The 90-minute ride home from the parent-teacher meeting at our son’s yeshiva last week was, for The Wife and me, a bittersweet one.
Neither the bitter nor the sweet stemmed from anything the teachers said about our angelic youngest son, now a high-school senior.
(I did, however, guffaw and just about spit out my coffee when one of the teachers complimented him on showing up regularly for class. “I don’t know, honey,” I said to The Wife, “shouldn’t that kind of be a given?”)
No, the bittersweet nature of this meeting stemmed from that fact that – after four kids – this was our last parent-teacher meeting. Ever.
In what seems like a flash, we’ve gone from celebrating firsts – first words, first steps, first teeth, first days of school – to commemorating lasts: last braces, last driving lessons, last B’nai Akiva event we are ever obligated to attend, last parent- teacher conference.
This does not mean, of course, that there will never be other firsts. God willing there will be first weddings of our kids, first grandchildren, first grandson’s bar mitzvah. But with our youngest son set to graduate high school in the summer, The Wife and I have reached that stage of life where all his milestones fall into the “last” category.
While I obviously will not miss the parent-teacher gatherings themselves, especially not when 20 minutes of face time with the teachers entails a three-hour round trip to the kid’s school, what I may long for down the line is the kids-in-school stage of life that those meetings signify.
Not having parent-teacher meetings means, well, that The Wife and I have just about plum run out of kids in school, and that we are moving on. That’s not good or bad, it just is. And milestones like the last parent-teacher conference serve to slam that feeling home.
After some 96 such meetings (two a year for each kid over 12 years of schooling), The Wife and I are hanging up our pre-back-to-school-night anxiety. We’re done, it’s over.
PARADOXICALLY , most of the anxiety that generally preceded these parleys over the years had less to do with the kids, or what the teachers had to say about them, and more about the structure of those parent-teacher evenings themselves. I know my kids and their abilities pretty well, both their strengths and weaknesses, and only on a handful of occasions was I really surprised or particularly concerned by what one of the teachers had to say.
I was, for instance, shocked one year when I walked into the meeting and the teacher said that it was a pleasure having our offspring in class, especially when the child showed up.
And I always knew I was in trouble when the teacher started off – as they sometimes did – saying one of my children was “full of life.” That was always a gentle metaphor for saying “your kid can’t shut up in class.”
It’s as if the teacher didn’t realize that I, too, once took Psychology 101, and that I, too, am well aware of that little trick about always saying something positive before adding the “but” and lowering the boom.
And there have, over the years, been a few “buts,” such as “your kid loves to sing, but shouldn’t do it in the middle of math class,” or “your kid speaks English well, but can’t spell worth a dime.”
BUT ALL OF THAT was – on the whole – pretty mild stuff. No, my anxiety before these meetings was of another nature altogether: how to get through them as quickly as possible, and do so without bickering with fellow parents over who was next in line to see the teacher.
Sometimes I’d show up at these meetings and feel – with all the tension surrounding the queue – that I had not walked into a school, but rather stumbled accidentally into a doctor’s office: everyone huddled close to the door, ready to pounce once the doorknob turned.
The way the system is constructed just invites tension.
The homeroom teachers give every parent a pre-set time slot of about 10 minutes each, but the meetings with the various subject teachers – English, math, Tanach, biology – is on a first-come-first-served basis One of my kids finished his entire schooling without my once talking face-to- face to any of his math teachers; I was darned if I was going to wait 45 minutes for that opportunity, when I – or better yet, The Wife – could always just call them on the phone.
And regarding the all-important meeting with the homeroom teachers, they would inevitably either run late, or some parents with a problematic youngster would go well beyond their allotted 10 minutes. Then all of a sudden it’s 8:15, and you have not yet gotten inside the room for your 7:30 appointment. To add to the tension, the parents with the 8:20 slot then arrive, on time, and begin to rant that they should not be penalized for someone else not being punctual or overstaying their appointment.
The New York Times ran an article this week about fights breaking out on airplanes when people in economy class move their seats back, depriving the guy behind them of a few precious inches of space still left for his knees. As a result, some airlines are installing seats that don’t recline. Some similar structural change needs to be done to the parent- teacher meetings to remove waiting for the educator as a source of friction between parents.
Before I learned the ropes, I would innocently take something to read while waiting, figuring I might as well make productive use of the dead time. But I soon gave that up, unable to multi-task, realizing the futility of trying to keep my attention on the page while ensuring at the same time that another father would not jump ahead of me in line to hear the teacher talk about whether his kid was considerate of the others in class.
“How was it?” the children – when they were small – would ask The Wife and me in expectant and worried voices when we returned home from these talks.
“Wonderful.” I’d reply, “We saw all your teachers, and were out in less than an hour.”
“That’s great,” one of them would say, “But what did they say about me?” “You?” I’d reply, “You they said were full of life.”
A collection of Keinon’s “Out There” columns will be published in the spring.