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The Mighty Manatee

by Lilli Lee

When it comes to our kids’ education, nothing fills me with as much inner panic or turns me into a version of my mother more than when our first grader comes home with a project, report or assignment other than his typical weekly homework packet. It’s a twisted, cyclical, silent, one-way conversation that ping pongs between, ‘What more can I handle?’ to ‘Why should I worry about this?’ to ‘How can we make this the best Manatee report the teacher has ever seen?’ to ‘I’m so annoyed at hearing myself nag him to do it, I’m just NOT going to nag and see if he does it on his own! Let him fail! That’ll teach him!!’ But no matter how many times I fantasize about a 6 year old having the motivation to tackle this wide-ranging subject on his own, I know I will not let him fail and I will mercilessly harass him every single day until we are both so sick of the subject and each other we will have wished his teacher had stuck to the boring weekly assignment instead of trying to teach him the importance of research and deeper study.

Just the mere mention of our son needing to write and present an oral report prompted me to conjure up distant memories of my own elementary school anxieties. Recollecting one seemingly innocuous task struck me in the gut like an extra helping of a bad burrito.

In 4th grade, I received an assignment which was to write forty short biographies on forty noteworthy Americans. All I wanted was to go to the stationary store and pick out one of those pretty report folders in a bright red or green. The kind that paper neatly clamped in to, thanks to the three gold brads down the interior spine. Maybe a white sticker on the front announcing the title in color coordinated ink. But here’s a glimpse into how I grew up: What felt clean, neat, organized and simple to me translated to boring, average, institutional and utterly soulless to my mother.

So, faced with this assignment, I cracked open an Encyclopedia Brittanica (first mistake. There are always more interesting ways to research) and started writing facts about these famous faces in history. My mother saw what I was doing and announced a different suggestion. “Why not (SHOW YOUR TEACHER HOW SMART WE ARE) and write all those biographies in rhyme!” I don’t remember putting up a fight or not. I think by 4th grade I was probably used to the whims of my mother’s and figured four rhyming lines for each of the forty people was less work than writing a whole page. And it was likely easier than actually researching and regurgitating actual facts. But it was clear once I arrived at George Gershwin either I was getting punchy, bored or 100% lazy because here’s how I summed up this brilliant composer through the magic of poetry: “Oh Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy. Porgy and Bess, Bess and Porgy.”

I think because writing extensive pages on 40 Americans seemed like enough work at the time, an oral presentation wasn’t part of the teacher’s plan. Obviously our teacher and my mother didn’t see eye to eye on this idea either. I mean, folders of facts were fine for some people but these poems of mine were way too important to be suffocated inside a notebook. They had to be exposed for the whole world (or at least my fourth grade fellow students) to see and learn from and be impressed by until the end of the semester. So, the day the reports were due, my work had to be, once again, different. I remember staring with envy as each classmate entered our room and stacked one of those pretty folders, one on top of the other on our teacher’s desk. I had to be the last one in because of the sheer size and weight of what I was going to turn in. Each one of those forty fabulous Americans were presented in enormous, life-sized paper dolls, each holding hands in poetic harmony, glued onto this heavy vinyl material akin to several thick shower curtains cobbled together. It was like dragging miles of thick plastic and then nearly choking underneath from the weight of it, trying hoist it up and stuff it through the door of the classroom. Kids made way to let me and my mother pass, watching the two of us try and lift it above our heads so it wouldn’t graze the floor, all eyes on the creative team who made it possible. Even my teacher stood by, a little dumbfounded by the size of it, resigned to the reality that my mother wasn’t going to ask permission before tacking this monster-sized project over whatever he had originally, painstakingly written on the chalkboard. It was up for the whole class to see and be awed by. The masterpiece had landed.

I remember moments after the murmurs and buzz had died down, one girl in particular, the cool girl who always had the newest Guess jeans and Swatch watches turned to me and asked with an obvious sneer, ‘God. Couldn’t you have just turned in a regular report?’

The humiliation of not fitting in, of being different, of not being cool like the rest of the class with their portable folders… one would think it would have been strong enough to make an impact all these years later. To a certain extent it has- that embarrassment of having to be different still gives me pause- but there’s still that part of me who wants to push, too. It must be genetic that when faced with my son needing to do an oral report, my first impulse was to go to the internet to look up a local store that might sell a size 7 manatee costume. He would look so cute with his little face poking out of a big manatee body! Wouldn’t his teacher think he’s so creative for taking his assignment that extra step? Won’t his friends find it absolutely adorable? Maybe a kiddie pool could be dragged in there, too, so he can recite his facts while splashing around in the style of that thick skinned, gray and blue, friendly water mammal.

I wonder what rhymes with ‘manatee?’

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Ben Lee

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