“Draw an S, then make it straight, that is how you make an 8!”
A, my five year old, recited the rhyme with impatience and disdain. He took the pencil in his small hand and drew a snaky S, curve and curve, then tried to draw a line to make the S into an 8, but he took the pencil up and around the side, creating a strange oblong circle.
“I can’t do it! I keep trying and trying, but I can’t do it! All my 8s look like raindrops!”
It did look rather like a raindrop, I thought, as I patted his back, a gesture of comfort. I looked over his paper of numbers, all perfect in his 5 year old penmanship. He had a rhyme for each of them, and he had mastered them all fairly well: the fat belly and hat on his 5s, the curvy humps of his threes, the line and circle form to his 6s.
A has always had a strange contradiction in his ability to focus. He can sit down and work on a single drawing of a monster or an owl, completely independent, and be proud of his work afterwards, but at various times in his drawing, an alligator tail or a dragon wing will leave him frustrated beyond measure. During those difficult times, I’ll sit down with him and help him carefully learn how to practice the thing that is frustrating him, helping him hone his focus and master the skill so that he can continue to be proud of his work.
Over the next several minutes, I showed A how to make 8s. Using the school rhyme, we drew S’s and made them straight by connecting the midpoints of the S with a line, rather than drawing it around in raindrop form. It took him time, but he finally got it. But it wasn’t until he learned the method of stacking two circles on top of each other that he boosted with confidence.
“I’m the best at drawing circles! Watch this!” And he proceeded to fill his entire page with 8s, little circles stacked on big circles, showing me each one to get approval.
As A kept making full lines of numbers, I turned to see how his brother was doing. J had just turned 8 and was thriving in the second grade. Both boys had missed a few days of school to go on vacation with their mom, and J had a stack of worksheets to complete for make-up work. I sat down and observed him silently as he moved his lips, counting numbers on his fingers and tacking them in groups on his paper. I looked down to see the problems he was working on. 987+412. 323+560. Triple digits?
I watched J take the problems in stride, adding the 1s column, carrying the 1 when needed, then working on the 10s column, then the 100s. It was astounding watching his little brain work, never looking up for help and getting nearly every answer right. A few minutes later, he set his math aside and, getting weary of homework, asked for some help with his reading comprehension. We read stories out loud and processed through details in a series of difficult questions that not only required J to remember facts and order, but to look into subtleties of plot.
“Why did Adam ask his mother for permission? How might the story have ended differently if he did not ask for permission?”
I watched J write out his answers with confidence, his letters blocky and large and too close together.
At the end of homework time, I noticed both of my sons’ cheeks getting rosy, a surefire way of gauging how tired they were getting. We played for a bit, acting like animals on the ground and chasing each other. We shifted to a briefly wrestling/tickling match, then I pretended to a sleeping tiger as they tried to sneak by me, never quite making it without being grabbed and eaten. I read a story to the boys, then J read one to A and I, and then it was time for baths and teeth-brushing and pajamas. Both boys were sacked out and sleeping in minutes.
I stood in their doorway for a time, watching them, listening to their quick breaths, nothing how similar and yet how differently they slept. The rest of the house was painfully quiet. I reflected on my life as a single parent, sharing custody of my incredible children, and how much all of our lives had changed in the past five years.
Then I headed back downstairs, a pile of dishes and another pile of laundry waiting for me, but I stopped first and smiled, at little stacks of homework ready for tomorrow, and a full page of practice 8s.