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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

This week, First Person explores the challenges of going back to school.

The crumpled paper came home in my son’s backpack, in amongst the grass, pebbles, miscellaneous crumbs, granola bar wrappers. It read: “Create a shoe-box [parade] float at home to represent one of the celebrations you learned about in social studies this year.” There was some elaborate rubric [or is it called a matrix?] on the back of the page describing the marking scheme. I don’t really pretend to understand those things. My eyes settled on a bullet-point list at the bottom of the page, in which one of the items was an ethical student declaration of sorts. “I completed this project all on my own, with some help from my parents ONLY when I needed it.” The student had to sign it, too. I chuckled. This also doubled as a message for parents. Okay, got it. Noted. We need to guide, but not do.

I’m an engineer, but also a craft-aholic. The two sides of my brain are perpetually in conflict with one another. It’s actually exhausting, as my six-tier Rubbermaid craft-storage bin, filled to the brim, can attest to. My wheels started spinning almost instantaneously. Diwali! Of course! That would be a visual masterpiece, especially if we purchased some small LED candles. I think IKEA has those for a good price. What else do I have in my craft stash? Hang on, maybe I’ll Google ... whoa … slow down …. breathe. I quieted the gears and levers and pulleys in my brain. I pressed the red button on the assembly line and instead listened to the sounds of the house. The oven beeping, my husband tidying-up paper work, the kids downstairs screaming. Was that fighting or excitement? I can never tell. It was 6 p.m. Shoebox float-project planning would need to wait.

Will my son enjoy my alma mater as much as I did?

Later on in the evening, I laid down next to my son, knowing full well I would stay there with him until I heard his soft snoring. Every night, I tell him it’s a kiss and a hug. Just that. And every night, he asks me to lay down with him. And I do. Tonight was no different. He asked me how Wilbur can even see Charlotte. Do pigs have really good eye sight? Even better than humans? He was mulling over the chapter we had just read from Charlotte’s Web. I told him I’d need to look up how pigs fared in terms of eye sight, but not today. Now it was time to rest. He smelled of freshly brushed teeth and his hair was damp. He got quiet and I asked him if he was excited about the school project. His voice pierced the slowly darkening room.

“I’m SO doing Halloween for my shoebox float. I’ll paint the box orange.” He had it all mapped out. Orange and black paint, a haunted house with cobwebs, a decrepit hand coming out of the ground, ghosts made of tissue, something about muddy foot prints. I listened to his breathless excitement and marvelled at his creativity. Our ideas were miles apart. I toyed with the idea of asking him what he thought of a Diwali float. I let it go. Guide, but not do.

After cleaning up the day’s sticky messes in the kitchen, packing lunches and watching an episode of Friends on Netflix, my mind drifted back toward that crumpled assignment paper. I was torn about my overwhelming need to be involved in this miniscule part of his life; this Grade 2 project with a relatively minimal impact. Children need to learn responsibility and independence from a young age. Right? I should leave it up to him to do. No? How else will he learn, they say. Does he even need my help?

Then I closed my tired eyes and thought of my father. It was Grade 7 business class, I think. It was an end-of-term project on the stock market. Choose one blue chip stock and one penny stock and follow their progress for a set of amount of time. Hand in a report on the last day of school. Pretty standard. It was almost done and I had worked really hard. My dad had come home with one of those manila envelopes after work. You know the ones with the red string that gets wound around a metallic disc? What a great design, but I digress. He smelled of cologne and Du Maurier extra lights. I was probably watching Who’s the Boss? when he placed the contents of the envelope quietly beside me. I looked away from the television and glanced down at a cover page he had made me for my report. Picture this: a piece of paper that looked like those old stock market listings in the newspaper. A plethora of small black text, listing the ticker name, high, low, close and net change. However, the text colours had somehow been reversed for added effect. The writing was stark white on a deep black background. Now, at 40 years old, I think back to how brilliant it was. And although the memory is somewhat faded years later, I know it packed a punch. It made a statement. It was done with simple tools and without the knowledge and help of software. I can still smell the fresh photocopy ink and feel the glossy paper between my fingers. To be honest, I don’t know what became of that project. I can’t recall what mark I got or what anybody thought of the cover page or whether they even cared. It’s like my memory stops right at the edge of his face. The small, close-lipped, proud smile. Eyes that lit up. I can’t remember if I was grateful, but I hope I was. I wish I could tell him today. He passed away in 2010.

It’s how he cared. And it’s how I care. And it’s okay to care, I told myself as I drifted off to sleep with my father’s face etched behind my eyelids. We’d need to find Halloween figurines in May. How would I pull that off? The dollar store would probably have orange poster paint, wouldn’t they? Guide, but not do. But it’s still okay to care.

Tiasi Ghosh lives in Mississauga, Ont.

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