When I was younger, I never did my homework. I don’t remember getting homework in Britain, but when I moved over to the US in 4th grade, we most certainly had homework, which I most certainly did not ever complete. Both my elementary and middle schools had many ideas to develop this habit in their students: they gave the students daily planners for free, and required the students to copy down all assignments in them… then required parents to sign them. Eventually, notes went home to parents complaining that their child would grow up to be a delinquent if he/she did not cultivate at least some habit of doing homework. These procedures were to no avail. The system failed me, because I refused to participate in it at all.
I obviously came out okay, but it was no way in thanks to my limited ability to complete nightly assignments.
I was a curious child, and I liked logic puzzles. When I learned that I could apply them to the real world, a wide array of loopholes seemed to appear out of nowhere. These loopholes were especially valuable if they could get me out of doing more work than necessary. This is how I learned the speed trick of doing homework in the morning, which evolved to a very well-constructed map of how to do all of my homework in school as quickly as possible: usually in the class before the assignment was due.
For a while, I felt proud of how easily I skated by, getting the same (or better) grades as my friends who slaved at home after school for hours and hours. I watched television, movies, read lots of books, wrote down stories, but took no academic work home.
The result: when I got to college, I found that I had little to no time-management skills, and I didn’t know how to research anything. How on earth had I gotten by so long without realizing that homework does have value: in the wayside skills it allows you to accumulate.
Homework teaches organization.
I love writing things down; I like the neatness of being able to see a map of my deadlines on a page, and listing the exact steps that I need to take in order to get there. I have a great notebook that is geared towards writing down one short reflection every day, and has space for these reflections for over five years.
But since I never did homework, I didn’t learn how to sustain these organizational patterns. I like the idea of organization, but it never lasts. I never developed the habit of writing things down so as not to forget them. I grew up instead in the Post-It school of organization (which do not have the same adhesive strength that they are advertised for). Post-Its get lost, wet, ripped, and every single one of them looks the same. I tried to color-code for a while, but even that eventually became impossible.
Homework is an early lesson in time management.
I have a terrible habit of letting the hours slip by, unaccounted for. I never learned how to divvy time between objectives, how to estimate the amount needed for any certain task. A book will take me the amount of time to read that I will take to read it. An essay will be finished when it is finished (usually after a lot of all-nighters, stress, and crying). Packing gets done by the time I have to leave.
This year, I planned my Christmas presents a month in advance, and it was a miracle that has never happened before (tune in next year to see if it is an experiment that can be repeated).
Homework gives students the ability to see projects through to the end.
One of the ways I managed to skate by middle and high school relatively unscathed was by doing the absolute minimum amount of work. This often resulted in half-completed assignments, essays without full analysis or conclusions, research that stopped after 4 sources. There were many times that I had trouble seeing the bigger picture, because I would become too restless before I found any clear perspective in my research.
Homework also needed to be done by a certain time, and I got bored easily, so I would spread out all of my homework and do bits and pieces of each assignment, swiftly switching between them. This gave me a fantastic ability to see connections between different disciplines, but a very lousy habit of never being able to see a task all the way through in one sitting.
Homework creates a sense of discipline, an idea of commitment and dedication.
I was very jealous of my friends in high school who invested their self worth in their academic assignments. I tried to pride myself on the fact that I was independent – but clearly I didn’t do a good job of independently motivating myself to produce valuable work.
My friends did a good job because they wanted the job to be done well. They wanted maximum praise for their effort. I did a mediocre job because it was enough to get me by – but in the process, I never did any justice to my insights and creative perspective by supplementing them with hard work..
This afternoon, I went to the market and stopped at the stall of our “cheese guy”. We don’t know his name – just that he makes the best cheese ever, and is only at the market on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. That often results in “cheeseless Wednesdays”, like this week for example.
It started to rain, and no one really goes to the market early on a Thursday afternoon, so it was generally deserted. When I reached The Cheese Guy, he was reading his newspaper. I said hello, and he looked up quickly, smiling when he saw me.
“The rain is cold!” I told him.
“Oh – is raining?” he asked. The Cheese Guy does not speak very much English, and a few months ago he decided that it was time for me to learn Dutch, so it’s actually very rare that he will speak to me in English at all.
“Yes,” I confirmed, and asked him, “Has it been a slow day?”
“Ah!” he smiled, repeating, “Yes… slow – day.”
I realized that I have taught him one of those simple English colloquialisms. A “slow day” is code for: It’s cold and raining, and no one has come out today to buy much cheese.
He takes my order and cuts a chuck of the Noord Holland Belegan for me (our favourite), and prices it in Dutch:
“Vier – negentig.”
Four – ninety. At least I learned the numbers, plus I catch them when they quickly flash on the scales. I’m rummaging in my purse when he says something else to me in Dutch. I look up, but it’s gone. He’s still talking to me in Dutch, and while I can – sometimes – infer what he’s saying, today I come up with nothing.
“Are you still trying to teach me Dutch?” I ask him.
“Yes – trying.”
And then it hits me:
There are so many things I want to say to him that I’ll never be able to.
Your cheese is delicious. We eat through it so quickly that sometimes we have to go without cheese for a few days until we can see you again because we’ll never go back to supermarket for it.
For a country that doesn’t do other kinds of cheese well (the mozzarella and romano are terrible, and I haven’t seen cheddar anywhere in sight!), you make fresh cheese so perfectly.
I love using my slicer at home: I’ve never owned one before. It makes me feel like a connoisseur.
I love seeing the red awning of your stall at the market, and I love how even though it’s smaller than the other stalls, there are always people waiting in line for you.
Here is someone who offered to talk through Dutch with me patiently, in return for my willingness to learn it. But once again, I haven’t done my homework..
Parents complain too much about their children’s homework when, instead, they should be recognizing the values that it imparts without directly preaching them:
Organization. Time-management. Dedication. The ability to see how a series of smaller steps leads up to completing a larger goal.
The knowledge that each step is vital.
I had a brief moment of epiphany in my Junior year of high school when I was dating my first boyfriend. We were in the same Pre-Calculus class with a teacher that I absolutely adored, so class was awesome every day. We sat across the aisle from each other, and as our romance blossomed, we started sharing notes. Love made me study. I paid more attention in class and took better notes so that I could be as thorough as he was.
Our evening phone calls developed into study sessions because he complained that he didn’t have time to do his homework when we talked late into the night. After a few months, we were doing the homework together every single night; working out the problem silently in our heads, and then sharing our answers for confirmation. I loved seeing the right answer come shining through at the end of all the work. A complex problem, distilled down to its most vital elements.
I got straight As in Pre-Calculus; it was the first time I had ever gotten more than 100 on a test grade (from doing all of the homework, I could easily decode the steps needed for the extra-credit). I had never loved math so much in my life. The next year, in Calculus, I was less engaged, stopped doing my homework, and barely understood a thing.
I regret that I never committed myself to my homework in the same way that I had for Pre-Calculus, that it took someone else to show me the value and self-worth inherent in doing a good job, that now I am afraid I have never fully done myself justice. I wish I had listened more to my Pre-Calculus teacher when he called me in after class to show me my first 107% test score, when he told me that this was the work I was capable of producing.
I miss that sense of achievement from truly committing myself to something.
In high school, my step-father told me that it only takes two weeks to form a habit. This is my consolation: It’s not too late to start again.