September 28, 2012 8:40 pm

Wild about homework

Doing your assignment very well was a way of sending out love letters to the world

Hello hole punch! Hello fluorescent highlighter pens! Hello lever-arch file! I seem to have re-entered the homework years again. It does feel good: familiar, heart-warming, and so right, a perfect accompaniment to September evenings, toast crumbs, the last crisp fawn-coloured hydrangeas and the first brown autumn skies.

On the bus with my daughter, eating popcorn, I try not to delve into her bag to see what work she has been set, for there are rules about things like that. However, when she is not looking I assess its bulges through the shiny navy fabric. Is that the outline of the new maths text book? Is that her French file? What am I thinking? 

If it’s Monday it must be Latin and food tech ... oh yes ... she has to describe the fruit salad of her dreams in terms of taste and textures and they will make it next week. She has to draw the inside of a Roman house, and label the rooms, as if she were a toga’d estate agent keen to shift it ASAP. It’s more excitement than I can take.

The smell of stationery emanating from her schoolbag is enough to send me over the edge; that dry, woody odour of order and plenty is pretty much my favourite scent. This is not about you, I tell myself sternly. It never is. There are popcorn kernels all over our laps.

Homework was a sort of backbone to my adolescence. If you were an ardent schoolgirl, hopelessly devoted to some of your teachers and eager for approval, homework provided a stage on which to shine. Doing your homework very well was a way of sending out love letters to the world. It was also a job, both physical and cerebral labour, for the book bag was weighty and had to be lugged across town 10 times a week.

It went like this: you gave your essay your absolute all, then held your breath while you waited for the ticks to roll in. That papery cycle of anxiety, multiplied by extreme effort, followed by intense longing for praise, culminating, usually, in comments that left you shimmering, was awfully addictive. The cargo of comfort I derived from that process occurring several times a week was very good for my fragile mood. Sad, I know, but happy too.

Of course, becoming a writer is a way of making your homework your career, but that is another story.

On Wednesday we had tickets to see an Oscar Wilde play, but I couldn’t possibly go out as the homework was only half done. William the Conqueror’s spy had to file a report on the state of King Harold’s army and the likelihood of a successful invasion. The professionalism and skills of both armies could hardly assess themselves, could they? There were rumours of drunkenness among the British troops and too much revelry and carousing. The Norman army, by contrast, lived for war. I couldn’t rush out to the theatre when on the kitchen table was a matter of life and death. It wouldn’t be decent.

. . .

“I will try to join you after the interval,” I announced grandly. “It is not possible to leave just now – not supportive, you know?” I thought of one of my favourite quotations from Wilde, which has brought me succour over the years: “The only one way to atone for being occasionally a little overdressed is by being always absolutely overeducated.” Oscar would forgive us, I was sure.

Besides, secretly, half a play is often better than a whole one. And another reservation: I had heard the play featured lots of naked men and our seats were bang in the middle of the front row. It was a sobering thought, all right. I suddenly remembered my mum coming back from a rare trip to the theatre when I was about eight, and when I asked her what the play was like, she said, “Well, a man and a woman did that slightly annoying fashionable thing of walking on to the stage and taking all their clothes off.”

What goes on in the West End! I thought.

Just as the interval would be about to begin we finished the assignment, so I started gathering myself. “Thank you so much for staying and missing the play,” my daughter said.

“I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I should get there in time for the second half, with a bit of luck.”

I was just about to walk out of the door when I thought of something. “When, um, when is the history in for anyway, do you know?” I asked.

“Oh, not for ages, end of next week I think.” My daughter was zipping up her pencil case now, putting her stationery to bed.

Ah.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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