Before returning to Jake, I checked in with his teachers for a progress update. I was pleased to hear that he was still excelling in PE, and with the help of his math teacher, all back assignments had been completed. He was up to date. The science teacher confirmed the research project was underway with class time spent in the library, but she wasn’t sure how much work Jake had completed, and a 1-2 page typed biography of his scientist was due at the end of the week.
In language arts Jake was behind. The class was reading The Giver, but he apparently he was not. As a result he failed 2 comprehension quizzes, and more than likely was unprepared to write the essay also due at the end of the week.
I had my work assignment mapped out when I rang the bell again. And I was thinking about it when I rang again. And again. Grrr, I grumbled shuffling the load of supplies I carried to one arm and reaching for my cell phone with my free hand. I punched in his number. No answer. But by the fourth ring, when I saw him pass through the basement doorway, I sensed our honeymoon period had passed.
While we followed our same path back to the kitchen table, Jake dragged his backpack and droned on with assurances that his homework was done. I didn’t respond. Instead I pulled out four stackable plastic files from a large plastic bag and asked him to label each one, one with his name and the others with each of his brother’s names. We organized the loose papers on the table into the files and stashed the junk mail in a separate round basket I pulled from my supply bag. Jake actually liked the organization and vowed to introduce the new file system to the family.
Next, it was time to check the homework folder. I had to bite my tongue as he rambled defensively. “I did my math at school, and for the science project the teacher is giving us time to work in the library, so I left the packet in my locker…”
Finally, my piercing stare, my silent reprimand, caught his eye and the chatter ceased, for the moment at least. He suddenly remembered the science packet in his backpack, and happily it appear while he explained, “….because the bell rang and I couldn’t find my folder, so….”
“Stop, Jake. What’s my mantra?” Sadly he looked puzzled, and I had to hint with the first syllable, “Org…”
“Organization is the key to success,” he shouted over me.
“Right. I know it’s hard to break old habits, and it takes time to build new ones, but no more excuses. Just admit you didn’t do it, and do better next time. I knew admission of wrong doing was challenging for Jake, and he wasn’t quite ready to go that far. But he looked surprised, relieved by my calm response when he hadn’t performed as expected. I’m guessing a history of scolding may have led to the litany of creative excuses his father refers to as lies.
I was pleased to see the research progress was in pretty good shape, illegible to me, but he was able to read his notes. He knew nothing about the 1-2 page biography due at the end of the week. And he had already given up on the language arts reading assignment. Of course, I had not.
An assignment book would be just another parcel to misplace or forget, but he needed something reliable on which to record and check assignments. So together we created an assignment page and taped it to the front of the homework folder. He was to record all assignments and their due dates, even no homework was to be marked with a NO HW. I made a mental note to inform his teachers and solicit their help in building this good habit.
The reading, he told me, was a problem. He didn’t have the book. “…lent it to a friend who forgot to bring it back….” And before I realized Jake had pulled out his cell phone, not to call the friend, but his mom to have her pick up a copy of the book from the library on her way home from work.
“Whoa, stop, no, this isn’t her responsibility, and actually I have a copy of the book for you right here.” I pulled out the last item from the depth of the plastic bag, and held the book in the air. He hung up the phone.
We divided the number of pages he had to read (112) by the number of days (3) he had to complete the assignment, leaving one extra day for writing the essay. We marked each day’s reading (27 pages) right in the book with a post-it note, and I saw Jake visibly relaxed. The overwhelming total number of pages no longer looked so daunting. The book was to remain in the pocket of his homework folder so he’d have it for class, his free study period and to bring back home again.
After marking the assignments on the month-at-a-glance calendar, Jake stood back on smiled. “Yeah, I can do this,” he said. And I knew he could.
Enough about school, time to head upstairs to our hard labor.
A few pairs of dirty basketball shorts lay on the bedroom floor, but for the most part his room looked the same, ready for the next phase. We temporarily stashed the box with the “elsewhere” items in his closet where Jake thought they’d be well hidden, and attacked the box holding items for his room only. One by one we pulled out shoes, clothes, books, sports equipment and separated them in piles. Dirty clothes went to the wash, books on the shelf, shoes and sports equipment to the shelves in the closet. When Jake seemed to have the process down, I suggested he finish the task on his own before my next visit.
I couldn’t leave with the unfavorably scented “elsewhere” items still in the closet. The box mostly contained dirty dishes, silverware and cereal and snack boxes. I knew he’d had enough, but pushed him to drag the box down to the kitchen, where I loaded the dishwasher and closed the open food packages, and he returned them to the pantry. Finally the box went to the trash. Jake felt good, proud, excited to share his new room with his mom. And I was pretty confident she’d respond with the right reward, a smile and praise. Maybe even help to maintain order.
We reviewed his responsibilities while I noted mine, and parted once again, each of us feeling relaxed and accomplished.