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Slices of Life: The really big sugar crystal project
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Every parent has experienced the phenomenon. Your child is given an assignment on the first day of class. It is no normal assignment, but one that requires ongoing work throughout the coming weeks or months. It is the Really Big School Project.

Really big projects might involve science, geography, math or English literature, but they all start out the same: with a worksheet detailing the details of the assignment. This includes research requirements, data collection, final format and due date, the latter of which seems very far off until unexpectedly your child finds him or herself with three days to meet said due date and it is crunch time.

Responsible parents (which obviously includes all of us) wouldn't ignore the due date save for one thing. The assignment worksheet never makes it to the kitchen table. This precious and important paper that your child was tasked to diligently carry home on the first day of school sits in a crumpled state at the bottom of a backpack or on the floorboards of the backseat of the minivan until it inexplicably makes its way into the laundry pile. Whether you find it before or after the wash cycle is entirely up to luck.

In addition to procrastination, really big projects often require poster board and parental participation, which comes after the procrastination threatens a C-minus and parents can no longer ignore the obvious. The work must somehow get done and the assignment becomes a really big family project requiring parental prodding and supervision.

This leads to the thing I like best about really big projects: the amount of learning that takes place. Sometimes the knowledge even rubs off on the student.

We've muddled through our fair share of big projects. My kids have mapped out the entire planet, created a timeline of the history of the world, grown tadpoles, mold and Monarchs (butterflies, not royalty). Our experience with big projects is vaster than the projects themselves. Right now, we are growing sugar crystals. Or, I guess I should say we are attempting the task. We haven't yet had so much as a sprout. I doubt we will.

I should have seen this coming. This isn't my first sugar crystal dog and pony show. I've been through eighth-grade science a time or two (or five, but who's counting?) and I've witnessed more than a couple crystal flops. I was tempted to tell my son this a couple of weekends ago as he stirred his sugar water concoction on the stove and chattered about the assignment.

"My teacher said it's easy to grow crystals," he said. "Only one or two in our whole class won't get them."

"Prepare to be part of the minority," I wanted to say out loud. "Failure is most likely in your future." I mouthed the words silently because a good mom never discourages enthusiasm about school projects.

Still, if the glass is half empty you might as well call it like you see it. Over the years I've spent months peering into sugar-water-filled jars looking for any hint of crystals and I've yet to see a single grain. Our formations have been as scarce as an A-plus on a failed science experiment and our inadequacies are crystal clear - to me, at least.

My son, however, remains optimistic. His glass is half-full, albeit not with crystals. And, although his progress may be lacking, he knows it's important to complete the really big project with due diligence - crystals or not. He is photographing his water a few times a week to document the lack of any activity or formations. He is writing notes about his crystal deficiencies. He is holding out - with a hope reserved for 13-year-olds - that his crystals will grow.

And who knows? Maybe they will. I hope they do. I sure do.

- Jill Pertler's column normally appears Thursdays in the Times. She can be reached at