This week I attended my 75th parent teacher conference.
You’d think I would’ve learned a thing or two by now, wouldn’t you? You’d think I’d know how to make the most of my fifteen minutes with the person who spends more waking hours with my child than I do. You’d think I’d be able to approach this meeting with confidence and maturity.
You’d think so, but you’d be wrong.
Experience may be the best teacher, but even she’d have to admit: it’s hard to teach an idiot.
I considered not even showing up at the impending conference. What did I hope to gain? If the news was good, “Your child is brilliant and delightful,” you already know that, so why bother? If the news was bad, “Johnny is a complete moron with the social skills of a python,” you probably already know that too, but you’re not going to believe it about your little darling anyway. Why leave the Isle of Denial any sooner than you have to? Eventually the authorities will knock on your door.
But the conference was for our second grader who hates school. Well, let me be a little more specific. He says he doesn’t hate school, but last Friday night as we were putting on his Darth Vader pjs (this child simply CANNOT grow up. I have a call in to Neverland), he said to me, “It’s so great not to have that angry feeling I usually get now.”
My “OH NO MY CHILD IS DISTURBED” synapses start firing like AK47’s, and I try get more info. “What do you mean, ‘usually get now?’” I ask. “Why do you usually get angry now?”
“Because I remember I have to go to school the next day,” he says, as if this were as obvious as Darth Vader’s respiratory distress.
“Well, that’s awful hon,” I say, “I didn’t know you hated school.”
With logic only a seven year old can really wrap his head around, he tells me, “I don’t hate school. I just don’t like going.” He says this walking out of the room, breezy like.
I, however, feel like there are fiery rocks in my esophagus. Isn’t this so typical of my life as a mother? There I am humming along, thinking I am shepherding a fairly content, semi-well adjusted crowd of people toward adulthood, when all of a sudden I hit a speedbump of dysfunction. Twenty years on the job and I am still surprised by how many damn problems these people of mine have. It’s like that game at Chucky Cheese. Whack-a-Mole. No sooner do I smash one down with my mallet than another pops up and all I want to do is bash my own head in.
“Is it your teacher? Do you not like your teacher?” I probe following him into the den.
“No, she’s pretty nice,” he says putting the helmet on his clone trooper Lego.
“Is it the other kids? Are they mean to you?” I ask, trying to keep the trembling out of my voice. I’ve had five kids and to be frank, none of them has exactly been a social superstar. While I have reminded them (and myself) that neither Bill Gates nor Barack Obama were crowned Prom King, it would be nice, just once to ask, “Who’d you play with at recess today?” and not hear, “I felt like playing by myself.”
Don’t go telling me how great it is that they are independent and like to play alone. That’s like calling shit once eaten food. My kids are social outcasts, and even if they aren’t, I’ve spent most of their lives worrying that they are, so what difference does it make? When we watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I have to leave the room when Herbie sings “Why Am I Such a Misfit.” It may be the North Pole, but it’s way too close to home for me. As if it helps, my husband reminds me, “Them apples don’t fall too far from that tree.”
I wish he were referring to himself, or even better, to my ex-husband.
“No, Mom, nobody’s mean to me,” my little one reassures me. I don’t believe him. I think he’s covering up for that awful kid who never picks him for his team.
“Well, then, why don’t you like school?” I pry.
“Can I be a dead skeleton for Halloween?” he asks me, clearly moving on. “I think a live one would be too scary, don’t’ you?”
So there it is. My kid hates school. There is A PROBLEM now. For the next few days I carry THE PROBLEM like a warty toad in my pocket, unable to ignore it as it thrashes about slimy, bumpy, and frantic. My son hates school and it is turning him into a rage filled being who will collect firearms and live in our basement for the rest of his life. Clearly, I have to address this at the parent teacher conference, but how can I do this without seeming to blame the teacher?
Because I do blame the teacher. Entirely. Absolutely. Completely.
Sending my children to school has always brought up a host of my neuroses (which bloom like algae according to my husband). First of all, I never feel the teachers really like our kids. Let’s face it, no teacher is going to love my children the way I do. Right, you nut job, you say. That’s because you’re their mother. Still, I’ve always wished they would love them that intensely. I recognize this is irrational, but so is believing that as long as I don’t record the handfuls of chocolate chips I chow down every day in my food diary, they won’t make me fat.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some great teachers over the past twenty years, extraordinary educators, but there is something about seeing my child shuffling into that brick building with a pack on his back like a one humped camel that is wrenching. They’re so brave, these little soldiers! Marching into a hostile world filled with spelling tests, lunch ladies, and picking sides for kickball. When I see the door close behind them, I feel like I’ve just pushed my left ventricle into rush hour traffic on a skateboard.
I pack all this negativity into oversize psychic shopping bags whenever I attend parent/teacher conferences. I also cram in a hefty dose of defensiveness (why leave home without it?) because I am certain this teacher knows what a shoddy parent I am.
She knows we really only read ten minutes a night when we are supposed to read twenty (when we read at all). She knows I let my kids eat Cheetos with abandon and that I haven’t made a pancake from scratch since I went camping with the Girl Scouts in fifth grade. She knows we don’t floss, and she knows I’ve sent kids to school when I suspected they might be getting sick. Okay, they were sick. She knows no child in our family has ever had a homemade Halloween costume and that they know more profanity than your average rapper. She also knows I slapped that one of my daughters across the face when she said she hated me and that I should have left bruises on all of their little arms when I squeezed them much too hard during church. She knows we don’t just use the television as a babysitter—some days it’s the better parent.
As I am driving to the conference, I seethe with loathing not only for this teacher, but for the whole damn school. No wonder my kid hates it here. What a hideously judgmental environment! I am going to give them a piece of my mind (the piece that’s left). I’m no amateur. I’ve been to over 75 of these conferences and while I can’t really remember any of them, I’m sure on some subconscious level I’ve learned a thing or do. This teacher is either going to get her act together or I am going to homeschool my child.
Okay, not really.
But you know what I mean. I was ready to rumble.
And oh boy, did I rumble. I slunk in there clutching my shoulder bag and sat awkwardly in the mini-chair with my knees up near my shoulders. I barely got out, “I’m so worried about him,” before I started to choke up.
The teacher was surprised. He’s such a happy kid, she tells me. Naturally he’d rather play than learn, but they’re all like that. It’s time for him to grow up some, and that’s what second grade is about. Haven’t I had a son before? He’s doing just fine, maybe just a little bit, well, used to having other people do things for him (my husband swears I’ll be tying his shoes for his rehearsal dinner). Academically he’s fine. Friends? He seems to have lots of friends. Playing alone? Well, they all do that from time to time. And of course he’d rather be at home. Isn’t that a good thing?
Her diagnosis? A regular kid who’s spoiled and lazy. Hallelujah.
Why aren’t teachers like this one making like a million dollars a year? They should be. Because they don’t just have to teach our rotten kids. Even worse, they have to teach us.
When I get home, I say to my little guy, “Your teacher says you’re doing just fine in school. She had no idea you hated school because you seem so happy there.”
He looks at me like I’m a live dead skeleton and says, “I told you, Mom. I don’t hate school! I just don’t like going. Once I get there, I’m fine!”
And here I thought he was the one who had so much to learn.