Watching #2 Bloom

The kids in #2’s class had been given a photocopy of a pot (flower pot) and asked to decorate it and then “plant” inside it something they hoped would grow and bloom. Candy plants were by far the most popular. There were a couple money plants and toy plants. There were a couple flower plants and a tree. When I found #2’s, this is what I saw:

#2 wants to bloom. I’m sure she will.

#2 wants to bloom. I’m sure she will.

There in the center of her pot was her name in big, bold letters. Underneath the pot, she completed the sentence “If I had the power to make anything bloom inside my pot, it would be …” with an exuberant “Me!!”

Everything about her drawing made me smile and my heart glad. How can I be anything but happy!


Parent-Teacher Conferences

Today was parent-teacher conference day with #1’s homeroom teacher. I’ve been to 15 of these now for #1 (and another 9 for #2). And although I have tried always to be involved in his school—I frequently help out or have chaperoned field trips or talked to the class about what I do—I still make a point of of attending parent-teacher conferences. On the one hand, parent-teacher conferences help me understand the school’s broader curricular goals and how he is progressing toward those goals: what he is learning; how he is learning; what challenges he might be confronting. On the other hand, parent-teacher conferences give me a glimpse of a #1 that I don’t see: what he’s like around his peers and in other social settings; how he behaves in public. There’s another reason I attend parent-teacher conferences, a reason that seems to get lost in the shuffle (or, for so many parents and teachers trying to carve out a few minutes from an otherwise frenetic dash through the day): I go to parent-teacher conferences because it means a lot #1.

Yesterday I mentioned to #1 that I was looking forward the parent-teacher conference. My comment was a sort of warning—our conference was before school, so we would have to be efficient in the morning and leave earlier than normal. He looked up and asked hopefully: “Is mom going?” He seemed to deflate when I said, “No. She has to go to work.”

—“Why doesn’t she go to my teacher conferences?”
—“She trusts you and me. You’re a good kid and good student. I don’t think she feels a need to check in on you.”
—“But she never goes to mine. I wish she would.”[1]

His lament reminded me how important it is to kids that parents show a real interest in their education, in what they do every day, i.e., in what we make them do every day. Parent-teacher conferences are about more than just establishing lines of communication or building working relationships between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher conferences also bolster relationships between parents and children.

Parent-teacher conferences are stressful a lot of work for everybody. Parents have to adjust schedules, often have to find childcare for a younger sibling, and have to make special trips to school, where they hope won’t be kept waiting while other conferences run long. And then there’s the worry that they’ll find out darling Tobias or little Beatrix is a terror or failing or …. Teachers have to prepare for conferences, adding to their otherwise already full day’s work, and then have to take time that they could be prepping for class, helping students who need a little extra, or grading. And then there’s the concern that some parent is going to erupt because their perfect child couldn’t possibly be failing, or be disruptive, or be an unrepentant pain in the ass. For different reasons, parents and teachers can be anxious about these conferences.

Parents who want to improve the experience can find useful advice. Grete DeAngelo offers some nice tips for parents (reposted at Huff Post (because isn’t everything these days reposted at Huff Post?) and Topical Teaching). Lisa Heffernan at the WaPo compiled her own list for parents: Learn from my mistakes. Beth Van Amburgh offers some general tips that are handy for both teachers and parents.

With all this focus on parents and teachers, on classroom performance and behavior, it is easy to lose sight of the people standing at the center of this educational, social, and by middle school hormonal maelstrom. It is easy to forget that for kids, school is incredibly important and daunting and at times disorienting. They are not experts at negotiating the dynamic and shifting relationships. Nor are they as jaded as we often think. They are kids who still look to their parents for guidance, affirmation, and approval. They want to see that we care.

This morning #1 and I walked into school. As he led me to his class, he pointed out various things hanging in the halls—art work, projects, assignments—and shared comments about some of the other classrooms and teacher. Then he returned to the cafeteria while we met with his teacher.[2] When I left, #1 walked me to my car and peppered me with questions: How did it go? Did I like his teacher? Did I see the class turtle? Did I see the fish? Did we talk about their science project? Did the teacher show me the poster they made? Did …? Did …? Did …?

The next chance you (especially you dads, since mothers typically bear the burden of school-related events) get, go to a parent-teacher conference. It‘s an easy way to show your child that you care.

  1. Two points here. First, The Mother has attended #1’s parent-teacher conferences, though not as frequently as I have. Second, part of the issue is the fact that The Mother more frequently attends #2’s parent-teacher conferences.  ↩

  2. Yes, we. I encouraged The Mother to attend the conference because it would mean a lot to #1. She met me there so she could go directly to work afterward.  ↩

Go Visit Your Child’s Class

This afternoon I spent a couple hours with #2’s class. Her class is learning about ancient Greece, so I offered to design a little project so they could calculate the size of a ball, the same way Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth 2,200 years ago.[1] The reason for my visit was and remains unimportant. What mattered to #2 was my being there.

Our model earth that we would have used to see how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth.

Our model earth that we would have used to see how Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth.

My visit wasn’t a surprise to anybody. I had been working with the teachers for a week or so putting things together. #2 knew I was coming and, as the day approached, she grew increasingly excited, asking each morning: “How long until you come to my class?” Nevertheless, when she saw me today her smile bloomed across her face and she ran over to hug me.

Fathers seem to be excluded, or to exclude themselves, or not to be interested in their children’s education. I see mothers around the school with some regularity—certainly mothers dominate the drop off and pick up, as well as the field trips and parent morning. Despite the changes in parenting that we rightly celebrate, fathers remain an endangered species at school. Arrange with your child’s teacher to spend 30 minutes in class. Read the class a story. Share with them one of your hobbies. Tell them about your work. Just go play with them.[3]

I am lucky, my career allows me flexibility during the day. I can rearrange my day to spend an hour or two at #1’s or #2’s school or to accompany a class on a field trip.[2] Do whatever it takes to get a morning or afternoon free so you can visit your child’s class outside the obligatory “back to school” morning or special assembly.

Go because you will enjoy it. Go because it will make your child’s day. Trust me.

Postscript: When the sun retreated behind a thick blanket of clouds all shadows disappeared, preventing us from doing our little experiment. Alas. We’ve rescheduled for next week.

  1. Yes, Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth. His method used simple geometry and produced a reasonably accurate result. Like the overwhelming vast majority of educated people throughout recorded history, he knew the earth was a sphere. No. People in the middle ages did not think the earth was flat (there are perhaps, maybe, three people in recorded history who might not have thought the earth was a sphere—you probably haven’t heard of them because nobody paid any attention to them). No Columbus didn’t prove the earth was round. In fact, Columbus and his detractors knew of Eratosthenes’ result. They disagreed on the value—Columbus’s book included an error, so he thought the world was much smaller than everybody else. Inexcusably, most kids continue to be taught that people in the middle ages thought the earth was flat. More disturbingly, prominent political leaders (e.g., the current U.S. president) and educated scientists continue to traffic in this myth.  ↩

  2. As I write this I realize how much like my father I have become. His career had a flexibility that allowed him to come to my school on a regular basis, at least as frequently as my mother. As a kid I didn’t understand the larger cultural forces at work. I just thought it was strange that other kids’ dads didn’t come on field trips or pick them up from school.  ↩

  3. My underlying point about parents spending time with their children at school applies equally to mothers as it does to fathers. But there are plenty of blogs and magazines out there urging mothers to do these things. I am more interested in urging fathers to step up and do more.  ↩

Running Late? Just Park it Anywhere.

Trying to get everybody out the door in the morning is a pain. Some days the progeny seem possessed by the dilatory demons, or the sartorial gods conspire against us. Some days things just go all pear-shaped. We all run late now and then—we should be considerate of those around us when that happens.

There’s another class of parents who run chronically late, as in daily. In most other contexts, these parents are often nice people and lively conversationalists. But in the morning, when they’ve arrived late to school, they’re unpleasant and unhappy. They careen through the drop-off circle and bark at their little darlings to jump out of the car as they slow to the posted speed limit. Or they skid to a halt in the middle of the parking lot in a shower of gravel and dust, leap from the car, and hound, push, prod, and propel their offspring into class with threats like “If you don’t hurry, you’re going to be late.”[1]

No really, just park anywhere.

No really, just park anywhere.

Seriously, when you arrive late, just embrace your tardiness. Park like a normal person. Talk to your child about the upcoming day as you stroll into school. Stop by the office to let them know your child is late but not absent. Walk your child to class. Kiss your child goodbye. Then walk back to your car and drive to work.

And remember, no matter where you park or how many people you inconvenience, your child is still late to school (and you’ll probably be late too).

  1. Yes, I have heard parents say this as they shove or drag little Tobias or little Beatrix into school. Perhaps what the parent means is: “Hurry up so I don’t have to speed to get to work on time” or “Hurry up so I’m not late” or “Hurry up so I can meet my friends for coffee.” If that’s the case, then say so. With some regularity, however, I see the same parent standing around chatting with other parents after depositing their little loved ones at class. If what you mean is “Hurry so you are no too late,” just say that. But really, once you are late, just enjoy being a few minutes late (vide supra).  ↩

If On a Winter’s Day a Stuffy

The morning begins in a gelid parking lot, a car lurches to a stop, steam from the exhaust pipe obscures the license plate. In the morning’s odor a whiff of diesel from a bus mixes with the smell of partially combusted gasoline. A small girl looks out a befogged window. She opens the door of the car. She climbs out of the back seat and buttons her overcoat, heat from inside envelops her, convection currents distort the air above her head. As she pulls a mitten from her pocket she doesn’t notice me fall. All I can do is watch her and her mother rush through the bitter morning into school.

Ever hopeful, little bunny stuffy waits for his owner to return.

Ever hopeful, little bunny stuffy waits for his owner to return.

You, reader, believed that there, on the cold ground, my gaze was glued to their disappearing backs, their hands interlocked like gears, in a vain attempt to turn them around and to retrace their steps through the cemetery of lost friends lying lifeless in their rocky pantheon. But who can say that I am not fleeing from the mother and daughter as much as they seem to be retreating from me? However, the result would not change much: even if she fetched me from ground and replaced me in her warm pocket, my stitched smile would still express an inner fear. Despite, or perhaps because of, her affection, which at times represented for me an unwelcome and exhausting burden, I inevitably would be lost, dropped or left behind, my absence noticed too late.

As he approaches he notices a stuffy lying next to his car. Although last time he felt sorry for the child who lost a kitten keychain, he did little more than take a photo and try not to back over it as he left. Today, he pauses, feeling once again a sympathetic twinge for the unknown child who lost her stuffy. He bends down and picks it up.

That afternoon, while waiting for her mother, a little girl can’t find her bunny stuffy. She wanted to show her friend. She checks both coat pockets. It’s not there. She rummages through her book bag, double checks her pockets, looks in her desk. She doesn’t know where to look. It’s lost. She starts to weep.

It’s dark in this drawer, dark but warm and cozy with all the other stuffies. I am thankful to the man who found me and brought me in out of the cold. However, the result did not change much: although he fetched me from the ground and turned me in to lost and found, my stitched smile still expresses my inner fear. I know now that despite her affection, I am lost.

Something was bound to go wrong for me.…

School’s Cancelled — Let’s Go Tubing

0550: I looked up from my work and glanced out the window. Although it hadn’t started snowing, leaden clouds blanketed the sky. If we are lucky, I thought, the snow will hold off until #1 and #2 get to school.

0601: My phone vibrated. I read the text that had just arrived: “School is cancelled today due to the snow.” I looked out the window and thought, what snow? I didn’t have time for a snow day, not that the petty denizens who determine school closures cared. As I sat there thinking about how my day was ruined, I paused. #1 and #2 will relish a day off. If it started snowing, they would frolic in it all day. I couldn’t force the school to open, that was beyond my control. I could, however, control my attitude. I could spoil #1’s and #2’s day by being grumpy, or I could take advantage of the day with them.

0650: Snow fell fast and thick, carpeting the ground.

0730: I woke #1 and #2 and told them to find their snow clothes. I had to work for a few hours but after lunch, I promised, we would go tubing.

1200-1700: #1, #2, and I spent the afternoon rocketing down the tubing hill and trudging back up, over and over again.

1730: Exhausted, we arrived home, where we sat around our table drinking hot chocolate and reliving our breakneck descents and near collisions.

1945: #2 had fallen asleep next to me; #1, who was drifting off as I read to him.

I don’t know what #1 and #2 will remember from their childhood—I have no control over their memories (as Randy Murry put it recently, parents can’t make memories for their children). I can, however, shape the experiences from which they will fashion those memories. At 0601 I could have let my annoyance spoil the day and taint their experiences. Happily, I didn’t.

#1 and #2 might or might not remember anything from our afternoon of tubing, but as far as experiences go, it was great.

On Cameras and Holiday Shows

The father scuttled in as the first song of the holiday show ended. Once in position at the back of the room, he wrested from his camera bag a pristine Nikon D800 outfitted with 24–120mm zoom. He ditched the lens cap in his jacket pocket, fiddled with some dials on the top, looked at the back, then fiddled some more. Finally, he raised it so he could see the camera’s “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage.”

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

The mirror inside his DSLR made its distinctive sound. The father performed the conventional lower-the-camera-and-look-down-to-check-the-photo on the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage” maneuver.[1] He then repositioned the camera between his face and kids, stared at the live display on the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage,” and resumed taking photos.

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

What distinguished the father standing near me from the other 42 camera-wielding parents in the room was the price of his equipment.[2] Most were staring at the screen on the back of their iPhones or Androids as they took still photos or recorded videos—a three retro-parents squinted at the tiny articulated screens on their dedicated video cameras. Regardless of their camera, all these parents sought to capture the moment in pixels, perhaps to share with friends and family, perhaps to fulfill some obligation Kodak foisted on families more than a century ago. Suffering from the snapshot imperative that compels parents to take photos at any and every school function, I too had arrived at school with my own camera. I decided, however, to leave it in the car.

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

The class of first-graders filed into the room wearing a hodgepodge of “nice clothes.” The boys paired clean jeans with polo shirts and tennis shoes. Here and there a boy wore a button-down shirt and clip-on tie. The girls for the most part wore festive dresses, tights, and shiny little shoes—typically black or red. As they mounted the stage, each scanned the room for a parent. Faces lit up when they found their parents, their little hands waved. Other faces sagged when they didn’t. For the next 30 minutes I leaned against the back wall and watched #2 sing holiday songs. I noticed how her brow furrowed when she was uncertain of the next line, how her eyes focused somewhere in the middle of the room as she concentrated on the words. Tension drained from her face and her eyes widened with relief when the words came easily. During Jingle Bells, she concentrated on the music teacher’s cues to be sure she shook her bells at the right time and in the right way. Between songs, #2 shifted from foot to foot. She grinned at something a classmate said. She looked up at me, smiled, and waved furtively—each time I smiled and waved back. When the show concluded, the kids crowded off stage and out the door, a confusion of six-year-old energy. Just before #2 disappeared, she looked back and waved one last time.

After a final burst of slap-slap, slap-slap, slap-slap, the father next to me packed away his camera. He remarked how much he had enjoyed the show. I am sure he did enjoy the show, not because it was all that good—what first-grade holiday show is really all that good—but because he did what parents are supposed to do: he captured it for posterity (or for his Facebook page or his Picasa album or whatever). I, by contrast, had failed to take even one photo, a failure The Mother pointed out to me that evening when I had no photos to show her. I also failed when I tried to convince her that the important experience of the show could not be captured in a photo.

I will remember #2 smiling and waving at me between each song, joy in her face just seeing me there. And I hope she will have the memory of me, not obscured by a camera, smiling and waving back at her.

  1. Although the LCD displays all sorts of information, e.g., “view menu options, histograms, video settings and more,” Nikon points out that the LCD allows photographers to “Confirm image capture” and enables “on-the-spot focus confirmation.” It seems all this confirming might cause photographers to spend less time watching what they are photographing and more time looking at the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage.”  ↩

  2. Certainly, a Nikon D800 produces vastly superior image quality compared to any smartphone or the occasional point-and-shoots.  ↩