The real lessons of back-to-school night

To say that I live for back- to -school night would be a stretch. This autumn ritual usually creeps up on me unawares, with my kids casually mentioning amid a purposeful early-morning search for socks and backpacks that I should be at school at 7 p.m. that very night. But after the initial flurry of reworking my plans to include a photo-finish arrival at the first class of the evening, I'm excited.

It's an event I enjoy, even if it's carefully scripted at most schools. Teachers praise texts, encourage calls from parents, and regret that there's no time to take questions. Parents listen smilingly, stay in their seats, and regret that there's no time to ask questions.

There's usually some light theater. You can see diplomacy in action as modern families negotiate who goes to history and who gets art class. Or there's the parent who ices up a room by grilling a teacher on classroom rules - "organize papers in a neat three-ring binder" - and whether such things chill expressive freedom.

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But I also see the night as a way to size up what's really of interest: the atmosphere. One friend confessed that she was worried about her back-to-school night next week because it might confirm a sense that the year isn't shaping up well. Another is checking out a child's comment that just half the teachers measure up.

Of course, most parents love the rules kids see as unfathomable. They might warm to tough teachers that children read as rigid. But mostly, they want to start a dialogue. And when they get a helpful call from a teacher after the event has ended, as did I, they might just think it's going to be a good year.

E-mail newcomba@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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