Get Schooled

A slightly cynical mom's guide to surviving parent-teacher conferences and science fairs without dying of boredom.
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"Reserve These Dates!!!" is not a subject line I like to see in my e-mail in-box, especially when the sender is my children's school and I'm trying to preserve the final fading days of summer.

Yet there it is, barking at me like a bullhorn (those hysterical exclamation points!!!) on a peaceful August afternoon. Once upon a time -- back when I was a neophyte mother or, worse, had three daughters in public school at the same time -- an e-mail like this had the power to plunge me into despair as I contemplated the long nights of PTA meetings, recitals, and parent-teacher conferences that lay ahead. I've lost years of my life sitting in overheated gymnasiums crammed with hard-backed folding chairs and jack-in-the-box parents jumping up and down, camcorders in hand, to prove their love. (As if they go home and watch those grainy clips: At that distance even the smartest forensic technicians from CSI: Middle School wouldn't have a prayer of identifying their own children among the crowd on stage.)

But such scenes, I'm happy to report, no longer terrorize me. Now I put down my pina colada and mark the events on my calendar with the efficiency of a Navy SEAL. Then I kick off my beach sandals and go for a swim. After all, it's a lovely day and there are no clouds on the horizon.

It turns out there is one upside to hitting middle age. Okay, I've had to give up food entirely just to be able to slip into a double coating of Spanx, and it takes me most of the afternoon to prepare my hair and face to go to a restaurant where I won't be eating my dinner. But when it comes to raising children? I'm an old pro who has learned what matters and what you can let slide.

As the oldest mom at school, I've got something those perky young mothers can't fake: experience. After 22 years of motherhood I can handle with aplomb any situation in the family horror-story handbook. I can neutralize middle school bullies. I can rattle off the comparative load limits for every major brand of backpack. And I know exactly what to do if an 18-year-old comes home and announces her intention of getting a tattoo of a Smurf on her chest.

So an e-mail posting a year's worth of back-to-school nights? A three-hour band concert? Ha! I laugh off such irritations. I have more strategies for surviving them than the PTA has bake sales. Allow me to share my wisdom.

Meet the Teachers Night

As the first event of the academic year, this evening will set the tone for all that follows. Your attendance is mandatory, but skip the principal's address -- it's for rookies. For reasons known only to them, school administrators invariably schedule the kickoff speech to coincide with the exact time you eat dinner, and on this night you're going to need fuel. You must go to each classroom (as ever, it's okay to skip gym), because if you don't, the teacher will put some kind of secret black mark next to your kid's name. Also -- and I have to give them points here for ingenuity -- the teachers have required your child to write "Welcome Mommy" notes that you are then obliged to acknowledge. (Bring a stack of Post-its on which to scrawl, "I loved seeing your poem about sad feelings tacked up on the bulletin board, sweetie.")

Don't worry if you're late to class, because that way you can hover by the door and won't have to sit in the little Goldilocks chair. On the way out, explain apologetically but vaguely to the teacher that you were delayed ­because you were "working with the budget committee." Be sure to compliment her on her hair or her shoes.

Holiday Concert

If possible, get hold of the program ahead of time; last year's agenda will usually suffice because these events rarely change. If that proves impossible, closely question your child to try to determine the three-minute period during which your darling will be sawing away at Bach. This can be challenging, as most children are about as aware of the passage of time as they are of the key points in Tim Pawlenty's deficit-­reduction plan. ("About how many iCarlys would you say you could watch before it's time for you to play, honey?") The trick, of course, is to make sure that you're in the auditorium for those magical moments. The good news here is that the back row is perfect. Holiday concerts are always chaotic, as one band moves onto the stage and another moves off with less than military precision. Consequently, your children will have no idea where you are. Bring along those jauntily colored foam earplugs that your husband wears to sleep. And hold up your smartphone from time to time as if you're taking photos or making a video, providing cover in case you want to check your e-mail.

Science Fair

Unless your kid is genuinely gifted scientifically (in which case you won't have to get involved beyond bank­rolling the purchase of neon-colored poster board), the secret to success here is what I like to think of as populist cuteness. Remember, you have to compete with the father who builds a spectroscope to analyze the effects of greenhouse gases on sunlight. Since the other parents secretly hate this guy, it is your duty to steal his thunder. "Experiments" in which your fifth-grader uses your preschooler, or family pet, as a guinea pig are perennial favorites. Our own budding Stephen Hawking once had enormous success with a "memory project" involving her 2-year-old sister, our Labrador retriever, and a Slim Jim. Total prep time: 45 minutes. And if you're really time-pressed but want to create a sensation, you can do no better than a little project I call "Which Candy Is Worst for You?" (Note: This experiment requires bowls of leftover Halloween treats, which can be purchased at terrific discounts on November 1.)

Parent-Teacher Conference

This is a situation where you'll need to know ahead of time what you're in for. And by that I mean, Is this going to be a happy night? Or will it be a painful evening of recriminations, defensiveness and threats? My best advice is to closely observe your child's demeanor in the days leading up to the conference: Is she looking forward to you meeting her teachers, or is she delicately laying the groundwork to establish that they are criminally insane? If you're one of the rare mothers who gave birth to a teacher's pet, revel in the praise and enjoy the evening. You earned it! But if the meeting turns out to be one of those dark encounters in which there are "issues" that must be "resolved," don't make the novice's mistake of insinuating that it's the teacher's fault by wondering aloud why your beloved offspring has "suddenly stopped blossoming." Instead, compliment the teacher on her hair and shoes and promise that you are "on it."

Outdoor Athletic Event

The children on the field are well equipped, and you should be, too. The best 50 bucks you will ever spend is on one of those fancy fold-up camp chairs (a no-frills version will cost you about $20, but for reasons that will become clear I recommend splurging on a more expensive model). Be sure you test several, because you're looking for maximum comfort here. Also, it's imperative that your chair have a built-in cup holder, preferably with thermal insulation. When you get to the field, wave gregariously to your fellow parents but set up camp as far from the bleachers as possible. This way, no one will know what's in your sippy cup. Warning: Weather is not your friend. Always bring a sweater, because it will be windy, and pack a good pair of sun­glasses to keep the grit out of your eyes. This arrangement has the additional advantage of affording you a secluded spot to read. If your child scores a run or a goal or executes some other victory-producing maneuver, be sure to mingle with the other parents after the game to accept their kudos.

Graduation

First, answer this question: Is this a real graduation, one in which a high school senior dons a cap and gown and levels up to a new stage in life? Or is it one of the fake graduations that abound in the new American childhood (kindergarten, ballet class, Brownie "fly-up," math remediation)? If it is the latter, there's no need to cancel your out-of-town business trip; you may skip the ceremony. Just make sure your child's father shows up. Alternatively, you can guilt-trip your mother, mother-in-law, or nanny (if you're lucky enough to have one) to attend in your stead and record grainy video for you to tell your child you will watch later. If, however, this is one of those major life-passage moments dreamed up specifically to force you to confront the fact that you're getting old, your children are growing up too fast, and you will soon be eligible for the senior discount at the movies, bring a cushion to sit on or, better yet, your comfy camp chair: You're in for a lot of speeches. Which, by the way, your child should have been chosen to deliver.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2011.

 

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