was something wrong if my grades began to slip. Otherwise, my homework was primarily my own work and my own business.

Except, that is, for a particular assignment I had in sixth grade, given by a teacher we’ll call Mrs. McGuire, who had a legendary and well-earned reputation for mental cruelty. The class was doing a topic on that perennial favorite (of teachers, anyway): inventors. Each of us would have to research a famous one, write a report about him (yeah, they were all men), and deliver it to the class.

Mrs. McGuire was not a believer in choice. She selected the inventor for each student, announcing the assignments as she read off our names. Some lucky stiffs got Edison or Samuel F.B. Morse, or even old Cyrus McCormick or Eli Whitney. This meant they could write their reports by looking up the information in that trusty Mother of All References (the only one any of us could easily obtain in those days), the home encyclopedia. If students were feeling really ambitious they could, of course, supplement the encyclopedia’s pedestrian offerings with a library book or two, and take home an A or a B without much further trouble.

But when she came to my assignment, Mrs. McGuire read out the arcane name “Nicolas Francois Appert.” Nowadays, in this glorious era of instantaneous Googling and Wikipedia (of which I’ve just availed myself), one can look him up fairly easily. Even so, the information is sparse (see also this); hardly the stuff of the fifteen-to-twenty-minute oral presentation we were all supposed to deliver back then.

But in sixth grade all I could find in the encyclopedia was one terse sentence, declaring Appert to be a Frenchman who’d invented an early method of preserving food, for which he’d been awarded a prize by Napoleon. A trip to the local library revealed not a word more. And so, in a state of upset, I told my mother, and enlisted her help.

My mother was convinced that Mrs. McGuire had given me this assignment in order to humiliate me, knowing that it would be impossible to fulfill. This didn’t activate my mother to complain to the school. She knew that several generations of parents had already done so about Mrs. McGuire’s many excesses—most of them far worse than this one, by the way—to no avail. But my mother was determined to show Mrs. McGuire a thing or two.

So that Saturday we went on an expedition to the 42nd St. branch of the NY Public Library, as impressive a building then as now, perhaps even more so in my eyes.

The journey was long, and I’d never been inside before. I recall that, when we entered the gargantuan research room (“a majestic 78 feet [23.8 m] wide by 297 feet [90.5 m] long, with 52 feet [15.8 m] high ceilings—lined with thousands of reference books on open shelves along the floor level and along the balcony; lit by massive windows and grand chandeliers; furnished with sturdy wood tables, comfortable chairs, and brass lamps”)…


…my mother was told children were not allowed. But when she explained to the astonished librarian what my homework assignment was, I was given special permission to stay (I believe even the librarian had a few choice words to say about Mrs. McGuire).

The enormous card catalog yielded only one book on the subject. One should have been enough, but unfortunately, this one was in French, and it was by, not about, Nicolas Appert. My guess is that it was the volume described by Wikipedia as having been entitled “L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales” (or “The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years”)—an easy enough guess, since this seems to have been Appert’s only work.

We waited for the book to be delivered from the closed stacks, where its sleep had probably been undisturbed since the library’s opening in 1911. An ancient, slim volume, it turned out it held a mother lode (pun intended) of information, relatively speaking: its introduction (also in French) contained two or three pages describing Appert’s life, times, and mostly his invention.

Of course, we were not allowed to take the fragile (and decidedly rare) book home, but I sat at one of the tables and watched in awe as my mother read and translated the introduction, using whatever she remembered of her high school French, taking quick and dextrous notes (she knew shorthand, too) on a large yellow pad.

And that was it. I returned home with our prize, wrote a report, and delivered it. The kids in my class yawned (another inventor; who cares?), but Mrs. McGuire received my offering with a rather strange look on her face. I don’t know whether it was surprise, disappointment, or perhaps some combination of the two, but I didn’t much care.

What I experienced was mostly relief. My mother, however, owned up to a sense of triumph.

And the message of the whole strange episode? That you shouldn’t abandon a difficult but not impossible task, although sometimes help was needed to tackle it. That my mother could be a hero. That high school French and shorthand (neither of which I ever was to learn) might actually pay off, albeit in a somewhat strange set of circumstances. That the New York Public Library was a vast storehouse of knowledge, its mysterious underground bowels containing wondrous things.

And, I suppose, that research could be a sort of treasure hunt, an exciting adventure to uncover snippets of information heretofore unknown. Come to think of it, that latter lesson is probably responsible for some of my fascination with blogging.

And now, as I’ve completed the research (mercifully, all online) for this post, I discover that Appert’s story is still relatively hard to come by. As this source points out:

Nicholas Appert’s invention was tremendous; however, there is very little documentation on his personal and spiritual life. In this case, the invention appears to be more important than the inventor.

Tell me about it.

15 Responses to “Parents and homework”

  1. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Now this is story telling at its best. A nice young woman is set up to fail by a less than honorable character. The situation seems hopeless. But, no, her Mother, by resolutely helping her, also teaches her some valuable life lessons. Triumph over adversity against long odds. I loved it!

  2. pst314 Says:

    “So that Saturday we went on an expedition to the 42nd St. branch of the NY Public Library”

    My mother fell in love with that library when she was in New York working on her degree. She has frequently spoken of how well organized it was for the serious researcher, and of how helpful the librarians were.

  3. pst314 Says:

    Neo, I will raise a glass in honor of your mother.

  4. Mr. Frank Says:

    Neo, you were fortunate to have been educated during an era when high expectations and high standards were seen as being in the best interest of the students. From the perspective of the students, this meant there were lots of “mean” teachers.

    Army and Marine drill instructors (DI’s) understand this.

  5. Gringo Says:

    Neo, I will raise a glass in honor of your mother.

    Make that two glasses.

    I am reminded of another example of parental assistance in junior high. Our teacher assigned us some essay. One student handed in an essay which the teacher turned down. To the teacher’s practiced eye, it was too well written to have been done by a child- so it must have been written by a parent. [In those pre-Internet days, it wasn’t easy to plagiarize an essay topic.] The teacher must have been right, because there was no word of protest from the student.

    Neo’s case was not one of a parent covering for a slacker, because while a student can write on a given essay topic, the standard information sources that Neo was expected to use turned up little or nothing on the inventor.

    Reading that story gave me great enjoyment. Have you recently revisited the trip to the NYPL with your mother?

  6. texexec Says:

    I also went to public school (in Dallas) back when lots of homework was given. In my senior year, all of us were given the assignment of reading so many pages of an English author and writing about him or her. We were encouraged to find magazine articles about him/her and include quotes from them in our report. It’s how I learned to do research in a library…my research was done in the downtown Dallas library.

    I was luckier than Neo though. I got to choose my author and I chose Dickens. It was actually fun to find articles in old 19th century magazines and include info and quotes from them in my report.

    And I can STILL recite the first 16 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from memory. “Bloody Mary Bertrand”, my senior English teacher, made me do that too.

    You and your mom are to be commended, Neo.

  7. Tesh Says:

    I would like to visit that library someday. I’d probably want to spend a few days straight in it, though.

    My high school honors English teacher (in 1994) was staunchly against science fiction. I was adamant that I wanted to do a book report on a science fiction book (partially because it interests me, partially because I naturally run against the grain; the stronger her protests, the greater my desire), so she gave me a *short* list of possible books. I chose “Stranger in a Strange Land” and proceeded to whip up a pointed oral report.

    Y’see, the first two thirds of the book are pretty standard sci-fi fare, albeit more character-driven than idea-driven like something like Asimov’s work or even Herbert’s “Dune”. The last third is little more than hippie-tinged free love propaganda. So I made that very clear in my report.

    I couldn’t see her face while I was delivering the report, but I certainly had the attention of my classmates who were certainly accustomed to more… classical… book reports, flowing with adulation and sops to the teacher’s preferences. A few looked almost nervous, so I imagine my teacher giving me a few choice glares.

    The teacher didn’t give me grief after that, and I aced the class.

    …that said, I’m very strongly against homework. The *vast* majority of it is simply busywork and usually either a waste of time or compensation for poor teaching skills. This, from my own experience as a student, and later as a math tutor.

  8. HEP-T Says:

    I recall my third grade teacher who stated that she taught my father and I was going to be a worthless ridge runner just like him. She gathered her students attention and respect by flinging dictionaries and other books at the students who erred. She would grab a child’s arm, dig in her finger nails and shake the child like a rag doll. She read us from the Bible Old and new testament after lunch for an hour.
    Her teaching career ended when she missed her target with a book one day and hit a City Officials daughter in the nose. Yet she lived to be 109 years old and when she passed away everyone in town spoke in glowing terms about her. She got a page in the local paper.
    What was good teaching methods then would be considered felonies against children now.
    Overall I say the whole school year contributed to my being able to dodge any book thrown very well.

  9. CV Says:

    Now THAT’S a mom.

    Even after four years of high school French, followed by a couple of years of college French, if faced with helping any of my kids with a similar assignment I could only sputter, “Oh Mon Dieu! Non, non, non…”

    That’s all she wrote 🙂

  10. T Says:


    What a great story. You don’t mention Appert’s innovation, but being at the time of Napoleon, I can only assume it was canning.

    I had exactly the same experience although my vexation was an artist (Antonello da Messina) and neither my research/library skills nor my parents were up to the task at the time. C’est la vie.

    I think, though, that you’re most telling comment here is “that high school French and shorthand . . . might actually pay off, albeit in a somewhat strange set of circumstances.” As I move through life, I am amazed at how the information I learned in high school and dismissed as unnecessary drudgery comes to my aid in unexpected ways. I’m not speaking of the fundamental things the one might use monthly or weekly, I mean knowledge that one has use for perhaps once every decade or so and that just pops up out of nowhere. Sheer magic!

  11. davisbr Says:

    Thanks neo.

    …probably my favourite essay of yours to date.

  12. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    I did an oral book report in the 7th grade on a novel called “Away all Boats”. This was a Catholic school in the states having just come home from being stationed in Europe. My English teacher was scandalized,the Nuns were scandalized and I still passed. Nothing like knowing my subject AND having dad and uncles who were in opposed landings in the Pacific.

    Amazing such a book would be such a scandal..especially with the junk out there now.

  13. LarryG Says:

    I’ve been watching the Decorah Eagle set her nest of three white eggs, through snow wind and rain. In the middle of the night she’ll hear something and her head rises – looking around to see what foolishness would dare threaten her nest. Last spring I watched in real time as she defended her nest against an attacker at 1am – very impressive! She’s a good little Mommy and the three little chicks, when they hatch, will have a fighting chance in this world. Thanks for sharing your own experience with your own Mommy; another gift sent to nourish her young. Blessings.

  14. Jimbo Says:

    I also grew up in New York City. New York had the best libraries and I spent much of my childhood in them. Sometimes I would ride my bike or take a bus to the much larger borough library on Staten Island where that library was so big it had elevators. I didn’t get to go to the big one in Manhattan until I was in high school. Wow! It was a fabulous place where any kid with a library card could read almost any book in the world –for free!

    Now I just get any book I want on my Kindle from anywhere I want- and I don’t have to take a bus, subway or drive my car. Can things get any better?

  15. babka Says:

    dear neo – this is wonderful! thank you.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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