Have you heard about the Donner party?

Fourth grade is the year kids learn Oregon history here. It has been this way forever. I remember it being a big deal when I was in fourth grade. I made a dugout canoe with my dad (totally cool!) and traded iced graham crackers for a rabbit pelt from a classmate (score!). I can’t tell you a whole lot about the history of Oregon, but I sure do remember those projects.

So it came as no surprise when my daughter began talking about Lewis and Clark, the Oregon trail, and pioneers. Last week I chaperoned their field trip to a Pioneer Colony that still has the original structures and gives the kids a glimpse of life 150 years ago. It was hands down the coolest field trip I’ve been on. The kids split cedar planks, sawed logs, drilled holes in wood, made wax candles and homemade rolls. They even brought home a candle holder made from their activities on the trip.

In the midst of this unit Willow’s teacher had sent home a long letter explaining the Oregon Trail project the kids were required to complete. This was to be done entirely at home in lieu of their weekly homework.

Now the last time Willow had a project to complete at home, she ended up doing it entirely by herself with little or no effort from what I could observe and absolutely no help from me. She spent 15 minutes on the computer doing “research” and the day of her presentation she asked her brother for a container from her room. Realizing her project was due that day, I asked her if she was ready. She assured me she was. I was skeptical when I dropped her off at school and witnessed classmates bringing in posters and other complex visual aides while my daughter carried nothing but a plastic tub with some rocks in it. Well, whatever.

That afternoon I asked her about her speech and she said it had gone fine, so I dropped the subject. A month later at parent conferences her teacher told me Willow had not only met the standard for science based on her speech but exceeded it. Okaaay! Great. Lesson learned. When Willow has a project, butt out.

I wasn’t feeling super swell when I saw the letter from Willow’s teacher and was a bit overwhelmed by the size of this project. Over dinner I asked Willow what she needed from me to complete her project. Just some cardboard, a couple small boxes, and maybe some plastic oxen. That didn’t seem like more than I could handle so I took a deep breath and trusted her to complete her project on her own.

The next couple weeks turned into a series of hilarious observations. You see Willow had chosen the Donner Party as the topic of her project. Of course she did. A little concerned, I asked her what she knew about the Donner Party. She proceeded to explain, in a very nonchalant fashion, that they had taken an untested shortcut through the mountains, been caught by early snow, and eventually took to eating the dead people to survive. So, yes, she did know exactly about the Donner Party.

About a week before her project was due, I told her I may not be able to find plastic oxen. I had looked at several stores and found sea animals, dinosaurs, even jungle animals but no farm animals. I wasn’t really willing to spend a small fortune and I was still feeling pretty crummy so doing an exhaustive search was overwhelming. She replied, “It’s ok. I’ll just tell people this is after they had been stuck for awhile so that ate the oxen.” Great! Problem solved.

At that point we just started getting silly about it. At the Dollar store I suggested that her teacher would surely think it was cool to see the wagons pulled by a dinosaur! She said that would be fine….if I wanted her to FAIL Social Studies. Her brother, also ever helpful, said, “What about an orca? There’s a really cool one right here.” She rolled her eyes and walked away. Clearly her family was both unhelpful and insane.

The day her project was due, she brought it downstairs and it was the first time I had seen the whole thing put together. One of the wagons had a wheel that had fallen off. Willow told me that was intentional because broken wheels is one of the reasons they got stuck in the snow since the road was not very good. She had used clay to form the people and a fire. Even a woman had fallen over. That too was intentional since the women died first because they refused to eat the human meat. It might also have been because she couldn’t get the woman to sit up. (Not knowing this, I had put the woman back into a sitting position before taking the picture.)

If you look closer, you might notice a red thing with white lines on it. Here, let me help you out.

Yes, that is a piece of meat. Ribs to be exact. The little white things scattered around the fire? Bones. Willow even picked one up to show me how she had tried to make it the shape of a hand. A HAND people! I couldn’t help but laugh at the detail. I was also a little concerned that maybe I had warped my child. That lasted about 2 seconds before I suggested she paint some of the snow red. I really should learn to keep my mouth shut.

The next day was her class’s open house. My dad and I went over to see all the projects. They were all fabulous. Truly. These are some smart and creative kids, and I had an absolute blast. Willow was in the back of the classroom. Due to the large number of people there, it took me a while to make my way around to her desk. That morning she had told me I had to come (I was feeling terrible) because she had made some changes that I hadn’t seen. Wanna guess what the changes were?

I wish I had taken a picture. I think my dad did and if I can get it, I will show it later. But needless to say, she painted some of the snow red. It looked gruesome and awesome. The sign she made saying “The Donner Party” was written in letters dripping with blood, straight from a horror movie. You might think I have let my child watch gruesome things over the years but I haven’t. She’s been pretty protected. Willow just has a crazy imagination. Sick and twisted too apparently.

Edited–Here’s the picture. Dad emailed it to me. Thanks dad!

The thing I remember most about building that canoe with my dad was getting to spend time with him doing something I had never done before. It was really a great experience. Willow? She will remember blood. Awesome. Mother of the Year award? It’s in the bag.

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