Watching it burn

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Last weekend, the five of us gathered chairs around the small barbecue grill in the backyard and watched a year’s worth of work go up in smoke.

This is not the first time it has happened. At our house, it’s an annual tradition marking the start of summer – the Great Homework Bonfire. We’ve been doing it since the kids were in preschool and elementary school. Back then, the bonfire was made up of wide-ruled papers where the kids had practiced drawing letters or connecting numbered dots.

These days, with all three of them in high school, the crumpled balls of homework that feed the fire look different now. Quadratic equations, lists of literary terms and scientific conversions crackled and blazed in our makeshift fire pit.Flames of campfire

I’m not sure how the tradition began. I’m guessing it was Tom’s idea because we mothers aren’t usually keen on anything involving open flame and children. But I’m glad he came up with it because it has become one of the kids’ favorite summer events. They collect a pile of graded homework papers throughout the school year, waiting for the chance to give it an academic Viking funeral.

I think the tradition helps them make it through the more challenging homework assignments, knowing that once they wrestle the beast to completion, they will one day have the pleasure of burning it to bits.

At one point during the bonfire, I had to move my lawn chair because flakes of homework ash kept floating down around me, landing in my hair. I watched the kids’ faces as they picked up papers from their stack, gave them a cursory glance, crumpled and then tossed them into the fire. They traded memories of the school year with one another as they took turns shooting paper wads into the flames. Every now and then, a favorite essay or art project was saved from its fiery fate.

This year, the stack of old homework papers was smaller than usual because the last three months of school were spent at home, in online classrooms doing mostly online assignments. Our oldest son’s high school graduation was reduced to an unsatisfactory slideshow of school pictures at a drive-in theatre, minus the walk across the stage, the company of classmates and the collective joy of watching those caps and tassels fly up in the air.

As I watched the flames flicker and grow, I thought about how the first half of 2020 has felt like fire – unpredictable, raging and often scary. During the first five months of the year, we’ve seen devastating wildfires in Australia, an impeachment trial, the emergence of a new virus that so far has caused nearly 7 million infections around the world, widespread quarantines, the postponement of the Summer Olympics, and most recently the horrific video of George Floyd dying while held down for nearly nine minutes, his neck under the knee of someone who was supposed to “protect and serve.” This year has been its own dumpster fire, and most of us are anxious to stomp out the flames.

Years ago, when the homework bonfire tradition began, Tom and I told our three kids it’s fine to burn the papers because what matters most is what we’ve learned. As we transitioned from burning schoolwork to toasting marshmallows for the first s’mores of the summer break, I wondered what we as a family, as a country, as a worldwide community have learned so far this year. I wonder if the lessons will help us recover and emerge from the flames stronger, smarter and more compassionate than before.

I sure hope so. It would be a shame to have to learn these same lessons all over again.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of Her book is available on Amazon. 

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