I can deal with helping Riley do her homework. I yell answers to her questions as I pull baby Kirby out of the dishwasher, as I wrestle the hammer out of Ben’s hand before the dent he’s making in the wall becomes a hole. Homework I can handle — it’s the school projects that put me over the edge. So, when Riley comes home from school one day with a three-page “Mission Project” instruction packet in her hand, I know I’m doomed.
All fourth-grade students in California public schools have to study the California missions, and most schools make the kids build a model of one. I’ve seen pictures of models from previous years, from many different schools. Some of them required about 2,000 hours to build and at least one parent with a degree in architecture. More work went into some of those models than into the building of the actual missions. It’s like a competitive event, this mission thing.
As usual, Riley is inexplicably excited about the project. “I’m going to do the San Jose Mission!” she tells me.
Well, actually, we’re going to do the San Jose Mission because the instructions say, “Feel free to make this a family project!” The problem with this helpful little suggestion is that I have no idea how I’m supposed to simultaneously wrangle her rambunctious, destructive little brothers while helping her build something as complicated as a mission model.
I think about writing an excuse to Riley’s teacher: Dear Mrs. Brown: We are currently experiencing a severe staffing shortage and are unable to take on any new projects at this time, but thank you for your interest.
The fourth graders can build their models out of anything they want. I’ve seen missions made out of balsa wood, toothpicks, Styrofoam, and sugar cubes. Some kid somewhere has probably built one out of toenail clippings. I’m hoping Riley will choose materials that are simple and quick, but no such luck. She’s keenly aware of the competitive aspect of this project and says, “I want to do papier-mâché so I can paint it and make it look really good.” Papier-mâché. Labor-intensive papier-mâché. Multi-day-effort papier-mâché. Small-boy-magnet papier-mâché.
“Good is the enemy of done,” I mutter, but she doesn’t hear me.
Three nights in a row, Riley waits patiently until the forces of destruction are in bed and then asks for my help starting the mission project. Three nights in a row, I tell her I’m too tired, feeling guilty as she says okay and tries to hide her disappointment. Oh, for god’s sake, I say to myself on the third night, doesn’t her academic success mean anything to you? Well, it’s not like we’re talking about trigonometry here — it’s just a stupid model. Yeah, but the kids who smoke crack in middle school probably started out by doing a crappy job on their mission projects.
I promise myself I’ll help her over the weekend, but when the weekend comes, I’m overwhelmed with laundry and soccer and the need to get out of the house by myself for a while. The mission gets no closer to being built.
I’m lying in bed one night, thinking that I’ve got to move out of California before the boys are in fourth grade, when something occurs to me. I go downstairs to my computer, click over to eBay, and do a quick search. Sure enough, there are several homemade mission models for sale. My, my — it’s a mission-model black market. But I know my daughter. She would not cheat if her life depended on it. I sigh and go back to bed.
Still, there is some good news.
“The San Jose Mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1868,” Riley reports after reading about it on the web.
“Excellent!” I say. “Let’s do a model of the mission as it appeared after the quake. I’m sure Ben and Kirby can help with that . . .”
She shakes her head. “Mom, it was rebuilt. We have to do it like it looks now.”
Riley and I decide to drive to her mission one Saturday, an hour each way, to see what it looks like in person and pick up some postcards that we can use for reference while we’re building. I take Kirby with us but not Ben — no sense reducing the San Jose Mission to rubble again.
It turns out that the mission is as ugly in person as it is in pictures, though it has a lovely gift shop selling overpriced information booklets and videos to the hapless parents of fourth-graders. When we arrive, there are several such parents milling about, credit cards in hand, desperation etched on their faces. We choose our postcards, and a nun rings us up at the cash register. I wonder what the monks who built the missions would think of people selling mission models on eBay, of the consumerism in progress at the gift shop.
We try to tour the building, but Kirby immediately starts whining and clawing at me to put him down. We have to bail out after ten minutes. When we leave, I’m frustrated and discouraged — this trip has been a total waste of time. I should never have brought Kirby with us.
Back in the car, I’m about to apologize to Riley for having to leave so soon when she says something that surprises me. Instead of complaining about being preempted (again) by her little brother, she says that it was neat to see her mission in person and she’s really glad we came. She thanks me for bringing her — without a hint of sarcasm. As we drive away, she reaches across to Kirby and tickles his tummy while calling him by his nickname. “Who’s the Boo-Boo? Whoooooo’s the Boo-Boo? YOU ARE! You’re the UBER BOO-BOO!” He chortles and wriggles in his car seat, delighted with her attention. They make goofy noises at each other the whole way home.
For whatever reason, she is satisfied with what she gets from our family, though it doesn’t seem like enough to me.
I never do build the model with Riley. She decides to do the project with her dad, which leaves me profoundly relieved and just slightly jealous. She builds her mission out of papier-mâché, making sure all the details are just right, painting it carefully to match the color postcards we bought together. Mission accomplished, without much help from me at all.