Rumors via the elementary school grapevine (that remarkably accurate mode of communication) report that eventually the parent-teacher conferences that we've attended since our children began school turn into a different kind of experience once the high school years begin. In high school, conferences apparently are held in the gym or some other large room with all the teachers available simultaneously so parents can visit with as many – or as few – as they choose.
I have the feeling I'll miss school conferences once we're through with them. There's something magical about visiting your child's classroom at night, seeing it specially spiffed up with the best drawings taped to the walls, the nicest writing samples pinned to the bulletin board, and all the chairs tucked neatly under the desks. It's a strong reminder that yes, indeed, you really are a parent.
It's also nice to have the opportunity during a half-hour conference to get to know a little better the person with whom your child spends most of his waking hours. That 30 minutes in the fall, winter, and spring gives us the chance to learn what's going on in our child's world when we aren't around.
How well I recall those first conferences when our older son, Joe, was just starting out in the public school system. Literally shaking with fear, I listened to his teacher describe his strengths (Joe never talked out of turn during "circle time") and weaknesses (he had very poor cutting skills, undoubtedly due to the fact that both his father and I – naive, first-time parents that we were – thought we were supposed to keep sharp objects such as scissors away from him.)
I still remember walking out of that first conference sadly convinced that Joe's poor cutting skills in kindergarten would keep him out of Harvard.
The conferences that stand out the most are the ones our sons came along on – when they sat next to me and explained what was in their hand-decorated conference folder. I recall a teacher of Joe's who required her students to formally welcome and introduce parents to teachers with a brief, well-rehearsed speech. My heart tugged when Joe's speech, carefully written on an index card, fluttered to the floor, a tattered clue of how seriously he was taking this conference business.
I remember our younger son, Hank, sitting uneasily on the edge of his chair as his kindergarten teacher and I discussed his self-portrait. The students were told to draw a picture of themselves on the very first day of school, and Hank had come up with a masterpiece depiction of Thomas the Tank Engine sitting in a classroom.
"I figured perhaps that's how he sees himself, and that's just fine," his wise teacher told me. Seeing my anxious face she added, "That first day of kindergarten is a little rough on everyone."
Most of all, I look back at the parent-teacher conferences we've attended with a little awe and a whole lot of gratitude. The awe is over what the public schools in our town have managed to teach our children over the years.
The gratitude is – for the most part – that the teachers we've dealt with have been well-trained, compassionate professionals, tackling a job on a daily basis that many of us couldn't handle for 27 consecutive minutes.
There's gratitude also for the changes our family has gone through since those early days.
I'm no longer quaking in my boots at conference time. I've learned to listen with an open mind while remembering that no one knows Joe or Hank as well as the people who live with them on a full-time basis. Parent-teacher conferences have taught me not to take it personally when I hear that one of my "perfect" children needs to work on math skills now instead of cutting skills.
In the front hallway of our children's school there's a floor mat that reads: "Parents, Students, Teachers Working Together." I like that sentiment. Or maybe it's more than a sentiment. Maybe it's a recipe for a winning combination of making those early elementary years the best they can possibly be.
I know I'm going to miss those conferences once they are over. They'll be added to that invisible list that every parent knows, a list full of items such as pushing red-cheeked babies in strollers and watching cartoons with a bundle of joy tucked under each arm. It's a list that's called "Things you think will last forever but know in your heart won't."
Sometimes being a parent seems like being dropped from a plane in a foreign country without a map. It's only through trial and error that we figure out the best way to do things, and often by the time we've figured it out, our children have moved on to something new.
It's been nice to have the opportunity to hear from teachers about things we've done right – not to mention the things we need to work on. Most of all, it's good to be reminded how fortunate we are to have each other.