Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rock star siblings, happy families, and lies

Parent Teacher Conferences 2015 Edition.

My school has some high stress families. I'm not sure what that's all about because although sometimes my family is in high stress situations (lead paint remediation summer, or, you know, anytime Bix goes out of town for longer than a day), we are not really high stress. There's a lot of focus on achievement and there's an assumption that children of bright high-achieving parents are going to always be bright and high-achieving. Not always so.

So when I walk in with a couple and sit at the table, oftentimes there's some stress in the room with me. Pretty much I'm there to give good news, though, so that's nice. I like my kids and I'm super tolerant of ADHD behavior. I'm here to teach math. So most people who come to talk to me, I can feel the stress melt away as we talk. I'm also really good, now, at being the person someone needs me to be in a conversation. So parents like me for the most part and students do, too.

Except this one 6th grade boy I can't get a handle on. At first I thought it was a mismatch between my extreme extroverted teaching style and his obvious reserved introverted life. Introverted boys take a while to warm up to me, but this one backed away when I approached him. Flinched sometimes. It always looked like he was gathering a huge amount of courage to talk to me. I mentioned this to the teacher next door, who is reserved and introverted herself (her classroom is very quiet and orderly, as opposed to...). She had similar things to say. So we started watching and thinking about what to do. The resource teacher suggested a conference, and the parents met with her. Right afterward, they met with me. I started in on the basics--grades, standardized tests, and mom covered the papers with her hand.

"I need to talk about what the resource lady said to us just now," she told me.

So I let her talk. How happy her son was, how involved in how many things, how happy their family was, everything they did together. And on and on.

And something was wrong. I picked up her nervous stress, of course, but I could explain that away with the fact that this was a stressful time. But something else was just weird. While she sat there explaining her perfect life, I glanced over at dad--he was sitting about 4 feet away from her and neither of them were interacting with the other--no glances, no physical contact. She didn't even reference him while she spoke.

He kept putting his hands up to his eyes, and I realized what was so weird. He was pretending he wasn't crying. He was wiping away tears as his wife talked about how happy everyone was.

"I'm so glad to hear you say that," I lied. "Because that's not what we're seeing and I just don't want him to be sad here at school." Then I talked about Brooklyn, the introvert who treats school like her job, for the most part (although she is happier this year). I mentioned that the counselor was really excellent (she is) and if he wanted to talk to her?

"Tell me more about her," dad said, the first thing since he'd shook my hand and introduced himself.

"Well," I started, and mom put her hand up.

"I'm going to fix it. He needs to not be like that at school. I'll talk to him."

So that was the lies, not the happy family.

The happy family was a high school teacher, an elementary teacher, and their two happy kids that I get to teach math to. Dad's a high school math teacher, so we talked in code about what each student needed to know to move on successfully next year. Dad admitted that he doesn't check grades much, and mom interrupted him. "No, say it right. Say, 'Teresa does it all.'"

"Ah yes," he nodded. "What I meant to say is that Teresa does it all."

Both kids are totally comfortable sitting next to their parents. They listen to me talk about one of them and then move on to the next. The genuine happiness at the table is a relief. And as they leave I'm reminded that this family goes to national parks for summer vacation like we do. Happy families are all alike, right Tolstoy (they're not, and his prelude to Anna Karenina is false, but anyway).

Finally, rock stars.

Last year my favorite student was an 8th grade boy named Patrick. Serious favorite. This year his younger brother Joe is in my homeroom. I don't know a thing about Joe when he walks in except what mom has said on the side, implying essentially that he might not be the same rock star that Patrick was.

The open house the Sunday before school starts, that family is standing in the back of my room looking at the black butcher papers I've hung up with questions on them like "What did you learn this summer?" "Where did you go this summer?" and so on.

"You should put something up there," mom suggests to Joe.

"I'm not Patrick," he says back to her, which doesn't make much sense, it's not like it's asking him to solve quadratics. But in that moment I promised myself I would never mention Patrick. I would never compare and I would never tell him he reminded me of Patrick or didn't. Nothing. Clean slate starts here.

He loves me. I knew that would happen, of course, because he's bright and funny and the edge of some ADHD and that's my favorite boy archetype. He gets my jokes and is comfortable in my class and all is great.

So it's parent teacher conferences. His mom stops by, not for a conference, but just to say hi and get his standardized test scores. A few minutes later I'm in the hall waiting for my next (late) scheduled conferencee's, and Joe comes walking up the hall.

"Forget something?" I ask him. He's grinning and holding some book. He thrusts it out towards me. I take it.

"For me?"

"Yep," he smiles, and walks away as I thank him.

It's the book fair, and teachers are supposed to have wish lists in the parish center. Mine was small--I teach math, not literature or social studies. Always a few books about sports statistics, not much else. Students and their families purchase books for us and the book fair drops them off with a to/from included. But this book wasn't on my list. It was called Fish in a Tree. Novel. Never heard of it.

I opened it, and the top quote on the dust jacket is "If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." A story about a student and a teacher who knows she isn't the loser she's convinced herself she is.

Oh baby I hear you. Loud and clear. Thank you.


  1. I think I wanted to cry when I read the "lies" story. Then I wanted to cheer at the end. Thanks for the rollercoaster ride in one post!

  2. OK. This one made me cry at the end. How wonderful. But the lies people—I am worried.