The world is divided into two types of parents: those who love parent-teacher conferences—and those who bring their own box of Kleenex. My parents were in the former group. That is because the worst thing they would hear about me was “Your daughter cares too much about school.”
One year, Mom and Dad were called in for a “talk” because there was some sort of test and I refused to stop taking it. I was 8. As I recall, there was a question I couldn’t solve, but if everyone just left me alone for a few minutes I’d figure it out and get a perfect score. I became increasingly hysterical, crying and clutching my paper, and eventually some kind of elementary-school overachiever SWAT team was dispatched to get me out of there.
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But really, isn’t that the kind of problem every parent would love to have? When my friend, whose brilliant daughter is off to MIT this year, tells me about her child’s anxiety issues, I know she is not exaggerating: The girl can’t sleep. Another friend told me her child got suspended for a day—because she got so engrossed in a book she was reading in the library that she never showed up for class. Being suspended is not great. I know that. So why do I hope these humblebraggers get bedbugs?
These moms have always looked forward to their parent-teacher conversations. They mark them on their calendars with emojis. Mine is filled with . I am queasy for a week beforehand and go to each meeting reeking of chardonnay and shame. My son Henry is one of the greatest 17-year-olds—well, to people who are not his mother. But he’s in no danger of winning the school’s Good Citizen Award. Here are a few of the conversations I’ve heard over the years that still elicit a kind of parental PTSD.
Henry’s teacher: “Your son is a distraction to himself and to others.” In addition to being a stark truth, this declaration was, I feel now, a missed business opportunity. If I’d simply put that statement on a T-shirt and sold it to the moms of sons all across America, I would easily be paying his college tuition right now.
“Henry refuses to do the Pledge of Allegiance at graduation practice. He says he doesn’t agree with the American government. I said if you give him a note I can excuse him, but I think he should participate. Thoughts?”
Yes, here’s my thought: My son is an obnoxious jackass. True, you want your child to be an independent thinker—but you do not want a 10-year-old lecturing Mrs. D about the United States’ role in fomenting coups. To be fair, Henry’s father, a Scot, cheered him on. An enormous family fight ensued. My son—clad in a kilt for graduation—stopped hectoring Mrs. D but refused to stand or recite the pledge. In short, every time my son graduates a grade, it costs me a small fortune in please-accept-my-apology muffin baskets.
“It has come to our attention…” Let me just say that you never, ever want to hear a teacher start with that sentence, because the next part of it is never going to be “…that your son is such a good boy.” In this case, it came to the school’s attention that my then 14-year-old was carrying around a wad of bills—mostly ones and fives—in a rubber band, like some shrimpy apprentice wiseguy in Goodfellas. He was running a lunchtime poker game and, apparently, taking a rake. After this gruesome teacher’s conference, I told him I hoped he’d learned his lesson. “Yeah, I should have given a little something to the teachers,” he muttered. Not the lesson I’d hoped for.
“Henry’s an original thinker! But arguing has a time and place…” I’ve heard versions of this line since he was 5. He had a unique talent for sucking the beauty out of literature; his weapon was logic. This was the discussion he apparently put forth in class while reading Romeo and Juliet: “I had to tell them, Mom, that Romeo is kind of demented. First of all, Juliet is basically a child, so he’s a perv. Second, if they just shut up and married it would be better for everyone. Their families would form an alliance that would bring peace to the region. Third, he doesn’t even know this girl, they’ve never had a serious conversation, and he’s so depressed he wants to die? Has he never heard, ‘There are other fish in the sea’?”
I’ve left out 11th and 12th grade not because Henry suddenly learned his lesson. No, it’s because I learned my lesson and went to the parent-teacher conferences so sedated that I honestly have no memory of them.
Do you think I’m being a bit of a hothouse orchid here? You can do something to make me feel better. Please one-up me by tweeting your most toe-curling parent-teacher moments to @familycirclemag, and hashtag #thenewFC #mykidsworsethanyours #makejudithfeelbetter.
The best thing about the beginning of this school year? I will never have to attend another parent-teacher conference. Henry is off to a university in Scotland, where perhaps his contrarian nature (and, aye, lass, surely his kilt) will come in handy. Two days ago, I had to provide the school with contact information. They asked for my phone number and email. I hesitated.