09/18/2014 05:51 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2015

A Good Evening Spoiled

A few weeks ago, my oldest child walked out the front door and headed straight for eighth grade. He wore a Chicago Black Hawks t-shirt, but I remember when he sported Lightning McQueen as he headed towards his first day of kindergarten. I also remember that I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had agonized over the decision to send my child to a Chicago Public School. This fall, as my son entered his last year of elementary school, I took note that I no longer the same fear I did all those years ago.

I can still remember lying awake at night thinking "holy crap, I'm going to end up sending my little guy to a CPS neighborhood school." A neighborhood school which, eight years ago, did not have a good reputation... although it has a great one now. Eight years ago, I also had a 3-year-old and was pregnant with my third. I watched that third child, my youngest, also head off to school this year. For her, it was second grade. I sometimes wonder if her pre-natal exposure to CPS had any effect on her gestational development, like with BPFs, or second hand smoke, or raw fish. The cortisol coursing through my body as I sent her big brother to kindergarten had to be off the charts. Of my three kids, my youngest is the most standardized test phobic, seems the most lost among large class sizes, and has been the most negatively impacted by the longer, unfunded school day. Is there fetal CPS syndrome? I think there might be.

Eight years ago, my "first day of school" feeling was fear, but that changed. Some years as my kids headed out the door in September, I was positively gleeful. Those "yippee!" first days of school were the ones that put a humane end to long hot summers filled with sibling arguing, antagonizing and having some kid put their feet in the exact spot that made the other kids go ballistic. If you have spent summers with kids who excel at pushing each other's buttons, who say and/or do the precise thing that is sure to piss each other off, then you understand why the first day of school can bring about a feeling joy. While not my finest hour as a parent, I do recall one summer telling my kids that they were lucky they were my children, because if they were my roommates, I would have kicked them out. So, yes, on more than one first day of school, I was ecstatic at the prospect of peace and quiet once again being mine.

This year, the feeling I had as my kids went back to school was a feeling of anxious hope. Two anxious hopes really. First and foremost, I anxiously hoped that my kids would have great teachers. As is, was and always will be the case, a teacher can make or break a year for a kid. A gifted teacher can bring about enthusiasm and a love of learning. A crummy teacher can bring about dread and turn kids off to school completely. My second anxious hope is that my kids get little to no homework.

There isn't a situation going on in my home that a nightly dose of homework can't make worse. Just bringing up the word "homework" with kids is like mentioning a former lover to your current partner. No matter how innocently or casually it's brought up, it's never well received. "You just had to mention homework didn't you? I was in a great mood until you brought that up!" To paraphrase Twain, homework is a good evening spoiled.

Last year my youngest daughter, then in first grade, liked to write and illustrate her own books during what should have been her down time. One night instead of filling in a bunch of blanks on a double sided worksheet, she wrote and illustrated "Superman vs. Elsa: Strength or Ice Powers?" When I asked her if she had started her homework, she wailed "I have stories in my head that need to get out!" A few nights later she wrote a follow up "The Avengers vs. Disney Princesses: This Could Be Close." Those gems, those "stories that need to get out" will never be handed in nor graded, and therefore are considered a superfluous use of "down time'. My daughter agonized over homework. Not because it was hard, but because after seven hours of school, more schoolwork was just so tedious. Plus, she's got these stories that need to get out, and homework stands in the way of their release.

My middle child willingly, dutifully, does her homework, but it exacts a toll on her. She trains three hours a day as a competitive gymnast. After seven hours of school, she immediately attacks her homework so that she can finish it all before heading to the gym. She has little time for much else, and frequently worries that she won't get her homework done. Because she is a straight A student, she gives the impression that it all comes easy to her, but it doesn't. She could really use some free time after school to do nothing, to be a kid while she still is one. I guess she could quit gymnastics, but why should she have to quit an after school interest in order to accommodate homework? It's after school! Why can't a kid do seven hours of school and then be free to do sports, or music, or PLAY, or whatever else they want to do in the evenings without having school infiltrate that time as well? Just because a kid does the homework without complaining doesn't mean it's benefiting them, and it doesn't mean it isn't causing some sort of stress either.

My oldest kid doesn't write books, and he isn't on a sports team, but he does follow current events, scientific discoveries and politics, more closely than most adults I know. During his "downtime" he likes to read up on what's happening in the world and discuss those topics, trying to learn even more. His feeling on homework? He doesn't see why he needs to do it since he knows the material, does well on tests and actively participates in class. From his perspective, he is giving what he's got seven hours a day in school. Why should he have to do more in the evenings when that time should be his own? It's not about the homework being difficult for him. It isn't. It's not about it being overly time consuming. It's not. It's a matter of principle. The school makes him do what they want him to do all day long. When he leaves, he'd like his time away from school to be his own. I think he makes a valid point. However, since a percentage of his grades are linked to homework, last year we battled it out most nights, me making him do his homework so his grades wouldn't suffer. I would have rather been discussing politics with him, getting an insight as to how my thirteen year old son viewed what was happening in the world, but after fighting about homework, neither one of us felt much like talking.

So, as another school year begins, I am anxiously hoping. Anxiously hoping that little if any homework muscles it's way into my home, commandeering time and energy away from my family. Along those lines, I also anxiously hope that the overseeing of three separate science fair projects this year won't drive me to drink and that the overseeing just one history fair project won't drive me to drink more. Homework. Yep. It's a good evening spoiled.