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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Today In The Reference Section ...

My one nephew, Jake, has a big report due on a famous figure from history. He chose Abraham Lincoln. Over lunch at his house, I asked the innocent 11-year-old why "Honest Abe" intrigued him. "Because he got shot!" was his reply. Over cheese pizza ... this family wouldn't know a salad or a fruit plate if it knocked on their door and asked to use the phone ... I discovered that Jake still had a little over a week until his report was due but he hadn't even started it. His Mom, my sister, was going to print a bunch of stuff off the Internet at work "in a few days."

I have a problem with our cookie-cutter, Wikipedia-wrought world sometimes, so I asked Jake if he wanted to run and get ice cream ... just him and me. He was ecstatic. His happy mood faded quickly when we pulled into the parking lot of the library 20 minutes later. Jake turned sullen and then oddly awed as we entered the main lobby. I know he's at least "visited" his school library but he'd probably never been to this main branch of the public system downtown. It's huge. Busy. Serious.

We found the reference section and a nice lady helped us locate four really great books. Jake's mood definitely brightened when we discovered some interesting facts about Mr. Lincoln. Not only was he the 16th U.S. president and the first Republican to hold the office, but he was also born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana ... both just one state away. And while everyone knows he helped move the U.S. toward an end to slavery and brokered the conclusion of the only major war in history where Americans were fighting Americans, Abraham Lincoln is also one of the few presidents with no middle name and he accomplished his goals with less than 18 months of formal education. And Jake thought it was a hoot that some places ... like train cars and a few hotels ... had to build special beds to accommodate Lincoln's 6'4" frame.

Jake and I photocopied several pages of information and borrowed a highlighter from the same librarian to mark the good things we found. I even "bankrolled" a few color copies of pictures he might use in his report. And on the ride back out of the city, Jake was even considering wearing a "beard" and stovepipe hat for the oral presentation portion of his assignment and was going to see if his Dad could build him some "mini-stilts" out of scrap wood to look taller. I agreed to work with him next weekend on memorizing part of the Gettysburg Address ... "four score" and what not. He was really getting into the spirit of learning!

When we arrived back at my sister's residence, I didn't go in. My self-preservation instinct is strongest around Jake's mom. And she was not gonna like Jake all enthusiastic about school and wanting to get to work. Plain and simple, my sister has always been a procrastinator and an enabler with her children ... and I try not to be. All of us kids were raised in the same way in the same house by the same people, but I think by being the only "girl" my sister got away with a great many things.

A prime example of her "slacker" ways is "The Great Leaf Project." Since the dawn of time, our high school's freshman biology class has required each student to assemble a collection of leaf specimens from area trees and present them in a photo album or some type of "book." Each leaf included in the project must be properly identified. To aid in this, students are given these cool books that, by answering simple questions about leaf color, shape, texture, vein structure, etc., help identify the proper phylum. Overall, the more properly-identified leaves a project contains, the higher the grade it receives.

everyone else, my sister had six weeks ... SIX WEEKS! ... to do this. And she waited until the last minute and "boo-hooed" around the house until my parents drove her around and helped her collect a smattering of leaves. I remember the weekend before her project was due ... the kitchen table was off-limits to everyone but my sister and my Mom. We ate our meals on TV trays in the living room. In the end, my sister had 30 leaves. My mother had found some leaf stickers and thought maybe my sister could dress her project up a little. "Use them sparingly," my Mom cautioned, "they're pretty colorful." My sister put those stickers everywhere. It was a mess! My sister earned a "C-" and complained that the grade was low because the teacher didn't like her.

My slightly-older brother had the same project when he entered high school. I helped him find some of his leaves because he is actually a decent sibling. And my brother is pretty clever ... right away he went to a local floral shop owned by a family friend and got them to sell him a can of this preservative spray that really kept his leaf samples pristine and colorful. It was like protective shrink wrap for plants. His specimens looked great, and when he organized them he also alphabetized them and added the location where the "donor" tree was located.

And for a final flourish, my brother begged my father to take him to an arboretum about an hour away. The trip netted him five exotic leaves. He ended up with 58 leaves and a "B+" ... two measly points away from an "A-." Damn the high school grading scale!

When my turn rolled around, I hit the ground running. That first weekend I had 20 leaves stacked and "starched" with the same pecial spray my brother had employed. Likewise, I guilted my father into making the same arboretum trip and walked and walked until we had eight specimens to add to my leaf count. And during that first week, my Mom helped me phone friends and family we had in California, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee. I explained my project to them and over the following two weeks I received big, overstuffed envelopes containing out-of-state samples ... nine in all ... of sequoias, hemlocks, red junipers, Spanish moss, several citrus trees, and even a redwood. These I placed in the back of my "book" with a map noting their home locations and a little block of text explaining how I had purloined them.

With two weeks to go before my "due date," I spent some time detailing my project. I went back and took some photos of a few trees and included them on pages where I had the most room. I added scientific names to many of my samples like "Ginkgo biloba" and "Acer saccharum." I also alphabetized my samples and added "addresses" like my brother had. My final "touch" was decorating the cover with a poem that my great grandmother wrote about leaves and had published in 1959. I reproduced the poem in the simple shape of a leaf. I thought it was very artistic, and so did my instructor. Out of a possible 100 points, I earned 98 ... and the teacher wanted to keep my project as an example to show future classes. I politely declined her request.

I bring this all up because I see my sister passing her "tendencies" to her children. One time, my niece ... also my sister's kid, of course ... was given a project where she had to create a series of flash cards to help younger children learn common Spanish words. Each student was required to work with a list of 20 words and produce 40 cards in all ... one "basic" flash card with the word in Spanish on the front and its English equivalent on the reverse, and then a second card exactly like the first but with little icons or graphics to prompt recall. The assignment was due in three weeks, and my niece received what I thought were pretty simple words like "cake" and "forest" and "school" and "picnic" and "bulldozer." Hell, the teacher even supplied the card stock with a generous amount of extras to offset any "flubs."

Two days before the cards needed to be turned in, my sister called in "sick" and made every stinking card. My niece had put it off and put it off until my sister just decided it was easier to create them herself. She even had me e-mail her some clip art images ... I was unaware I was "aiding and abetting" until much later. My niece "earned" an undeserved "A" and a compliment from her teacher for all her extra hard work ... she had actually turned in cards for 25 words.

Now, I'm not a tyrant. Parents ... and uncles ... can and should help young people with their academic studies. But when I say "help," I mean "aid" or "guide" or "clarify" ... not "do" or "take over" or "complete." I remember being 11 ... exactly like Jake ... and my class was studying Native American tribes. We were placed in teams of four and I volunteered to construct a scale model of a wigwam. I asked my father ... a man who could make a tree fort out of a pile of sawdust ... for help. First, he had me find several pictures of what I hoped the model would look like. Once assembled, we sat down and he tried to explain why some things would be easy to do and others not so much. Then we went over the tools and materials I'd be needing and looked to see what wasn't available in my Dad's workshop. At this point, with him watching closely, I built a wigwam. He gave advice but it was me doing about 80 percent of the work. My percentage probably would have been higher but early on a sliced into my thumb badly. We discovered I was quite a bleeder and Dad took over all "cutting" activities from that point on.

And I will concede that my father did provide a few very cool elements to my primitive dwelling. He worked with a guy who hunted and trapped and did all that "outdoorsy" stuff. His friend gave me some scraps of pelt ... rabbit and squirrel, I think ... and I used them throughout the model. My father also helped me install a little light inside the structure so it looked like a small fire. My wigwam was outstanding and my team received high marks. And I earned a "wigwam scar" that remains to this day as a reminder of the merits of hard work.

POINT OF RANT: When using a knife, always cut away from yourself ... especially if you want a matching set of functional thumbs!!

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