I ignored the phone when it rang. Then the email arrived, flagged urgent:
I just tried to call but you’re not in your office. Please call me as soon as you get this.
[Lower School Principal]
What? Had #1 has caused some serious trouble? Had #1 been hurt? Turned out, it had nothing to do with #1.
I was in trouble.
Three months earlier, members of the Home and School Association had phoned me to ask if I would be willing to be #1’s “Classroom Parent.” I agreed. On the one hand, as Classroom Parent I would have more chances to be involved in #1’s life. On the other hand, I thought it was my responsibility to share the labor with the other parents who have given their time and energy. It was also a chance to model father involvement—the ranks of Classroom Parents are dominated by mothers who shoulder the burden of school-related labor, at least in primary school.
As Classroom Parent I had attended the obligatory “organizational meetings,” had accompanied the class on a couple field trips, had persuaded different parents to help with in-class activities. I had sent more emails about school related topics than I can remember. And along with the grade’s two other Classroom Parents I had helped plan the annual parent gathering for our grade.
That annual parent gathering became my nemesis.
In preparation for the parent gathering, we, the Classroom Parents, had decided it would be nice to have a slideshow of the students in their classrooms, on field trips, and romping around the playground. My task was to ensure we had photos of every kid. Over the next few weeks I went to school a number of times to take pictures of the kids in the class and on the playground.
When I phoned the principle that afternoon to find out what was wrong, he told me only that he and assistant principal needed to see me. That day, if possible. He hinted only that there had been a concerns voiced about me.
When I arrived they ushered me into the principle’s office where the principle and assistant principle were waiting for me. They didn’t prevaricate. “A parent or parents” — they were careful to protect the anonymity of my accuser(s) — had been disturbed by my behavior. A parent or parents had seen me taking pictures of the students on the playground, the jungle gym, and the swings. A parent or parents had seen me “taking pictures with a big camera.” A parent or parents had seen me “waiting in the hallways with a camera.” A parent or parents had claimed I was “threatening.”
I sat in stunned silence. I was ashamed. Embarrassed. Insulted. Mortified. Afraid.
After a moment, I asked for clarification: What were they trying to say? Were they accusing me of being a pedophile or a predator? Had a parent accused me of being a sexual predator?
No no, they assured me, nobody had “actually called [me] a pedophile.” Their insistence on the adverb, “actually,” which they repeated a number of times, suggested that the parent or parents had all but called me a pedophile or some sort of predator. And the reassured me that they had no suspicions. The principle and assistant principle were merely following up because they had promised the parent(s) that they would talk to me.
My shame was turning to anger and outrage.
How could any parent see me as a threat? How could the school let a parent believe for a moment that I was a predator? I was doing what my co-Classroom Parents had charged me to do. I was on school grounds with the school’s permission, taking photos for a function the school had compelled us to organize. I had volunteered in the classrooms. I had chaperoned field trips. I had attended assemblies and back-to-school night. I dropped #1 off every morning and picked him up every afternoon. Every teacher at the school new me by name. I wasn’t a stranger lurking in the shadows. I was a public fixture.
Yet there I slumped in a chair in the principle’s office, listening to them accuse me of being a predator if not “actually” a pedophile.
Searching for Clues
I get it. Parents want to protect their children. Predators don’t walk around in neon-green shirts with the word “PREDATOR” emblazoned across the front in 144-pt Helvetica. Consequently, parents scrutinize people’s behavior for suspicious activity that reveals malevolent intent. As parents we look for and find those clues. A father at school during the day is, apparently, suspicious. Put a camera in his hand and clearly he’s a predator.
We find ourselves in a precarious position of trying to discover evil intentions in neutral behavior. Like some reincarnated Matthew Hopkins, each of us searches for signs of maleficium. And like Matthew Hopkins, we pursue our demons with zeal and determination.
The Dad Double Bind
We have painted ourselves into a corner. We want fathers to be involved in their children’s upbringing. Scholars continue to report on the unique and life-long benefits of having an engaged father. We encourage and cajole fathers into spending time with their children. But then we are suspicious when fathers play too large a role in their kids’ lives, or perhaps we are suspicious of fathers who choose to play a large a role in their kids’ lives. And if the research is valid, men are more frequently predators. So it comes as no surprise that we are more suspicious of men.
That doesn’t make it any easier when somebody assumes you are a predator (see, for example, Dad Profiling). Or worse, when you are explicitly accused of being a predator.
I don’t know who my accuser was (or who they were) or exactly what they said. I know only that my accuser(s) had won. I wanted nothing to do with the school or the parents. I walked out to my car and returned with the flash drive that contained all the photos I had taken and had been editing for the upcoming annual parent gathering. I handed it to the principle and then left. I resigned as Classroom Parent and, more importantly, as school predator.
This year, when I was again asked to be a Classroom Parent, I respectfully but unambiguously declined. I had no intention of ever being school predator again.
The events at the center of the post occurred a couple years ago when I was “Classroom Parent.” I reread them recently when I stumbled across the notebook I had used to organize class events, to arrange activities in the classroom and coordinate with other parents, and to draft emails and other communication with parents. ↩
That year, I and one other father agreed to be a Classroom Parent. In contrast, 11 mothers stepped forward to be Classroom Parents. That ratio has held pretty stable. The disparity in parental involvement permeates various aspects of primary school, from attending curriculum night to helping out in the classroom to chaperoning school field trips. ↩
This parent gathering was a disaster. We struggled with dates, we argued about locations, we didn’t agree on food or drink, we didn’t see eye to eye on equitable distribution of labor. It was cancelled and rescheduled at least twice. And then, in the end, it never occurred. ↩
Clearly none of these is a reliable indicator of innocence or guilt. Neither strangers nor friends and relatives have a monopoly on abusing or abducting children, though friends and family seem more likely to commit such crimes. ↩
Innumerable fathers play a large part in raising their children without having to be shamed into it. Yet it remains more common for mothers to play a larger role in raising children and to have to persuade fathers to take on more varied responsibilities. ↩