You started the school year with a folder, bin, or paper bag to hold all the artwork, school projects, report cards, and other stuff your kids brought home. By winter break, you made an audition video for “Hoarders.” By spring, the local fire department declared your house a fire hazard.
It didn’t end there. On Monday of the last week of school, the paper dump began. Every notebook, folder, agenda, journal, workbook, worksheet, drawing, pencil, pen, crayon, marker, eraser, glue stick, and piece of paper your kid doodled on during the year made its trek home. By the last day of school, you. Couldn’t. Even.
Sound familiar? Don’t panic. Follow these simple steps and I promise you’ll finish organizing your kids’ schoolwork in time to collect it all over again in the fall.
1 | Deal with it
Don’t ignore it or hide it in a closet to get it out of the way. It will never go away, and you’ll wander aimlessly through life wondering why you never reached your full potential.
2 | Get rid of all of it (Optional)
This is a risky move, but it’s also completely understandable. If you can sleep at night and you aren’t concerned about having trust issues with your adult children, go for it. Also, you’re my hero.
3 | Get your head in the game
Find a quiet, comfortable spot to sit. Close your eyes. Take some deep, cleansing breaths. Think about the time when your own parents cleaned out their basement and hauled several boxes filled with crap precious childhood memories to your house. Think about the rage emotion this made you feel because What the hell am I supposed to do with all this stuff?! Now open your eyes and repeat after me: I WILL BREAK THE CYCLE.
4 | Pick the weeds
Throw away homework. Fractions worksheets are not priceless. Dispose of everything inside the pencil case petri dish. Remnants of every stomach bug, lice breakout, and strep throat epidemic reside on each sticky, grimy pencil stump. If you can sterilize the actual pencil case, keep it for next year. If not, dump it.
Pro Tip: When in doubt, throw it out!
5 | Tear through it – all of it – Marie Kondo-style
Does it bring you joy? Keep it. If not, toss it! The things you should keep will jump out of the pile at you. If nothing leaps right away, keep digging. This is the lightning round. Be brave. Be bold. Pour yourself a stiff drink. Everything will be okay!
Pro Tip: Do not do the lightning round with your kids. Get rid of the toss pile immediately or run the risk of never EVER getting past step #5.
6 | Take a break
Put what’s left in a neat pile and walk away from it for a few weeks. Perspective is everything. Or, time heals all wounds. You need to rest and re-energize before you tackle the second half of the project. Besides, spending oodles of intimate, unstructured quality time with your kids will give you the motivation you need to ruthlessly play the keep or toss game all over again.
7 | Repeat
With fresh eyes, cut your keep pile by at least a third. You can do hard things!
Pro Tip: Do a keep or toss lightning round for the previous year’s schoolwork. You’ll be amazed what still feels worth saving (or not) a year later.
8 | Prepare to archive
Write your child’s name, grade, and school year on the bottom corner or back side of everything that makes the final cut. If you think you’re going to remember these details ten years, weeks, or minutes from now, ask yourself what you ate for breakfast this morning and/or the date of your last period. Trust me. You’ll forget.
9 | Choose your storage system
Consider the long view. When you’re done, you’ll have at least a dozen years of schoolwork on your hands. Whether you choose boxes, bins, or bags, keep them compact so you don’t need to rent a storage pod to hang on to book reports no one cares about. I chose an extra-large artwork portfolio with expandable pockets. It’s doesn’t have a large capacity, but that’s precisely why I picked it. It forces me to choose what to keep and toss judiciously.
Pro Tip: There will be extra stuff, like yearbooks, trophies, and framed photos, that need to be stored elsewhere. Get one plastic bin for each kid and label everything.
10 | Put it away
Store everything in dry place for 20-25 years, at which point it will be your turn to enrage surprise your grown kids with a U-Haul filled with priceless hand print turkeys, awkward school pictures, perfect attendance certificates, and Venn diagrams from their childhood.
You did it! You finished organizing your kids’ schoolwork! Buy yourself a new pair of shoes, a bottle of wine, or some Snoopy bandages for all those paper cuts to celebrate your awesomeness. Just be quick about it because it’s time for back-to-school shopping. Hurry before the glue sticks are sold out.
A version of this essay appeared on The Runaway Mama in June 2016.