The Hot Seat

As published in The Rye Record on March 15, 2013

Is there anything more awkward than the parent-teacher conference? It embodies all the stress and apprehension of a performance review with the added discomfort of being perched on a teeny tiny chair. Like most moms, I’ve squirmed in my fair share of these chairs, waiting to hear the verdict on how my kids are turning out. Any of my kids’ teachers can tell you that I become a nervous, babbling, over-explaining version of myself. It’s not pretty.

I suspect that my conference anxiety is a throwback to my own elementary school days. My mother was told twice a year, in no uncertain terms, that I was not living up to my potential (really, who is), and that I talked too much in class (hello, I’m female). As with most things, she had a good sense of humor about it, but I took it to heart. As an adult, I am still longing for a few words of affirmation from a teacher.

An outsider might remark that my son’s conference isn’t really about me; that it’s about him. Well, I’ve seen enough slander come home in his backpack to know better. All year, he’s been bringing home writing assignments that could have been penned by Kitty Kelley. They are exposes about what really goes on inside our house. He writes about how his brother got stuck in the bathroom at Thanksgiving, which inappropriate video games he likes best, and how his mom serves frozen taquitos for dinner. Woefully absent from his memoirs are the jigsaw puzzle we just slogged through, the fact that I remembered to sign him up for soccer, and his up-to-date immunization record. I’m a little defensive about whether his teacher thinks I’m living up to my potential.

These conferences only last twenty minutes, and they’re usually running a bit late. I sit outside the classroom, waiting and fidgeting myself into a panic. My kid’s doing fine in school, I’m not really worried that the teacher’s going to give me some unwanted diagnosis. But I dread a line like, “Tell me, is there something going on at home?” What isn’t going on at home? We live in loosely controlled chaos — the love child of over-scheduling and sink-or-swim parenting. I want her to tell me that I’m doing a good (enough) job, and that my boy seems to feel confident and loved. I couldn’t care less how well he’s learning to read. That’s her job, not mine.

I sit in my tiny waiting chair, suddenly aware of my hugeness and wondering at my choice of clothing. Did I make enough of an effort? Or, worse, did I make too much of an effort? Is she going to think I’m a person who spends the whole day blowing her hair dry rather than preparing healthy snacks for the afternoon? Is that why my children are eating frozen taquitos? I decide to wipe off my lipstick and pull my hair into a Good Mom Ponytail.

When I’m called in, I say hello and shake her hand. I have no idea why I’m being so formal, as I see her every single day at pick-up. But here we are alone, with nineteen minutes ahead of us to engage in the school district’s version of speed dating. Her objective is to tell me how my son’s doing in school. My objective is to keep my mouth shut long enough to let her meet her objective. The keeping my mouth shut part proves to be a challenge.

She starts with his progress in reading and nicely comments that she imagines I read to him a lot at home. I could simply nod, but apparently I need to elaborate. I start to explain how I read much more to my older kids when they were little, but now with all the driving to sports in the evenings it’s hard to fit the reading in. I explain how my three sons play in several leagues and how we don’t always all eat dinner together. I cannot stop talking and am on the verge of confessing to sloth and occasional impure thoughts when I catch her glancing at the clock over my shoulder. I conclude with, “Yes, I read to him.” There are now only ten minutes left.

He knows his math facts, whatever that means. I offer, “We do a lot of math at home.” Now I’m just plain lying, and she knows it. No one does a lot of math at home. The only math we do sounds like “If you don’t get your shoes on by the time I count to five…” But I hold her gaze because I desperately want her to forget about the frozen taquitos.

Our conference goes five minutes over, and I find the next nervous parent sitting in the hall in the tiny chair. Behind me, the teacher is scribbling in my son’s Permanent Record, probably something about how his mom talks too much in class.