Why children's artwork is so precious

Our children go to a progressive school, which I'm beginning to think means a school that will progressively drive their parents out of their minds. They are in the second grade, but neither of them has a desk. They have tables that they share with other classmates. They have work stations. They have the carpeted floor to lounge on during something called "meeting." But for all the tax dollars we ante up semiannually, neither of them has a - you know - desk.

This irks me. This is not my vision of elementary school. How will they master organizational skills, or have a sense of their own private space? More important, how will they pass notes to friends, or whisper across the row, their heads under their desktops, while they pretend to search for a lost ruler? They will not, they cannot, because they have no desk.

Our children are in different classes, with different teachers, because they are twins and twins are always separated at this very progressive school. Which is fine with me; they see enough of each other at home. But because they are in the same grade, they often have the same homework assignments. Back in October, they both brought home an assignment sheet that loudly proclaimed in boldface letters that CHILDREN'S ARTWORK IS PRECIOUS! True, I agreed, thinking that there's nothing more precious than a little math homework, however.

But no, there was no math to be done, at least not this time. Instead, our children were to create, on their own, the assignment sheet warned, a Halloween haunted house. Fine, my husband and I thought, let them pull together two little houses of their own devising. It'll be fun, I guess. I have always expected that I would assume a hands-off approach to my children's homework assignments.

I would stand by, on guard and ever ready, but I would never, ever be one of those meddling, manipulative moms who actually got involved with their children's work. Not me. I was above that sort of thing, mainly because I always figured I'd have as much interest in participating in a child's art assignment as I would in learning how to play bridge, which I place on a par with driving into Queens to purchase curtains, which only an idiot would do. I am many things, but not an idiot. No Queens, no bridge, no artwork. When it came to haunted houses, they were on their own.

And they each did a very nice job and turned in houses that looked as though they were made by seven-year-olds. Our daughter made a haunted schoolhouse out of an old box that previously held books. (Soon I will steal back her haunted schoolhouse and repack it with books.) Our son made a haunted home out of a shoe box. These were modest, heartfelt offerings. They were also completely outclassed by most of their peers, who arrived at school toting five-foot, massive mansions, some involving knowledge of electrical wiring. Some had sound effects. Some had blinking lights. All were carried in by blushingly proud parents.

The minority of us who had stuck to the assignment were shocked. So this is the true meaning of Halloween: parental one-upmanship. Still, my husband and I patted ourselves on the back, acting smugly self-righteous. We would never slide to such a low level; we take these assignments seriously. Privately, we felt like, yes, idiots. The children were oblivious. They couldn't seem to tell a child-made house from a grown-up one. They were simply delighted that the hall outside their classrooms was now crowded with somebody's - anybody's - precious artwork, which could only mean that Halloween was just a shout away.

SO when the next assignment came home, trumpeting once again that CHILDREN'S ARTWORK IS PRECIOUS! and that the children were now supposed to create a holiday decoration, my husband and I sniffed and snorted and swore that we would not stoop to the petty echelon of those other people. Oh no, this was to be an independent project once again. The kids were to pick out their own holiday symbol, anything from a crche to a dreidel to a candy cane. Our daughter decided on a papier-mche snowman. Well, I thought, at least I can help her make the flour-and- water paste, maybe help tear the newspaper into strips. But after that, she's on her own.

Our son chose to construct a miniature fireplace, complete with tiny Christmas stockings hanging down. He found an even smaller box this time and set out to design his creation. My husband saw him fiddling with a few sticks and promptly went out back and chopped miniature logs for him to place in the front of the box. Our son found some gray packing material and fashioned a chimney out of it. You need a mantle, my husband said. What's a mantle? our son asked. The next thing I knew, the two of them were hammering something in the basement, and when they came back upstairs the box had a wooden mantle, with perfectly spaced nails for hanging the stockings.

But I didn't pay much attention to what they were doing. I was too busy wrapping papier-mche strips around the snowman's head. "Can I do some, Mommy?" Our daughter asked politely. "In a minute," I replied. Later, we suggested purchasing small woolen stockings for our son to hang from the nails on his mantle, but he said he really preferred the little red ones he had cut out of paper. And our daughter didn't want the fur hat her grandmother offered to donate to the snowman. For some reason, she wanted to make one out of construction paper, too.

THEN disaster struck. Somehow, some way, our daughter's snowman was thrown out. We made this discovery at 5:30 Sunday afternoon. The assignments were due the following day. Springing into action, my husband proclaimed we'd make a papier-mche star! "Huh?" we all said in response. Why not another snowman? But no, his eyes were dancing with inspiration. He took wire hangers and, like some suburban Calder, fashioned them into a five-pointed hanging celestial body. This we covered in papier-mche and spray painted gold. Our daughter dabbed orange dots all over our perfect gold star. It was difficult to restrain ourselves, but we let her do it. After all, it was her project.

None of the other children seemed to notice any qualitative difference between the Halloween project and the Christmas one, but we know their parents did. Very few children were allowed to do their own artwork this time around. By Valentine's Day, we should all have our plans in order for the next project. I was thinking of hiring a harpist, but my husband says we'll never find one small enough to fit inside a shoe box. I said, "Who said anything about a shoe box?" And now I know why, truly, children's artwork is so precious. Because it is so very, very rare.

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