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Fourth-Grade Mission
By Jennifer Eyre White

I've been dreading this year since my daughter Riley was in kindergarten, since the morning I first saw the models in her school auditorium. There on long beige, institutional tables were rows and rows of small, white, complicated-looking buildings, set out like a display in the lobby of an architectural firm.

"What are those?" I asked a mom nearby.

"They're mission models," she said darkly. "Fourth graders in California have to study the California missions, and many of the schools make them build a model of one. And guess what -- their parents are supposed to help."

"Schools can make us do that?" I said, appalled.

That was back when I naively assumed that school projects would mostly be Riley's problem, not mine. Then, when she was in first grade, I made the mistake of letting her do her first project all by herself. It was an art project, and she spent, oh, about six minutes on it. She used colored markers to draw her standard rainbow alongside a smiling sun with sunglasses. At the top of the page she wrote, Oh Happy Me! I thought it looked pretty good -- right up until the point when we brought it to school and saw the other first-graders' art projects. I realized then that I'd seriously underestimated the expectations here.

There were still-life oil paintings, pastel landscapes, detailed clay models.  One mom confided that a professional artist had "mentored" her daughter for the project; another told me that her kid's piece was done in an art class, with help from the teacher. Most of the paintings were in elaborately matted frames; no-one else was using a clear plastic sheet protector from Office Depot. Oh Unhappy Us. Riley came home in tears, and we've done every project together since then.

Riley is now a fourth grader, and I know what's coming: It's Mission Time. In the years since kindergarten, I've seen many different mission models, from schools all across California. Some of them appear to have required about 2,000 hours to build and at least one parent with a degree in architecture. More work went into some of these models than into the building of the actual missions. It's a competitive event, this mission thing.  So when Riley comes home with a three-page "Mission Project" instruction packet in her hand, I know I'm doomed.

When I read the instructions, I see that they include this helpful tip: "Feel free to make this a family project!" But here's the problem: In addition to Riley, I have two rambunctious, destructive little boys -- baby Kirby and preschooler Ben. These guys will level anything that looks like a building. How am I supposed to help Riley with her model while simultaneously keeping them out of trouble? And a further complication is that Riley is from my first marriage (unlike her brothers), and is a split-custody kid who spends half her time with her dad. This means we have half the time to get the wretched thing done. She could do the project with her dad, of course, but usually she just wants me-in spite of the brother factor.

I think about writing a note to Riley's teacher. Dear Mrs. Brown: We are currently experiencing a severe staffing shortage and are unable to take on any new projects at this time. But thank you for your interest.

The fourth graders can build their models out of anything they want. I've seen ones made out of balsa wood, toothpicks, Styrofoam, and sugar cubes. Some kid somewhere has probably built one out of toenail clippings. I'm hoping that Riley will choose materials that are simple and quick, but no such luck. She's keenly aware of the competitive aspect of this project, and says, "I want to do papier mache so that I can paint it and make it look really good."

Ah yes, papier mache. Labor-intensive papier mache. Small-boy-magnet papier mache.

"Good is the enemy of done," I mutter, thinking, Forget good, we'll be lucky if we get this damn thing built at all.

Part of what's making me so grumpy is that I don't see any point to this project, any more than I saw the point of the shrunken-apple-head witch project, or the Halloween diorama project. Even if the missions are still relevant enough to justify this effort by all of the California fourth-graders and their families (and frankly, I'm not sure that they are), I just don't see how building a model helps the kids understand the missions any better.   I've thought about asking Riley's teacher, but I can't bring myself to question her on this sacred topic. It would be vaguely heretical. None of the other moms I talk to are sure what the point of the project is, either, but we're all resigned to the idea that the mission model is like death and taxes -- annoying, but unavoidable.

Three nights in a row, Riley waits patiently until her fraternal forces of destruction are in bed and then asks for my help starting the project. Three nights in a row I tell her I'm too tired, feeling guilty as she says OK and tries to hide her disappointment. Oh for god's sake, I say to myself on the third night, doesn't her academic success mean anything to you? Well, it's not like we're talking about trigonometry here -- it's just a stupid model  Yeah, but probably the kids who smoke crack in middle school started out by doing a crappy job on their mission projects.

One night I lie in bed, thinking how I've got to move out of California before the boys hit fourth grade, when something occurs to me. I go downstairs to my computer, click over to eBay, and do a quick search. Sure enough, there are several homemade mission models for sale. It's a mission-model black market! It's too bad Riley has already chosen the San Jose Mission, because there's a lovely Santa Cruz Mission up for 50 bucks. And anyway, I know my daughter -- she would not cheat if her life depended on it. I sigh and go back to bed.

Still, there is some good news.

"The San Jose Mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1868," Riley reports after reading about it on the Web.

"Excellent!" I say. "Let's do a model of the mission as it appeared after the quake.  I'm sure Ben and Kirby can help with that..."

She shakes her head.  "Mom, it was rebuilt. We have to do it like it looks now."

Riley and I decide to drive down to her mission one Saturday, an hour each way, to see what this infernal adobe looks like in person and pick up some postcards that we can use to base the model on. I take Kirby with us but not Ben -- no sense reducing the San Jose Mission to rubble again.

It turns out that this mission is as ugly in person as it is in the pictures we've seen on the Web, though it has a lovely gift shop selling overpriced information booklets and videos to the hapless parents of fourth graders. There are several such parents milling about, credit cards in hand, desperation etched on their faces. We choose our postcards and a nun rings us up. I wonder what the monks who built the missions would think of people selling mission models on eBay, and of the consumerism in progress at the gift shop. I wonder how long the missions would survive without the revenue generated by the mission project. I wonder why the missionaries were so fixated on one particular sexual position.

Somehow I don't think these are the issues we're supposed to be pondering.

We go on a quick tour of the building, and (perhaps ironically) the thing that makes the biggest impression on Riley is the room where they have a bunch of mission models on display, the legacy of overachieving fourth graders past.

"Wow," she says. "Those look like a lot of work."

Bingo, I think to myself.

Later that day Riley tells me that she's decided to build the mission model with her dad. This comes as a surprise to me since she's never done a big school project with him before. She tells me that she thinks it will be easier to do it over there, and I figure that maybe this is one of those rare times when the split custody thing will work to her advantage; she can build her model in the peace of her other home, where she has no siblings around to trash her efforts.

I'm relieved to be let off the hook, but I'm also -- unexpectedly -- a little bit sad. Suddenly I remember how, for one year's Halloween diorama ("A Vampire's Bedroom"), we decided to make a tiny book to put on our vampire's coffin-side table, and Riley blurted out, "Let's call it Chicken Soup for the Soulless!" We both succumbed to an uncontrollable fit of giggles, and ended up staying up way too late working on it.

I think about her second-grade science project, the one where we haggled over which font to use for the write-up. I was pushing for Comic Sans Serif  (I thought it would be cute), but she insisted that a science project needed a serious font. She doggedly examined every font in the directory before settling on Garamond ("It's serious and easy to read, but not as boring as Times New Roman," she explained). I remember thinking that she had a remarkably well-developed sense of  aesthetics for one who still rode in a car seat.

I suppose there may have been some good things about working on her projects with her. Maybe the mission project -- like all the others -- is only mostly a waste of time.


In the end, Riley's dad helps her build the mission model, working on it with her on the days they are together. As for me, I try to stay out of it. I tell myself that a) I didn't actually want to do the project, so I should be happy, and b) she doesn't need me to be a control freak -- she's a responsible girl, she'll get that mission mache'd. But I can't help but ask her occasionally (oh-so-casually) how it's coming.

When I talk to her two days before it's due and she's pasting on her first layer of paper (it needs two), I try not to sound alarmed. "You know, Sweetie," I say, "that stuff takes awhile to dry, and you still have to paint it, too... "    I'm thinking, Okay, I'm going over there with a hair dryer right now.   But she says, "Don't worry, Mom, it will be ready in time." I remind myself of a) and b) and shut my mouth. 

I call her again the night before it's due. She's busy painting the roof.  It sounds like everything is going well, but I still can't sleep that night because I'm fretting over whether the paint will be dry by morning.  It is.

After it's all over I go see her model on display in her school's auditorium. When I arrive, I notice a couple of youngish-looking moms standing together in a corner of the room, pointing at the mission models and looking baffled. Newbies.

It takes me awhile to find Riley's model because there are about forty of them spread out over several big tables. When I do find it I'm surprised to see that it's much prettier than the mission on which it was based. In fact, it looks really good.  I stand there looking at it for a long time, thinking that the mission project is like some weird rite of passage, and now she's past it, and I mostly missed it.  Being a mom, I can't help but feel sad about that. But I cheer myself up with the thought that fifth grade will undoubtedly bring many more annoying projects for us to do together.  Once again we'll be staying up late, working ourselves into a lather over things like which font to use or which color pipe cleaner looks best.  I'm almost -- almost -- looking forward to it.

This essay originally appeared in the East Bay Monthly under the title "On a Mission"

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Copyright 2006 Jennifer Eyre White
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