In honor of Mother’s Day, I figured I’d tell a story about what a little freak I was growing up, and in so doing, I would illuminate what a good mother my mom must’ve been for putting up with me. Yes, Mother’s Day was two days ago, but failing to complete a project on time is actually pretty consistent with the theme of this story, so here goes…

From a very young age, I was a big neurotic geek about school. Nothing was more important to me than making a good impression on my teachers, and therefore, on my parents and therefore, ultimately, on myself. That meant that every task, every bit of homework, however minor, carried the inherent risk of letting myself down on three levels: big stakes for an eight-year-old. The earliest I can trace back my extreme school stress is third grade, and a very difficult project in art class.

From what I remember, third grade art class meant putting on a smock, taking a sheet of paper and some watercolor paints and making a big mess. But for me, education was never quite that simple. Even at that age, I believed in maintaining certain standards. So when the teacher assigned our class a Big Creative Project, I knew he had high hopes for us. And when he gave us one month to complete that assignment, I immediately began budgeting my time. I quickly computed just how much class time there was in a month. Art class only met once a week, and each class was significantly shortened by mandatory “Setup Time” and “Cleanup Time”, which left us with all of about four and a half minutes total to conceive, design and complete our masterpiece.

The theme of the project was what we would be like as grown-ups, and each of us was assigned a partner. In my case, it was a girl named Marcy. I don’t remember much about her, but I do distinctly recall that he had short black hair, that she spat when she talked, and that she was probably the only eight-year-old in the world more high-strung about schoolwork than I was. We were a perfect match.

As soon as we heard our assignment, the other kids got right to work, slathering paint across their canvasses and making their amateurish impressionist messes. But Marcy and I didn’t rush ourselves. We knew something like this required planning. Our first obstacle was how to depict our separate futures in one coherent work of art. I realized the easiest solution would be if we grew up and married each other, so I proposed to Marcy on the spot. For the sake of the painting, she agreed. Now we had just one family to depict. We were an efficient, artistic machine.

Of course, other conflicts inevitably arose. I wanted a large family with lots of kids, but Marcy wanted a career. She was going to be a lawyer, and lawyers just don’t have time for large families. She insisted that instead of Jerry Jr. tugging at her dress, she should be depicted with a briefcase at her side. The problem was that at that point in my life, I also wanted to be a lawyer, and a painting of two adults with two briefcases just didn’t seem very inspired. I could’ve drawn myself with a lion tamer’s whip or something instead, just for diversity’s sake, but I didn’t want to have to explain to the teacher that our work wasn’t intellectually honest. These kinds of artistic differences have destroyed duos far stronger than Marcy and me, so, since we were under the gun, we wisely decided split the duties. Marcy focused on us and our family, and I got to come up with all the cool futuristic stuff to put in the background. I wasn’t getting a son, but Marcy was more than willing to let me have a robot.

We worked diligently on our masterpiece every week. The night before the deadline, I barely got any sleep. We still had so much work to do to realize our vision, and new ideas kept coming to me, the kinds of things only sleep-deprived eight-year-olds dream up. What if I grew up to be president, and my vice president was a dog? What if we depicted a mini replica of our class project hanging behind us, with an A+ stamped across it? What if grownup Marcy and I lived in Denmark?

When the fateful day arrived, we raced to finish as we watched the seconds tick away. And then we heard the dreaded words, “Cleanup Time! Stop working!”

I panicked. “Help me, Marcy! I haven’t finished the flying car yet!”

Marcy immediately switched into crisis mode. There was no way, after all that hard work we’d done, that we were going to leave a half-finished vehicle floating over our grown-up, State Bar-certified heads. She suggested we just drop a big gob of white paint on it. “Let’s make it the moon!” But I put my foot down. If she was getting a career, I was getting a flying car, and that’s all there was to it. So Marcy grabbed a brush and pitched in.

“Stop working!” the teacher repeated, now staring directly at us while everyone else ran their brushes under the faucet and hung their smocks in the closet.

“But wait Mr. Whatever-My-Third-Grade-Art-Teacher’s-Name-Was it’s almost done and if we could just have one more minute then it’d be perfect and you’d love it you really would and please please please just let us just–”

“I said stop!”

And we didn’t stop, and he stomped up to our table and snatched our brushes from us and took our unfinished masterpiece away. “You don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘stop’, do you?” I couldn’t believe it. So this was what being In Trouble was like. I could see the teacher’s mind working as he dreamed up our punishment, his expression contorting with sadistic glee. “I want you to go home tonight,” he said, “and write the definition of the word ‘stop’ one hundred times!”

I didn’t dare tell my mother any of this. I still couldn’t believe I was actually In Trouble — at school, no less. And why? Because I cared too much about my work! My world had gone haywire. When no one was looking, I grabbed the family dictionary from the bookcase and snuck it up to my room. It so happens that the family dictionary was a hard-bound unabridged edition that was about five thousand pages long and which weighed a full nine hundred pounds. And when I cracked it open, I discovered that there were no less than one hundred definitions of the word “stop”.

And so I began to copy them down, one by one, along with the pronunciation key, part of speech, the context sentences and even my rendition of the diagram of a stop sign in the entry’s sidebar. It took up five pages. And then I went back to the beginning and started over again. One down, 99 to go. After about two hours, I had just finished copying the whole thing down for the second time. I realized that this was going to keep me up all night, and that I was going to need a lot more paper. And it was right about then that my mother overheard my crescendoing sobs from down the hall.

She came to my room to see what was going on, and I blurted out the whole epic tale, from the unfinished flying car to the tear-stained pad in front of me. I was sure Mom was going to tell me that this was exactly the punishment I deserved, but instead, she put her arm around me and told me I could stop. Being well aware of the word’s definition by that point, I did.

Mom asked me Marcy’s last name, and she proceeded to look her up in the phone book. Ten minutes later, I watched from my window as a Volkswagen Beetle pulled up at the curb. Marcy and her mom stepped out and walked up the path to our house. Marcy was in tears. Clearly, they had an unabridged dictionary, too.

“You should’ve finished your spaceship on time!”

“It was a flying car!”

“We should’ve just made it into the moon!”

“You can’t paint over colors with white! It shows through!”

It turned out that Marcy had tried to keep her shame a secret as well. After being tipped off by my mom’s phone call, Marcy’s mom had opened the door to Marcy’s bedroom to discover her daughter perched over her dictionary, blubbering her guts out. By that point, Marcy had already copied the entire definition five times. Marcy’s mom was outraged that our teacher could be so cruel. She wanted to have her husband go to his house and yell at him, to report him to the school board, maybe even the President. My mom, a teacher herself, calmly concluded that our teacher probably didn’t expect us to take the punishment quite so literally. Together, the two moms arrived at a compromise.

My mom asked me to read definition #1 from the dictionary. “To cease, desist or discontinue the performance of an activity…”.

Mom cut me off. “‘To cease.’ You can each write that one hundred times.”

Marcy was skeptical. “But we’ll get in trouble! That’s not the whole definition!”

“Just show him ‘to cease’ one hundred times, and then whatever else you’ve done so far. Trust me, he’ll be okay with it.”

I liked the idea of cutting the punishment by 10,000%, but I felt a little guilty about my mom’s suggestion. I had something to confess. “I don’t know what cease means!”

“It means ‘stop’,” my mom said.

Marcy’s mom said goodbye to my mom, and they promised to get together for drinks sometime. (It never happened.) Then, I went up to my room and finished my punishment in about ten minutes flat. And I spent the rest of the night doing whatever it was I did for fun in the days before we got an Atari.

The next day, Marcy and I gathered our courage and made a special stop by the art room. We forked over our punishments and explained the story to the teacher, ready to blame the whole thing on our moms.

“I was gonna write the whole thing, but they said not to!”

“It was his mom’s idea!”

“I don’t even know what ‘cease’ means!”

Tears, I’m sure, were shed.

But I could tell from the look on the art teacher’s face that my mom had been right. It was the look of a man who realized that he had inadvertently put two very strange children through the worst night of their lives.

I’m sure there were days my mother wished that instead of having a family, she had become a lawyer or a lion tamer. But along with all that agony-of-childbirth business, I’m grateful to her for successfully solving the Great “Stop” Crisis of 1980. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be sitting in my room trying to finish that punishment. If there’s one thing I learned from the experience, it’s that my mother was always looking out for me.

Well, that and what “cease” meant.

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