When I was in second grade my mother threatened to strangle my teacher, Mrs. White. I do not mean that my mom and I were standing around in the kitchen late at night, frustrated over a science fair project, when she made an exasperated statement to no one in particular. My mother went to the school, pulled Mrs. White into an empty classroom, shut the door, stood in front of it to prevent my teacher from escaping, and proceeded to tell Mrs. White that she would strangle her if she didn’t let up on me in class.
I’m now certain that my problems with Mrs. White had everything to do with my mom – before and after the threat of strangulation. Naturally, I didn’t know of this incident at the time, and my mother only related the story to me a few years ago. I’d just always assumed that my second grade teacher hated me.
I was too young in second grade to be embarrassed or even aware of my mother’s intensity when it came to how she dealt with the parent-teacher relationship. If there was an opportunity to volunteer to help out in my classroom or chaperone a field trip my mother seized the chance, and that would have been fine if she was merely an over-zealous volunteer.
But my mother – God bless her sweet southern soul – was (and is) one of those mothers who can’t help but try to dominate a situation and make certain that the spotlight shines on Her Child, the child who might as well have come into this world via immaculate conception because he is so perfect.
Fortunately, as I got older, the occasions for my mother to embarrass me at school dwindled. Or rather, those moments were distilled, so that the times were stinging but few.
Alas, I’d managed to suppress most of this mother-inflicted, school-related trauma until this past May. I walked into the kitchen for some Cheez-It crackers and found my wife writing frantically in our son’s planner. “What are you doing?” I asked. I was only mildly interested, but it seemed impolite to just grab a snack without speaking to the other person in the room, especially one’s spouse.
“Look at this,” she said and thrust the planner out for me to see.
The planner was a green, three-ring binder used to keep track of Gavyn’s kindergarten homework and communication with the teacher and the teacher’s assistant. The planner was not our doing – every kid in Gavyn’s class had one. Each planner was assembled by the teacher at the beginning of the year, and all of them were as thick as a telephone directory in a medium-sized city. We were informed on the first day of school that without the planner we would all be lost. This was not the kindergarten my wife and I had experienced. This was a kindergarten of rigorous labor designed to live up to the grade’s German etymology.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be looking at. I knew what the planner was and had even fumbled through it a few times to ferret out relevant information, but I was rather intimidated by it. I seem to recall kindergarten as a fun time during which my classmates and I cut fruits and vegetables in half and dipped them in paint and made abstract pictures. And then a teacher read us a story, and we had a snack and took a nap. I didn’t need a planner for kindergarten. I’m fairly certain my teacher didn’t have one. My poor son brought home bushels of homework every day, plus a planner that was easily one-fifth his weight, and he didn’t even get a nap.
My wife sensed my confusion and was worked up enough about the matter at hand to ignore it.
“Here,” she said, pointing.
She was indicating a note from Gavyn’s teacher. It said:
“Thanks for bringing snacks! Don’t forget about the Book Fair! Send money by Thursday!”
“Do you notice anything wrong with that?” my wife asked.
I studied the note again. “Should she have capitalized ‘Book Fair’?”
My wife frowned at me.
“Okay, well, other than her overuse of exclamation-”
“Exactly!” My wife began to pound the planner with her index finger. “I’m sick of her sarcastic exclamation marks. I just realized tonight she punctuates everything with an exclamation mark, and I think she’s screwing with us because we’re the young, hip, cool parents, you know?”
I stared at Patrice. I was trying to assess if she was being serious. We are in our mid-thirties. I am most often clad entirely in garments from Old Navy. I drive an ’89 Chrysler Lebaron (Turbo).
My wife pounded the planner. “I’m sick of her sarcastic exclamation marks.”
We both care who wins American Idol (though we don’t often speak about it publicly). Her epithets seemed somewhat out of touch with reality.
“She’s a kindergarten teacher, Patrice. I think it’s an unspoken rule that kindergarten teachers overuse exclamation marks and smiley faces.”
“Then where’s the smiley face?” She shook the planner at me, as if smiley faces might come unstuck from the page and clatter to the floor. “I think I know what she’s doing. This is because we don’t always get all those worksheets done on time and I’m tired of her attitude. I’ve been writing a note back to her, and I’m going to let her know what I think of her worksheets and her use of exclamation points.”
I was having trouble processing what was going on. On the one hand it seemed very logical to me that if you overused exclamation marks, then you deserved scorn. And admittedly, there were a lot of worksheets. But it struck me as odd that any teacher at the primary level would have the time or energy to taunt a parent through the subtle use of punctuation. I was flooded with the sudden remembrances of my mother’s many confrontations with my teachers, and later, my brother’s. I realized that what I was seeing was the beginning of a long road of embarrassment – and not just for Gavyn, but for Patrice as well.
I don’t wish to give you the impression that my formative years in school are nothing but doom and gloom brought on by the doings of my mother. There were incidents, sure, but I remember certain years in school as some of the sweetest years of my life.
In fourth grade I had a teacher named Ms. Clark, and I feel I can say with some confidence that she was the best of them all. She was required to teach us the range of subjects, but her specialty was science. When she spoke of protons and electrons and the movement of the planets, she did so with a passion that was absolutely infectious.
It strikes me now that all my mother ever wanted (in her own, misguided way) was to help with my educational experience.
What is also memorable about Ms. Clark is that she brought her mother to work. Mom Clark, as everyone called her (including the principal), was white-haired, bone thin, and always gracefully attired in a dress that never plunged below the neckline. While Ms. Clark taught, Mom Clark sat in the back and listened, and when it was time for an activity, she went around one side of the room assisting students while her daughter worked the other side.
At the time this seemed completely normal, but when I realize how such an arrangement could never happen today, I understand how unique it was. I remember so vividly Mom Clark standing at the front of the classroom, drilling us one by one on the proper pronunciation of Antarctica. Mom Clark had been a teacher too, and once she had retired, she found she still had more to give.
I don’t know if it was because the school I was attending at that time (it should come as no surprise I switched schools midway through second grade) was located in a small town or what, but somehow Mom Clark was allowed to come in and put her skills to good use.
That is also one year when my mother made no complaints to or about my teacher. In fact, I remember my mother sitting quite proudly in the front row of parents who came for the end of the year class presentation about the workings of electricity. (Perhaps an odd thing to give a presentation on, but my home town was put on the map by the construction of a nuclear plant.) Whatever Ms. Clark did, it somehow made my mother feel like both of them were doing their respective jobs and making sure I turned out okay.
I looked at Patrice furiously proofreading the primer on punctuation she’d written to Gavyn’s teacher. Silly as it seems, those punctuation marks and that planner had made Patrice feel somehow slack as a parent. The evidence was in her reaction: we don’t always get the worksheets done on time.
It strikes me now that all my mother ever wanted (in her own, misguided way) was to help with my educational experience, and her confrontations were brought about by her sense that she wasn’t doing enough. Ms. Clark and a few other teachers over the years held the key to communicating with her so that she felt comfortable and included in my life at school.
I could have explained to Patrice that there was no need to get upset, that we were doing the best we could with a child in kindergarten and twins at home and both of us working. But I really wanted to enjoy my Cheez-Its. Marriage and parenting have taught me a little something about timing. I let Patrice finish her note, and after she had gone to bed I tore it out of the planner and wrote a note of my own: “Thanks for all your hard work! Sorry we’re behind! We’ve had to learn some things all over again!”