Let Inga Tell You: An early education in the art of spin

Is an igloo likely to be part of any La Jolla teenager's ideal life? It depends on the spin, Inga says.

Now that all the local high schools have graduated their class of 2023, I can safely tell the saga of a friend’s teenage daughter who has a serious future in spin. In fact, if I were a political organization, I’d be signing her up now.

I happened to be visiting her mother when the daughter arrived home in a panic at 5 o’clock after a sports practice to announce that a project she thought was due in “a few months” was in fact due the next day. The assignment was to make either a diorama or a flat board depiction of “my ideal life.” But Daughter also had a “super important” history test the next day.

“Please, Mom,” she said, “can you help me?” Both parties were clear what “help” meant.

Let me interject here that there is not a mom in America who has not been put in this position in some form or another, even if it’s the 10 p.m. announcement that three dozen cookies are required for the school bake sale the next day.

Fortunately, my friend was a pro at school projects, to the envy (and abject jealousy) of all her friends, including me. The plaster of paris topography map of central Asia was to scale, the science fair board sparkled in glitter paper wonder, the Christmas diorama sported a battery-operated fireplace and a yuletide sound track, and the oral report on colonial America was delivered via two handmade, museum-quality puppets of George and Martha Washington. Fortuitously, my friend had a virtual warehouse of her kids’ former projects carefully stored in the garage. A local gallery should do a retrospective.

Surveying the arsenal of possibilities, she asked her daughter a question that in my mind should be immortalized: “So, do you care what your ideal life looks like?” And Daughter said, “Nope.”

So, Mom pulled out a board that one of her sons did in the second grade, exact topic no longer obvious. But it had a bunch of plastic foam igloos glued to a board with a lot of white snow around them.

Hard to imagine that a La Jolla-born and -bred child’s ideal life would include living in an igloo and eating whale blubber with no burger place in sight. Daughter had to admit that the accompanying paragraph — yes, they did actually have to create prose! — was going to be a tough sell.

So she suggested that Mom could maybe scrape off the snow in one corner and add some sand for a beach. She pondered this a bit more and added brightly: “I could say that I like contrasts! My ideal life is about contrasts!”

As I said, the young lady definitely has a future in politics.

While Daughter went upstairs to wax one paragraph’s worth of poetic about contrasts, Mom dutifully set about making little palm trees out of pipe cleaners and green construction paper to stick into the sand to make it look appropriately beachy. Et voilà! Or not.

Just in time, Mom noticed that on the bottom of the board in large block letters was the name of her older son and the notation “Grade 2.” Mom set a land speed record to get a can of black spray paint from a store in the 10 minutes before it closed.

I like to think that any teacher worth her salt would have been a tad suspicious about the remarkable coincidence of the “second grade” ID on the bottom in combination with the igloos. But then, this was a teacher who assigned dioramas as a term project for a high school advanced English class.

The mere thought of this makes me crazy.

My sons had some terrific and inspiring English teachers along the way, but also a few who pretty much abdicated the position. Rory’s eighth-grade English teacher never corrected spelling or grammar on assignments, maintaining the important thing was to “get your message across.” One day I looked at a paper Rory was about to hand in and observed, “Unfortunately, the message here is that you’re illiterate.”

I tried to convey to both of my kids that poor grammar, spelling and punctuation totally distract from the message, never mind undermine your credibility. Unfortunately, by the end of the year, the teacher was allowing — nay, encouraging — students to do a video or an art project in lieu of writing.

Ironically, the project my friend and her daughter ended up doing would have made an excellent assignment: Take a previous project and give it an entirely different conclusion. We live in a world of spin. Never too early to develop the skill.

By the way: the grade on the igloo project? B+. One of the highest grades in the class. The teacher also gave her an excellent recommendation for college. There, I’m hoping, the diorama and flat board projects will be in the daughter’s academic past. But if not, there’s a garage at home just waiting for her.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆