My Homework Wakes the Neighborhood
“Need my cookies upfront, Mom. Otherwise I can’t concentrate.”
“Okay, one cookie now. Then homework. Then one more cookie.”
“Two cookies now. Then homework. Then three more cookies.”
“Too many cookies.”
“Too much homework.”
This is how it usually goes between Mom and me. But today I’m bargaining extra-hard. Dad got off work early and is still in his construction clothes.
“Treehouse?” he says, holding up the plans we drew last summer.
“Homework,” I say.
Now while I’m sitting down to twenty-five math problems, an endangered species report, and a language arts packet—action verbs versus linking, can you feel the joy?—he’s taping our plans back on the fridge. I get to look at them every time I reach for a glass of milk to go with my cookies.
After dinner I help clean up, take a shower, and brush my teeth. I study the week’s spelling words, alphabetize my sources for the bibliography, finish writing chapter notes for World History, read twenty pages of Black Ships Before Troy, and go over the mistakes on my math quiz. That, I’m happy to say, takes only fifteen minutes. Thanks to my friend Catalina, I got most of them right.
Finally, I sit down at the piano, the one place besides our backyard I want to be. I’m working on a Herbie Hancock song called “Cantaloupe Island.” A weird thing happens to me when I play the piano. I’m not in our living room anymore but in my Sound Forest far away. The ground is soft and spongy and full of Dr. Seuss trees, their leaves changing color to the music. Wild birds keep beat on the branches. For Herbie Hancock, the trees turn Popsicle orange, the birds sky blue.
“Sam.” Mom’s voice breaks in like it’s being squeezed through a long tube. “Didn’t you have a worksheet on decimals?”
“Already did that,” I say, fingers flying across the keys.
She holds up the worksheet in front of my song sheet. She flips it over.
There was another side.
My head falls forward and thuds against G, F, C, and a bunch of sharps.
In the middle of the night, I wake up with an anxiety attack. It feels like someone’s pounding a drum kit inside my chest. I reach for my phone and tap the meditation app that Bernice recommended.
Bernice is my mom’s parenting teacher. Every other month, a group of moms and a few dads go to her house to learn how to be better parents. I don’t know what they talk about, but the next day these annoying quotes pop out at us from Mom’s mouth. Things like, You can’t prepare the path for the child; you have to prepare the child for the path. Or, Empty stomach, empty head. Or, Follow through and you won’t have to follow up.
Advice pills, we call them, when Mom’s out of range.
“You may be feeling stress from a real deadline,” the Guided Meditation Lady says to me in her soft, breathy voice, “or it may be brought on by a self-made pressure.”
“It’s a real deadline.”
“Be mindful of where in your body you’re feeling tense.”
“Well, I’ve got sweaty palms, for one. And my stomach feels like I swallowed a shoe.”
“Whatever you feel is a natural response to the stress of life. Just let yourself feel those feelings, and they’ll melt away.”
Easy for her to say. She hasn’t seen my homework planner.
I’m not allowed in my parents’ room after ten unless it’s an emergency, a.k.a. unexpected situation that demands immediate action. The dictionary just gave me permission to barge in.
Mom is on her back sound asleep, with her head tilted toward the door. Moms always sleep on the side closest to the door. They’re like firemen next to the pole. When a kid cries out in the middle of the night, who comes running?
Not dads. They’ll sleep through anything. Even an emergency.
I hover over Mom like a zombie, watching her breathe. She doesn’t even have to crack a lid to know I’m there.
“Sam,” she whispers, “what’s the matter?”
“What about it?”
“You can do it for Wednesday.”
“He’ll take off points.”
She sighs. “A consequence builds character.”
Here’s something about parents they don’t teach in parenting class. When Mom says no, go around to the snoring side of the bed.
“Dad,” I whisper. “Wake up.”
He sounds like Darth Vader with asthma. I’m surprised he doesn’t wake himself up with all that wheezing.
“Dad, need a little help here.”
When a mom wakes up in the middle of the night, she does it with the ease of a light switch turning on. A dad wakes up like a guy being electrocuted.
I poke him in the arm.
“What?! What?! What’s the matter?”
“Bibliography,” I say.
In the office, I flip through my stack of index cards, alphabetized by author’s last name or, if there’s no author, by title. My dad believes kids should take responsibility, but for things that make sense for kids to do, like feeding their pets, fixing their own bikes, or safely operating power tools. Not bibliographies past midnight. So he types for me.
“Hey, Sam,” he whispers between sources. “Next Monday is Columbus Day. Three-day weekend. Maybe we can start the treehouse then.”
“Maybe,” I say. But the truth is, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. Even if we find time to build the thing, when will I play in it?
The office door opens. Mom is standing there with her arms locked across her chest. She looks like an exclamation point.
“He has to ...