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Laugh Lines

A Fourth-Grader on a Mission? Impossible

June 21, 1996|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Yo Mom! Yo Mother Hubbard! Yo Mama Pajamas!" The little boy walks into the living room like he just walked through a spider web, all scratchy and wiggly.

He catches me on the couch, embracing the sports section.

Him: Where's Mommy Salami?

Me: She ran off with the cable guy.

Him: You're kidding, right?

Me: I'd never kid a kid.

Him: So when's she going to help me with my mission project?

A very smart person once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For years, that's what my wife and I did with school projects. Over and over, we'd try to help. And what did we get? Insanity is what we got.

So today begins a new era--the era of our kids doing their own projects.

Him: No one's going to help me?

Me: Nope.

Him: That . . .

Me: Don't say it.

Him: Say what?

Me: Don't say "sucks." If you say "sucks," I will wash your mouth out with soap.

Him: I wasn't going to say "sucks."

Me: Someone get me the soap!

Him OK, OK, I'll do the mission myself.

Me: That's the spirit.

In case you haven't noticed, California fourth-graders study missions like nothing else. They make models, go on field trips, write reports.

In theory, this prepares them in case later in life they ever need to build an actual mission. If one day, for example, all of California's missions just fell down, under the principle of spontaneous collapsing, Californians everywhere would stand ready to erect new ones. That's just the kind of state we are.

In my son's case, the assignment is simple: Build a small model of one of the 21 Roman Catholic missions that dotted California beginning in the 1700s. It's fairly easy if you have the right materials.

No one ever has the proper materials.

"Yo Dad! Yo Daddy-O! Yo Daddy Long Legs!" The little mission builder is back. He pulls a shopping list from his grubby pocket. It contains a list of food items, mostly candy.

Me: You need all this to build a mission?

Him: What mission?

Me: Get outta here.

Him: A guy's gotta eat.

Me: Goodbye.

Him: It's for the mission. Really. I need it for my roof. I swear.

Me: See ya.

He disappears again. This time for two hours. Yes, two hours.

Now there are a few things I just seem to know instinctively. For example:

I know when it is going to rain.

I know when my dog is lying to me.

I know when a kid needs to be checked on.

"Yo son! Yo sonny boy! Yo sonny bunny!" I wander into the basement like I just walked through a spider web because, well, I just wandered through a spider web.

"Hi, Dad."

He's leaning over the mission project, applying the final touches. "What do you think?"

I stare in disbelief. It is beautiful, this mission, made of the finest discarded Styrofoam. To give the walls an Adobe effect, he slathered on plaster and dirt. For a bell, he raided the Christmas ornaments. For the roof, he used Miss February.

Miss February?

Me: Nice roof.

Him: Thanks.

Me: Where'd you get those magazines?

Him: Over there. Somebody stashed them behind the paint.

Me: Must've belonged to the people we bought the house from.

Him: Sure, Dad.

Me: No really.

Him: Sure, Dad.

He stands there smiling at me.

Me: You still have that list?

Him: You bet.

Me: Let's go.

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