"Nowhere, you explain."

Imagine a swimming teacher assigning homework. Nobody has a swimming pool at home, so what does a dedicated student do? Practice the Australian Crawl on their bedroom floor? Homework felt like this to me. My first question was, "Just where at home might I fulfill this assignment?" My bedroom, which I shared with my older brother, offered semi-privacy but no writing surface. I could lounge on my bed there and read, but math proved almost impossible to do while sprawled on my belly balancing a book more dedicated to closing itself than staying open to the page, while the worksheet kept sliding off the back of my precariously-balanced notebook. My pencil would break, necessitating a trip to the kitchen to sharpen it, a gauntlet of distractions along the way. Or, I could work at the dining room table, Grand Central Station situated between the living room and the kitchen, the least private spot, bookended with distractions. I might cower in the basement, working bent over on an old coffee table until my lower back gave out. Or at the Kitchen table while carrying on a half dozen side conversations. I might end up with ten minutes of focused attention before suppertime.

Context matters.
I suppose that some people grew up in homes featuring some space dedicated to homework. I did not. I suspect that most do not. I suspect that none of my teachers worried themselves overmuch about assigning swimming homework, though each commanded the rough equivalent, leaving their students to resolve the paradox. I was a hungry learner rendered essentially supperless by the context within which I might complete the assignments. Any home with five kids in it serves as essentially a distraction generator. There's always something going on. Somebody's always practicing their band instrument or watching Dialing For Dollars on TV or fixing a snack or pitching a fit or just walking by in the background. Focus seemed the common enemy and to attempt to find it, a largely fruitless endeavor, so homework became an exercise in attempting to absorb information or demonstrate skill while at best ten percent present. Home was a hostile learning environment.

Sure, the folks would exhort everyone to get their homework done, but even the exhortations, even encouragement became another distraction, double-binding me into ultimately simply lying, insisting that I'd gotten all of it done already while thinking that perhaps I could get to school an hour early in the morning and finish it there. That almost never happened. Between my early morning paper route and chores and school patrol duties, I might manage a distracted fifteen minutes to complete the prior evening's assignments. I slowly and painfully learned to fake having completed it, and I was a top student in grade school. Later, through Junior High and High School, when my afternoon into evening after school job took precedence, homework became increasingly irrelevant. I'd finally get around to thinking about it after I'd gotten home sometime after nine o'clock and finished my warming in the oven desiccated dinner just before ten. By then, I needed some recovery time, not further engagement.

I'm not making excuses, just noticing that context mattered more than I imagined and I was not trained in context-sensitivity. I was just context sensitive without holding an explanatory story to describe my experience. I was serially assigned the obligation to roller skate in a buffalo herd not understanding that one cannot roller-skate in a buffalo herd. I tried my best, anyway, though my best hardly reinforced repetition. Even when I found focus, I'd have a question nobody in the house could answer. I learned not to ask. Between the New Math and the old world languages, nobody there knew the first thing about anything I was trying to study. Over time, I learned to become an indifferent student, hardly caring about grades since they seemed beyond my meager ability to influence either way. I majored in study hall in high school, dozing in the library over ostentatious history books. Wherever I filed away what I read, I would fail to recall the material at test time.

Homework seems the equivalent of encouraging pigs to fly, a violation of some curious underlying principle that only seems completely absurd in practice. In theory, it certainly should work. Balance that worksheet on your lap while a half dozen alluring distractions compete for your attention. See how well it works then. Practice your Australian Crawl on the basement floor, out of sight of everyone else in the house until, noting your absence, someone starts calling, "David! David!", having noticed your absence. Almost entranced enough to start noticing your muscles working in some semblance of concert then, making some headway on the assignment, you respond. Then, just try to explain what you were doing out of the fold. Where had you gone when nobody else in the place knew where you'd disappeared to? Nowhere, you explain. Just in the basement not doing my HomeWork.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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