Friday, March 17, 2000

The paper chase

When I was in my 20s, I wrote an article about magazines and the way they multiply in the dark so that eventually they have overrun your entire living room. (My mother probably still has a copy of it, which may explain some of what follows here.) When I was in my 30s, I speculated the same thing about mail-order catalogs. But now, on the north side of 40, I know that neither of these clutter-creatures can compare to the space-hogging master of the universe, children's school papers.

Every day they come, more numerous than junk mail, more pervasive than piled-up bills, more messy than 1,000 Matchbox cars. Test, worksheets, study sheets, art projects, storybooks, certificates, all adorable snapshots of my children's day at school, all irreplacable, all indisposable. They stack up on the floor by the bookbags. They stack up on the dining room table. They stack up on the coffee table. They stack up on my desk, in my file drawers, on my floor. They're everywhere, and if I could just take a shovel and gather them all up and throw them all out, my home would be about 77% neater.

But of course, I can't do that. They're my babies! This is their work! I must keep it, cherish it, gather it together in large haystacks of scholarship. I may need those papers someday to show their progress. I may need to look back on an earlier assignment later in the year. The kids might want to check back at something they did. I may want to remember how many essays my daughter devoted to the Backstreet Boys. Given his way, my husband would chuck these precious treasures the moment they came through the door, so I must swoop in and grab them out of the folders myself. And put them on the dining room table, where they will sit for several months, or until we actually need to dine, whichever comes first.

Every so often, I do winnow. When we moved last summer, I sorted through several years of preschool papers from both kids and kept only the cute artwork, which filled an entire large box. I've thrown out all but tests for about the first quarter of this school year, but it is so, so hard to see their work filling the wastebasket. I'll admit to being sentimental and a packrat, but I love this stuff.

Still, if you read about a New Jersey family suffocated by 5,000,000 individual math homework sheets, you'll know who they're talking about.

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