Here is Josh:
"I hate school," Josh announces. It's a Monday night in late September, the beginning of Josh's fourth week at one of the best middle schools the city has to offer, a math and science magnet that attracts the strongest teachers in the district, a school that his parents had set their sights on for years.
Ben, Josh's dad, looks up from the computer. "What do you mean?" They're both at the dining room table, which doubles as an after-dinner work space.
"I hate school," Josh repeats, raising his voice and thwacking a yellow foler against the table.
If Josh has said this before, it's never been with such vehemence.
"Please explain," Ben says.
"Take a look at the projects they just assigned us." Josh scoots the folder across the table.
Ben takes it and peers inside.
"There's a sheet for each subject," Josh says. "Take a look."
Ben pulls out several sheets and pages through: "Design a Playground," "Decorate a Tissue Box," Construct a Diorama."
"That's a lot of art homework," remarks Ben. "What about your other subjects."
"Dad, that's the point," yells Josh. "These are for my other subjects."
"Which ones?" Ben pages back through. Everywhere the same phrases keep popping up: "Be colorful." "Be creative."
"All of them. "Math, English, German . . . The tissue box is for German."
Ben looks again: "Decorate a box of tissues with German words, drawings, etc. Pick the vocabulary from chapters 1 or 2, and use those words to decorate your box of tissues. Put the number of the chapter you've chosen on your box also."
"You've got to be kidding."
Ben turns to the next page: "Construct a diorama illustrating the climactic scene of your novel."
"That's for English," Josh says. "The playground's for math. That last sheet is for science." He reaches for the folder, pulls out one more page, and hands it to Ben: "Write a three-page paper tha includes a description of a movie, television show, or a book that involves a scientific conept, a summary of the scientific concept, and an explanation of the relationship between the actual concept and how it is used in the movie, television show, or book."
Ben and his wife enrolled Josh at the math and science magnet not only because their son excels in math and science but because he's never been that motivated about writing, and is even less inspired by the arts-and-crafts activities that dominated his elementary school classes. This school, they thought, would finally give him a break. Instead, it turns out, Josh now gets to take this nonsense home as homework. Assaulted by a mental image of him bent over a shoebox, scowling and clenching his jaw as he glues in a carboard cutout of a Billy Pilgrim stick figure, Ben wonders how they could have been so wrong about the schoo. And how could the faculty of this math and science magnet be so wrongheaded?
The German tissue box assignment is real.