What you can learn from a loud group of fifth graders.

fifth graders
The whirl of activity is semi-represented.

My husband is away in Baltimore. He goes there quarterly and we joke about his second family. Does this wife cook for him? Do those kids listen? I am pretty sure he sits in generic conference rooms and tries to move along a project between one part of the government and another, captain of a ship whose movement has to be measured miles per month rather than miles per hour.

Left behind I order pizza and have to coach the fifth grade Destination Imagination team.

DI, ostensibly, is team building, imagination rewarding, iterative work for eager young minds. The teams meet for 8 months building vehicles for a structural challenge while creating a story around it a beautiful blend of science and art showing all of us how we can’t actually tease subjects apart and expect the world still to turn.

Running across the street from school they enter our house before I get there. The snow is melting in the 65 degree Colorado sun so I trip over a pile of shoes as I push past the door to join them inside. There is an immediate crisis. Problem solving is just the sort of thing that we work on in DI. By we I mean the kids. The adult coaches are supposed to keep their mouths shut. So I let them weep about the fact that there is no snack.

“But Aaaaannnnnnaaaaa “ on of the more dramatic students asks “how can we build a hover craft on an empty stomach?” It is true. These kids are on the verge of death. They are STARVING. So I raise my arm and gesture towards the cabinets which they swarm like the vultures that they are.

They dump their feast onto the long table that they have already pushed aside in the dining room. Cookies, bananas, pepperoni, crackers, cheese. I had no idea that we had all of those things and in the time that it took for me to speak that thought it became irrelevant. The bananas had been eaten, the pepperoni slices sucked down and the crackers pulverized into crumbs on the floor. The only thing more impressive than their eating is the noise that they make while working. This group is particularly loud…my son the main culprit as he perpetually screams when he is excited. He raises his voice to a deafening pitch when it seems people aren’t attending to his message. Both excitement and being ignored are the natural state of DI so he is always at full volume.

I have complained about it for two years and mostly I love it. It is the sound of kids who are enjoying themselves and are engaged in their work. Who expects that to be quiet. This project is different. They are building a hover craft so their is a leaf blower going almost all of the time. There is also the teammate warning, loudly, that they shouldn’t run the leaf blower all the time because we will WASTE THE BATTERIES and I totally would agree with her if she wasn’t gesticulating with a power drill buzzing away in her hand. It is small and I have trouble keeping my ideas to myself. On of the team members is carefully patching the holes that the staple gun made in the thick plastic with matching black duct tape while another sits aboard the hover craft cutting holes into its bladder with big scissors. He is afraid it will explode without a vent. Which is sort of how I feel so I leave the room. I am not supposed to make suggestions and I find it very hard to watch him cut up two weeks of work.

The others are objecting and he is cutting and finally one of them distracts him with building a steering wheel and while he turns his attention some one is slipping away with the scissors. If slipping away looked like a galloping figures swinging large scissors over his head screaming “I got them I got them.”

So everything is going pretty much as I expect when I settle into the loveseat a room away with a crossword puzzle and a bottle of whiskey. Or one of them. I hear… “Where did the axe go?” and I feel I need to pay some attention. Turns out they simply wanted to chop firewood into perfectly square pieces to use to mount the wheels onto the hovercraft. (I know hovercrafts don’t have wheels and so do they actually its just that the DI challenge requires each vehicle to have two methods of movement and two means of propulsion. Plus a story. With costumes.) So my little guy heads outside with an axe to make his perfectly square pieces of wood. He seems to learn pretty quickly that the ax is designed for splitting not for squaring but unlike his mom my kid is not a quitter. He hops around outside with a reddening face set in stone. This wood will submit to his will if not his axe. He is turning himself 360 degrees with each chop. Sometimes the axe gets stuck in the wood and he has to slam it a few times against the patio. Sometimes he misses entirely and has to jump back. It is a losing proposition. The inefficacy of his tool of choice, his lack of coordination, and the fact that he will not admit defeat.

Slowly his team members gather to watch. First one drifts over to check on his progress then she calls the others and finally they are all there. Laughing at him. It seems as though maybe they are laughing with him but  I am pretty sure they are not when they scream that he needs turn towards the glass sliders so they can watch his face when he fails. He looks up to them ax and wood connected in his hand. “Do any of you want to try this?” He ask. “This ax is not maneuverable” he explains, maroon faced and blue eyed. Its design doesn’t allow for you to cut across the wood fibers. I knew that he knew this. His largest teammate slides open the door at the request of the girls on the team. He steps through, takes the ax wood combo and hits it once, sharply to the ground and the wood splits in two. The onlookers applaud and whoop and my son protests. “No. No! I know how to split wood!!! I was trying to shorten its LENGTH.” The other boy knows how to play this out. He hands my son the axe and slips back into the house with the two equal pieces in his hands. “Now YOU try again Oliver” shrieks on of the girls with laughter. Yeah, says another kid, I want to get this on YouTube. I have not defended him. I figure he can do that. But I wonder if I would have stepped in if it were one of the other kids being watched like a zoo animal on the other side of the glass. Just when I decide I would have my son rushes past in tears.

“What?” “Why are you crying?” “Why are you upset?” they chorus after him as he runs away. One of them turns to me, I’m not sure if it is in the capacity of coach, mother, or generic adult, and asks “Why is he so upset?” “You are his teammate” I answer. “You should work on this problem.” So they do, loudly, voices tumbling over each other footsteps thundering up and down the stairs as they search for my weeping child.

Finally they are all back. He is red eyed and damp, his team gathered around as he explains again that he COULD do it. No one mentions that squaring off fire wood might not have been useful anyways just like no one mentions the fact that they wanted to record his dances with wood. They are back at work. Now with a vacuum cleaner in the mix as a teammate cleans up the wood chips from our dining room. One of them is sitting on the hovercraft with the leaf blower set on high. If she turns it down the hovercraft will deflate the way my kids has. Sitting on the edge of the bench watching his team with uncharacteristic silence.

Like everything in the Ferber of fifth grade this is short lived. By the time they have reset the room he is back to full volume as they descend on their shoe pile tossing mates to each other preparing to head across the street to play in the school yard as the team they are.

Taking a deep breath in the quiet I list what j have learned, we have more snack than I think, upset can be set aside, and a random rumble of kids can come together in work and play. Not such bad lessons on this Thursday.

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Anna Palmer

Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.

7 thoughts on “What you can learn from a loud group of fifth graders.”

  1. I can’t believe you needed a child to teach you that one CANNOT build an adequate hovercraft on an empty stomach. Do you live under a rock, or what? Do you not read the papers???

    This post was hilarious and so sweet! Plus, I think you’re a saint for handling it all so well–go ahead and get the whiskey bottle now.

  2. This post demonstrates how perfect you are as a DI team mentor. You truly know how to apply the “duct tape” and allow children to find solutions. This post is perfect, and while I do feel for your precious son, allowing the team to “fix” the situation is the best solution.

  3. I think I learn far more from listening to my seven year old step-grandson than I have ever learnt in books. Children are so able to find their own solutions and levels when they are encouraged to do so. There are quite a few valuable lessons in that axe story and I would say those children learnt one hell of a lot that day without even realising it. Whiskey? Seriously? 🙂

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