Spring in suburban Boston always means rain showers, but last year the rains were of biblical proportions. By late May, the pond near my son's elementary school had expanded past its banks, swollen by storm-water runoff.
Normally, this would be a mere curiosity, but to the third-grade parents, including myself, who were to help lead a ponding expedition, this bordered on a safety hazard.
In April, I had huddled in a downpour along with other parent volunteers, rubber boots dug deep into the pond bank, learning to identify the creepy-crawlies that were stirring to life in the muck.
The pond was a benign and predictable place then, with old marsh grasses and cattails marking its borders.
But as the rains increased, the pond shape-shifted into an unrecognizable blob, swamping the vegetation and raising itself steadily higher toward the parking lot. The third-graders' nature walk was postponed indefinitely.
One day though, the sky cleared and we were able to take the children outside. Each of the three parent volunteers was assigned six students.
The teacher reiterated that the kids were not to get in the water because of unseen hazards and especially because several students had no change of clothes and long bus rides home.
Several problems existed with this arrangement. First, two of the six kids in my group did not have boots.
Second, how does one keep children who are determined to get wet out of the water?
And third, ponding is supposed to be fun, and I didn't want to yell at them like a drill sergeant.
The two students without boots looked so dejected that I foolishly offered to let them take turns borrowing mine.
The outing started off well, with the kids giddy at the sight of the swollen pond. Ours was the last third-grade class to make the trip, so the children had heard all about what creatures other classes had observed, and they were eager to get started.
They took turns trawling with small nets in the wet leaves looking for dragonfly nymphs and other larvae. Hoping that no one would fall in, I held onto the waist of each child as he or she bent way out over the pond. The teacher was watching.
Then everything began to unravel. A girl begged to go over to another part of the pond so she could look for other insects, and I agreed.
Moments later, I heard a splash and looked up. She was up to her waist in dirty pond water and the teacher was scowling – at me.
I called the kids back and corralled them into a semicircle around me, as I went over the bug identification process. But, as any teacher would tell you, I had already lost control.
When another group managed to catch a good-size minnow – by what miracle I couldn't imagine – my group, including my son, was jumping up and down on the bank excitedly.
"Can we go find one? Can we catch one?" The lesson plan could not stand against the thrill of the chase.
I agreed to move out into the sun next to a spot where the minnows could be seen flicking back and forth in the shallows. No longer under attack from mosquitoes or disapproving looks, I relaxed – until the kids began wading into the knee-deep water with nets, trying to snag a minnow.
The boy who had borrowed my boots promptly submerged them by stepping in water past his knees.
There wasn't much I could do to stop him, as I stood impotently on the bank in my stocking feet.
The kids decided to use teamwork to herd the minnows. They ran at them full tilt, splashing and waving.
The waterline on their clothing slowly moved northward. At this point, I was thinking, "Well, kids and water, what else can you expect?"
But my hands-off policy had been noted. I looked up a moment later to see the teacher heading our way. Uh-oh.
In her most authoritative voice, she asked one of the boys, "Did your group leader say you could get in the water?"
I got that rocks-in-the-belly feeling I hadn't experienced since my own third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dickison, had twice caught me talking in line and made me stand outside the classroom as punishment.
I had to say something to save face. Weakly, I piped up, "The kids were really determined to catch a minnow – like the other group," I added, hoping to appeal to her sense of fairness.
But the teacher politely ignored me and firmly proceeded to tell the kids to get out of the water, since it was time to go back inside.
Her chastisement was mainly addressed to the boy with my boots, but in my humbled state, the words felt aimed directly at me for being such a wimpy parent.
My son watched these goings-on with a resigned air. But I imagine that some part of him liked the idea that his mom was discovering the full range of teacherly disapprobation with which he was already familiar.
Ben, who was uncharacteristically a perfect angel during the nature walk and who remained dry, said as we were leaving the pond, "Way to go, Mom. You had the only group that got wet."
Looking around at the calm faces and dry clothes of the other students and parents, I saw he was absolutely right. How humiliating.
Mrs. Dickison lives on.