I’m Still Suffering From School Project PTSD

I recently walked into a Michaels craft store and had a post-traumatic stress episode so intense I had to grab onto a shopping cart for support. Trust me, I don’t have anything against Michaels. What was a mighty punch in my emotional baggage was the flood of panicked memories of school projects, from last-minute dioramas to the dreaded Invention Convention entries to, God help me, science fair projects. It’s been almost a good 10 years since I’ve had to “assist” with anything related to a science fair, but to this day, I can’t even look at one of those three-sided display boards without feeling like I’m going to heave.

Michaels, Hobby Lobby and basically any store that sells poster board, modeling clay and fabric that resembles a prehistoric woolly mammoth’s pelt are not my happy places. The smell of foam board alone mixed with the off-gassing of a Sharpie Magnum marker is enough to make me have an anxiety attack. For me, the least crafty mammal with opposable thumbs in the free world, Michaels represents numerous parenting fails. It was where I was vanquished – where I had to fly the white flag of surrender in the winner-take-all game of competitive parenting — sub category: school projects.

It all started back when my son was very young with what I thought was an innocuous 100th day of school assignment. The teacher wanted each child to bring in 100 items of one thing, like 100 Legos or 100 pennies. My son, at the time, loved trains, so he brought in 100 train stickers. Imagine my shock and awe when, the morning the assignment was due, I witnessed children and parents bringing in works of art related to the 100th day of school.

There was one child who had a neon sign that was the number 100 and it was covered in 100 colored bulbs. A little girl and her mother proudly carried in a puppet stage with 100 mini puppets. Another mom had baked 100 cookies that were the numbers 1 to 100.But wait, there’s more: They were painstakingly decorated in royal icing, with each cookie having their own personality. The number 50 was in a suit. Number 75 had on a ball gown. Twenty-five had glasses and a book. It was breathtaking. I’m sure it took days and days of decorating.

Meanwhile, my kid is clutching a couple of sheets of train stickers. They good news is he didn’t seem to care that he was, umm, let’s say, project challenged. His main focus, along with the other kids, seemed to be when they would be allowed to eat one of those number cookies.

I, on the other hand, was mortified. There was a dumpster fire of psychological turmoil searing my mom brain. Had I let my precious boy down? Was I somehow lacking as a mother because I didn’t bring in 100 handmade trains that were not only edible but also puppets? Would other parents perceive my lack of walking into a classroom without a showstopper project as a metaphor that I didn’t love my child? I barely made it to my car before I started doing the ugly cry.

My husband tried to lift my spirits with logic, which, any women will tell you, is always a bad move. I didn’t need to hear about how the project should be, at the very least, partially done by the kids and that the other moms “weren’t doing their child any favors by doing their homework.” What I needed was retribution, and I would get it with the next project.

I had to wait a couple of months, but then it was time to make my move. The assignment was to draw an outline of your child on a roll of brown butcher paper, and then your kid would decorate the image as a character from his or her favorite book. My son was all about Thomas the Tank Engine books, so “he” was going to design the image to be a train conductor. But, I barely let him pick up a crayon because I had commenced on a coloring tour de force. Not only did I color the image, but I even glued real brass buttons on the uniform for a 3D effect.I thought it was a masterpiece — until we got to school.

One mom had made her child’s full-body image into a pillow decorated as Cinderella. And forget about crayons; she had sewn on a gown and all the accoutrements. Another mom had taken a photo of her son’s face and blown it up so it was life-size, and then she decked out the image with real leather chaps, a cowboy hat and a lasso. Going into that school with my coloring project was a long, lonely slog of maternal shame.

Again, my son didn’t seem to care that his homework was sub par. He was too busy wanting to get his hands on the cowboy lasso. It was then and there that I entered a lonely world rife with doubt and self-recrimination. I was going to be the parent that took a backseat to “helping” with school projects.

Oh, sure, you can bet my battle cry was the sanctimonious, “My husband and I don’t believe in doing our children’s homework.” But inside, I was d-y-i-n-g. Every god-awful diorama, mammoth tusk and project board with lettering so crooked you had to turn your head sideways to read it was like a stab to my heart. But I walked into every single school open house, science fair and invention contest with my head held high.

I knew moms were thinking, “Who let their kid turn that in?” Moms who had relatives who were welders and could make fourth-grade inventions that required advanced training in oceanic combustion science. Or moms who could sew and design a fabric replica of a person’s autoimmune system. Or even moms who  knew how to make snow continually fall on her child’s Alaska-based Athapaskan Indian tribe diorama. It was brutal. Not even both my kids trying to soothe me with the words, “Don’t worry, Mom, everyone gets an A,” helped.

My grand hope is that someday, with enough passage of time, I can once again walk into a craft store and not have chest pains when I catch a whiff of Crayola air-dry modeling clay. Until then, I remain a mother still in recovery from 18 years of school projects.

Tusk, Tusk, Another Hyper Involved Parent

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There are few things I dread more than a school project. I believe the diorama is evil and an instrument of Satan and my children’s science, history and invention fair entries have made me cry and I’m not talking tears of joy.

In fact, the last place I ever want to be is frantically searching the aisles at a craft store on a Thursday night looking for chopsticks/wooden dowels/ or anything Martha Stewart-y to make a mobile. But there I was with my “It maybe the last-minute but that doesn’t make it late” child in a race to buy supplies for a project due in less than 12 hours.

As I was crouched down digging through a bin of reduced American Girl Craft kits thinking about how I could use different parts to make a decent mobile, I see a mom I know. She had all the tell-tale signs of “School Project Over Kill.” Her hands were singed from excessive glue gun use and there looked to be what I think was permanent marker on her face. I gave her the “Don’t you hate school projects” eyeroll and she responded with two words – Invention Fair. Well, actually three but I’m being lady like and not counting the F word. I got up and gave her a hug.

Please, if you’re on your high horse right now doing the sanctimonious two-step as you self righteously mutter, “But school projects are for the kids to do not the parents.” Stay really still for a second so I can kick you because I’d have a better chance of seeing free-range unicorns grazing in the empty field near my favorite Target than a kid turning in a school project that doesn’t have his or her parent’s DNA all over it.

If you want to check out different parenting styles all you need to do is a 360 degree rubbernecking at projects lining the hallways at any school’s open house, family book fair night or Parent/Teacher conferences. Feast your eyes on the fourth grade Invention Fair entries that look like the design team at Apple was brought in for a consultation.

Do a double take at the fifth grade Science project that required welding because who among us doesn’t keep a shielded metal arc welding kit (designer helmet optional) in our pantry and wouldn’t be averse to letting a 10-year-old use it.

Stare in wonder at a second grader’s diorama that would put an elite squad of Disney imagineers to shame. Never mind that no seven-year old on planet Earth has such advanced fine motor skills.

These projects represent the parenting style I like to call Hyper Involved or Get Out of My Way Kid I’m Taking Over this Project. (As your kids get older rest assured these parents still find stuff to do like write their teenagers college application essays.)There’s a certain degree of hubris with this parenting style as defined by the total lack of concern that no one is EVER going to believe a child took part in any aspect of the project. I saw one teacher, who I shall always cherish, tell a parent, “Nice work mom. You got an A.” The mother in question didn’t even have the good sense to be embarrassed by the comment. She just smiled and adjusted the sleeves on her Northface.

I always wonder what the Hyper Involved parent is trying to compensate for especially the Mastodon Dad. Several years ago, one of my kids was assigned the project of making a mastodon tusk. One week later, I’m dropping my kids off at school and it’s the day the projects are due so you see many children carrying in mastodon tusks. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but a dad in a huge pick up with what seems to be a life-size tusk laying in the back of his truck.

He pulls in front of everyone, double parks, puts on his hazards like that makes it okay he’s causing a traffic snafu, hops out of his pick up and with the help of two students proceeds to hoist what I’m guessing is a six-foot long paper mache tusk out of the back of his truck.

The dad couldn’t have looked prouder. I’m telling you he had some serious swagger going on carrying that bad boy into the school. I watch all this, primarily because I’m blocked in by his vehicle, and just shake my head. I’m thinking that tusk has to be a metaphor for a lack of size in other areas of this dad’s life. And maybe that’s what drives the Hyper Involved parent a need to show off, to preen, to draw attention to themselves even if it’s something as simple and innocent as a child’s school project.

*Attencover_1.3-2tion Snarky Friends, I have a brand new book out. It’s the second in the Snarky in the Suburbs series – Snarky in the Suburbs Trouble In Texas. You can buy it for your Kindle or in paperback on Amazon.  It’s also available for the Nook or you can get it for your Kobo reader. Click on a link and give it a test read.  I hope you like it! 🙂