Gimme Shelter

Apr 3, 2015

My daughter is building a shanty. 

She comes from a long line of shanty builders.  In our family, we have been building these makeshift dwellings since our oldest child first set foot in Central High School.  It's a project for World Geography -- normally sometime in ninth grade.  And it's a great opportunity . . . for procrastination.

Unlike FEMA, which springs into efficient action as soon as a natural disaster rears its head, at our house, we allow urgent deadlines to creep ever closer on the horizon - watching as if in awe of an oncoming funnel cloud, hoping it will turn.  Well, this cloud didn't turn.  And now it's ten p.m. on the night after the original deadline for this project fell.  A twenty-four hour extension -- pretend you have a family in need of shelter: build a model of a shanty using only commonly available materials, and do it now . . . or fail.

With great reluctance, materials have been gathered.  I know this because on returning home from an evening at work, I see the dining room table is covered in found objects.  Half a tree branch, stripped bare and roughly cut with an old Stanley knife.  Quantities of modeling clay, in various states of desiccation spilling from a paper bag.  Thread.  Lots of thread.  A three foot length of leather cord, the kind one might use for a bracelet.  If one were to be making a bracelet.  A plastic bin of brightly colored beads.  Not sure about these at all . . . . And a pizza box.  Empty.  With various geometrical shapes carved from its lid.

Over the next hour, a makeshift structure rises from the pepperoni.  Branches at one end, a small campfire in the middle, a rough doorway.  And no roof.  A debate ensues.  Shouldn't this shanty have a roof?  What about using aluminum foil one of the brothers asks.  My daughter gives him a hard stare and says that foil has been disallowed in this project ever since a certain student used it for a roof a number of years ago.  In the meaningful silence that follows, I think back to a similar last-ditch effort a number of years ago, in which this older brother had used much of a roll of Reynolds foil to complete a shanty of his own.  We decide that the foil ban is probably his fault, and for the rest of the evening refer to it as the Kreider Rule. 

So . . . no foil, no roof.  I think I'll say this shanty is in an arid climate, she says.  No need for protection from rain.  But maybe a cloth to protect from the sun. She shakes out a table napkin and lays it over the walls.  Voila, a brightly colored sun shade -- the structure is complete.

Now for the obligatory paragraph of explanation, in which every dubious building choice is justified with florid language.  I am reminded of the real estate literature that describes houses built next to the railroad as having "easy access to transportation."  Much BS ensues.

By midnight, everything is packed up and ready to take to school.  The shanty will nestle modestly among the greater efforts of more constructively minded colleagues.  Or those with more ambitious parents.  She will claim not to care.  At least her shanty doesn't explode on the way to school -- that fate befell another brother's effort.  He passed it off as a result of natural disaster, giving an extra sense of pathos to  his creation.  The teacher liked that.

In the silence of the night, the kitchen still looks like it has been hit by a natural disaster.  I pour a glass of wine to commiserate.  I love this teacher, she's really smart.  I'm sure she is not fooled by any of this funny business year by year.   As far as I'm concerned, she is teaching well.  The syllabus may say: build a shanty, but underneath other lessons are at work as well.  Deadlines, procrastination, making the most of what you have, making it up when you're in a jam, and then when it's all done having to defend the choices you made - good and not-so-good.  In short -- survival skills.  The heart of what we all learn in high school. In my book, that's shanty building of the highest order!