Year after year, without exception, I've helped out in my child's classroom. During my career as a parent volunteer I've cut out zillions of bunny patterns, assisted with countless finger-painting projects, and even worked with a reading group or two.
But this year things are different. Very different. You see, now my daughter is in the fifth grade.
The first big difference I discovered about going into a fifth-grade classroom is that there are a lot of new rules that I must follow, most of which are made up by my daughter.
Some of the basic tenets are: 1) Do not wave or make eye contact with any other human being in the room; 2) Do not say things like "by golly," "gee-whiz," or "groovy"; 3) Do not tell stories from anyone's sordid past as a baby; and 4) Do not, under any circumstances, wear the flowered leggings with the wide-brimmed straw hat because "it's not the '80s anymore, you know."
The other important difference is that there will be no paintbrushes or fluffy bunny patterns waiting for you to cut out.
Chances are there will be nothing but a lot of serious learning going on there.
Take, for instance, the other day.
As soon as I arrived, the teacher steered me to the back table and explained to me that I was to supervise a few students who needed to finish a pre-algebra math page.
"Just help them if they have any questions," he said. He mumbled something about square roots and the commutative property. Then he calmly sauntered away, leaving me with nothing but my wits on which to survive.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of math. It comes in handy in all sorts of important situations such as figuring out how much the beige handbag you had your eye on will cost after it finally goes on sale for 40 percent off.
But, truth be told, as far as any kind of advanced math goes, I am sorely lacking. I'm the type of person who firmly believes that the letter "x" belongs in words, and has absolutely no business whatsoever hanging around in math problems.
Life being what it is, no sooner had I had begun to relax, than a girl raised her hand and pointed to a long string of numbers, letters, and fractions that looked like some kind of Martian secret code.
"Can you help me?" she asked.
I immediately flashed back to the last time I tried balancing the checkbook.
I thought of saying: "Well, you see, you take this number and move it over here, then you times it by the amount you think it should be, then subtract, say, $57, and then you take a wild guess and call the bank. Easy, eh?"
That wouldn't be any good, of course. She would see right through my flimsy charade.
But something peculiar happened: Memories of my fifth-grade year came flooding back. Granted, it also brought back the words to "Staying Alive," the Hustle, and all the names of the Bee Gees. But pre-algebra was mixed in there somewhere, too.
Sure, I'd like to say everything was different after that. That we all spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the back table discussing calculus and revising the theory of time-space continuum and all that.
But we didn't.
The kids quietly finished their math papers and then went back to their seats, and I went on my way, pining for the good old days of finger-painting stations and reading centers.
Things were so happy and innocent then.